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Faculty Senate referendum causes heated debate among faculty, staff

November 19, 2009

A referendum that redefines faculty status, making non-instructional academic staff ineligible to serve on faculty senate, has caused a divide between some faculty on campus.

The proposed changes that would redefine faculty as consisting of those whose positions are primarily instructional and excluding non-instructional academic staff were introduced when Faculty Senate received a petition. The petition was signed by 94 faculty and academic staff proposing an amendment question to the UW-River Falls Constitution on Oct. 21.

Under Article VII, Section B (Amending the Constitution), this is one of the methods that can be used to affect changes to the Constitution. Receipt of the petition by Faculty Senate automatically triggers a referendum on the question proposed by the petitioners.

Faculty, including senators and non-senators, distributed the petition. The petition had over 90 signatures collected from every college, according to Wes Chapin, UWRF political science professor.

Back in the 1970s, there was no council for staff.  The faculty then voted to include the academic staff in the faculty senate and gave them faculty status for that purpose. In 1985, the State legislature chose to give statutory authority to staff to be involved in personnel for staff. At that time, most Wisconsin universities transitioned those who had a combined senate and redefined themselves. Most staff got their own staff council, but that did not happen at UWRF. Since 1985, there has been discussion on and off about what should happen, Chapin said.

“There has been some level of concern for many, many, many years concerning the presence of academic staff service on Faculty Senate,” David Rainville, UWRF chemistry professor and Faculty Senate chair, said.

There was an ad hoc committee on Faculty Senate that looked at the Faculty Senate government structure and recommend any changes that were thought to be appropriate. What was proposed was a “faculty academic staff senate.” That model was brought to a vote on the campus but, for a variety reasons, there were not enough votes to accept the model and the constitution was not changed. Therefore, the government structure that has been had in place since 1975 has remained the government structure with academic staff having faculty status for the purpose of governance, Valerie Malzacher, Chalmer Davee Library director and member of Senate, said.

“There appears to be what we’ve called a structural conflict of interest,” Chapin said. “When issues arise involving faculty pay and similar types of issues and the administration is opposed academics staff pretty much always vote with the administration or abstain.  The only roll call votes we have taken show that all the academic staff has either voted against the faculty or they have abstained. That is going back to Nov. 28, 2007.”

Recently there was an effort made to create a measurable reduction in workload specifically in regards to something called a post-tenure review. There was a proposal to create a way to document a reduction in workload.

Chapin said this would be consistent with the mandatory furlough.

“Clearly, I think any reasonable person would see that their interests aren’t the same.

It was suggested earlier this year that academic staff abstain from participating on faculty personnel policy issues and some of them flatly refused,” Rainville said.

Another issue is that instructional academic staff have not had an opportunity to serve on senate, which is primarily due to many of them not having a contract by the time nominations are called for to serve on faculty senate or academic staff council. That was resolved last spring. Now instructional academic staff will get their contracts in a timely manner, and therefore be eligible to be nominated for either senate or the council, Gretchen Link, from UWRF career counseling and health services, said.

“I think that it is very necessary for instructional academic staff to have representation and a voice on this campus; our rates are growing all the time. I think we teach around 45 percent of class(es) on campus,” Jane Harred,
UWRF English professor, said. “And up until now we have not had any effective representation in any government body on this campus.”

Some feel that the way the referendum is written presents a conflict because it accomplishes two things. One is removing the professional or non-teaching staff from senate, but also guaranteeing spots to instructional academic staff who are not currently represented in the senate.

“It seems to me like that creates a conflict because instructural academic staff who are currently underrepresented in senate, to obtain better representation in senate to vote for this referendum means simultaneously removing the non teaching staff from senate,” Travis Tubre, UWRF psychology professor, said.

The first part of the referendum defines who has faculty status and the second part identifies how elections are to be held and includes a definition for non-instructional academic staff, according to Chapin.

“The referendum calls for the redefinition as to who will have faculty status. It is as a matter of policy, a legal issue, and a constitution issue is necessary to change two parts of the constitution. If we only change one part and left the second part in place then we would have a contradictory constitution,” Chapin said.

Some are opposed because they feel the non-instructional academic staff will not have a voice in the future of the University if the referendum is passed.

“If you look at the staff that have been on the senate you can identify them by their title; the budget director has been on the senate, the associate vice chancellor, the assistant to the provost, a lot of directors have been on the senate. These are administrators who directly impact the future of the institution because of their institutional role,” Chapin said. “I think in practical terms the ability of staff who are administrators to impact the University will still be there. The academic staff council could also choose to take position on issues which they have declined to do for the most part so far.”

If the referendum passes, academic staff would still have a say in personnel policies through the academic staff council but they would not have a say in the overall University issues, Tubre said.

“Some people think that the academic staff council have governing powers, but the council doesn’t-it is primarily a grievance committee; it has no power to do anything whereas the senate does,” Link said. “When you look at the values that the University has in terms of inclusivity and diversity, this doesn’t fit with those core values. I am [suggesting], as did others on Faculty Senate, to have an alternative, to create a different government structure for example a University Senate — to me that would seem like a much more inclusive and diverse governance structure.”

Link took part in setting up listening sessions to talk about the current referendum in order to encourage people to vote and to be well informed in terms of what they are voting on.

“I feel that the Faculty Senate should be looking out for the best interest of this University. In my role on the senate I have looked at issues, I have thought about them very carefully and I have voted in ways that I have felt were in the best interest of the University,” Malzacher said. “Not everybody agrees on issues, not everybody always votes the same way on issues, but that’s the reason why you have a multiplicity of individuals who come to the table to debate something and I think that that process needs to be respected.”

The ballots for this referendum will be mailed out on Nov. 30, and will be due on Dec. 15.

“My main concern is that we’ve got a lot of issues that we are dealing with in higher education right now that are major concerns and it is not the right time to be engaging in a divisive process that creates more conflict on campus when you already have a lot of reason to be worried and anxious,” Tubre said. “We’ve got things to deal with like rising tuition cost and a lack of increases, compensation, complex benefits issues, incidents of hate and bias on campus, and those are concerns we can address best in a unified way rather than in separate groups and voices.”