A Seat at the Table

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Until recently, the rules governing faculty seemed designed to encourage indecision and delay. Got a problem? Form a committee. By last spring the committee tally had reached forty-four, and membership totaled 237. Nearly one of every two faculty members was on some committee or another.

“The way the Faculty Rules have evolved is a little bit like the British constitution,” says William Beeman, chairman of the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) and a professor of anthropology.

To make matters worse, faculty committees rarely collaborated with the administrators who set University policy. So, lacking authority to implement their suggestions, faculty members often watched their ideas disappear into an administrative void. John Savage, professor of computer science and former FEC chairman, says the end result was “a general malaise” among professors.

Savage hopes the feeling will soon change. With the backing of President Simmons, he recently led a task force to overhaul the system, and this fall the faculty voted to approve many of the group’s proposals. The new structure is simpler—there are 40 percent fewer committees—and the new committees are more powerful, with faculty working hand in hand with administrators.

Among the modifications is a new grievance committee, which sets up an official hearings process, and a revised tenure committee, which is now led by a professor rather than by the dean of the faculty. Still on the table is whether to create a new Faculty Affairs Committee that would subsume the work of five groups now dealing with such issues as the status of women and the recruitment of minority faculty.

Two changes stand out. The first is the creation of an Academic Priorities Committee (APC), a deliberative body for proposing high-level academic policy. With the provost as chair and the FEC advising on membership, Savage hopes the APC will combine the big-picture expertise of administrators with the specialized knowledge of faculty. A few years ago the provost formed a similar advisory group, but its advice was “somewhat suspect” among the rest of the faculty, Beeman says, because the provost alone chose the members.

The second major change is the formation of a University Resources Committee to help set the campuswide budget. It replaces the Advisory Committee on University Planning (ACUP), which, according to Savage, was brought into the budget process too late in the game to have any meaningful effect. “I felt the meetings were just held for show,” says Savage, a former ACUP member. The new committee will play a direct role from the start.

That greater authority has come with a controversial price, however. Unlike ACUP, the URC meets behind closed doors, in the belief that such an arrangement will trigger more candid discussion. Nevertheless, the change has riled some students and prompted scathing editorials from the Brown Daily Herald.

Administrators didn’t like the old system any better than faculty members did. At the November 5 faculty meeting, Simmons said a stronger governance system will allow Brown to act with “purpose and vigor.”

“We’re operating on a much more cooperative basis,” Beeman says. “We don’t want the faculty to be administrators. We want to do our teaching and research. But at the same time most faculty have been here longer than most administrators. We want a stake in creating the community in which we live.”

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
January / February 2003