Thinking about the Role of the UO Senate, by Craig Parsons


I am proud to be serving as a new UO Senator this year. Given some controversy over the Senate’s role in recent years, I want to think deliberately about how I see this body. I am writing this memo to clarify my views for myself, but I will share it to seek reactions that could sharpen (or change) my thinking.

An important point of departure is that I want UO to be an active, effective, leading organization in our state and society. In my view Americans have set up a system of government that is often unable to act in the public interest. Our federal and state governments are broadly hamstrung in their capacity to address basic issues of inequality, environmental change, racial tension, or gun violence (to name a few). Thus it is all the more important that lower-level public institutions act when they can. We need public universities to be drivers of greater opportunity, innovation, and support for our citizens to construct well-informed views. This mission is especially critical with respect to those in disadvantaged positions, who bear the brunt of the costs from societal inequalities and poorly constructed government.

Another point of departure is that I am a scholar of comparative government. My job is to think and teach about governments and other big organizations, and some of my work concerns legislative assemblies. When I look at the UO Senate I cannot help but think about it in comparative context.

How, then, can the UO Senate best contribute to building a public university that can act and lead effectively to desirable ends? It seems to me that it should focus on fulfilling a function of accountability vis-à-vis UO leadership, above all on academic issues. To see what I mean by that sentence and how I arrive at it, this memo makes a few points about the Senate relative to other legislatures and mechanisms of representation.

What other legislatures suggest about the UO Senate

My students typically arrive at UO with rather simple ideas about what legislative assemblies do. They run roughly like this: democracy is a system where the people’s representatives make policy; legislatures are the bodies that broadly represent the people; thus legislatures are the heart of democratic policy-making. But Americans may tend to think this mainly because it is true in the United States—Congress is the heart of our policy-making system—without realizing that it is not true in most democracies.

Within the countries that we see as the most democratic today, legislatures range across a spectrum from “policy-making” to “accountability”-focused bodies. In a country with a policy-making legislature like the US, new laws and regulations are proposed and/or massively altered within the legislature itself, from the main lines down to the finest details. In a country with an accountability legislature like, say, Britain or France, both the main lines and details of most legislation and regulations are drawn up within the executive—by politicians in ministerial positions and the civil-servant experts who work for them in ministries and agencies—and then submitted for approval or light amendment in the legislature.

The accountability function of the British House of Commons or the French National Assembly is still enormously important to these democracies. These legislators can and occasionally do refuse to approve the executive’s proposals. But legislators are rarely the source of major policy proposals, or even of major modifications to them. They assure the accountability of policy-making, and legitimate it through their scrutiny (when they approve it). They do not do much active policy-making.

What I want to highlight is not that one of these models is superior, but simply that legislatures are set up to play either policy-making or accountability roles. The US Congress is a policy-making legislature because it is an autonomous and resource-rich body. The House and Senate control their own agendas; the president cannot tell them what to debate or vote on. Congresspeople are full-timers—barred from holding other jobs—and have big staffs (averaging about 15 in the House and 30-40 in the Senate, not counting campaign staff). They gain additional multimillion dollar budgets and staff through powerful committees that control areas of legislation. None of these things are true of the British or French legislatures. The executive sets their agendas. Members of the House of Commons still often work other jobs for extra income. They and their peers in France typically have one or two staff people. Committees have small powers and budgets. Thus American legislators have the time, staff, resources and autonomy to develop their own policies and to joust with the executive over them. British or French legislators cannot do so in the same way. They can play an accountability and legitimation role, but not much more.

Now to the UO Senate. It is clearly further toward the accountability end of the legislative spectrum than the House of Commons. Its members have full-time other jobs doing research, teaching, and running curricular and outreach programs. For the Senate they have only whatever time and resources they are willing to squeeze out of their lives. Thus their capacity for sustained, well-informed attention to complex policy issues is limited. The parallel to national legislatures is imperfect, of course, because making policy for UO is not as complex as making legislation for large countries. Still, running a large research university is complex enough that making its policies requires substantial resources and attention. It is a full-time professional job for many people in our “executive,” the administration. In terms of the allocation of policy-making resources, UO is set up to function with far more executive leadership than even the most centralized democratic states (which include Britain and France).

For me this observation—that the UO Senate is set up to be an accountability body—is not a complaint. It is frankly hard to imagine a different arrangement in a workplace context inside a big complex organization; by definition the “legislators” have other jobs and lack the time and resources to be serious policy-makers. I also do not mean it as a complaint because I believe that the accountability role of the House of Commons, or of the UO Senate, is extremely important and can be effective in influencing policy-making.

Moreover, this observation does not imply that the UO Senate should never propose anything or make amendments to proposed policies. It just suggests that Senators should be cognizant that their main role concerns accountability. On some issues, especially those closest to the academic expertise of the faculty (like directly on curricular matters), UO Senators might have the resources to responsibly propose or amend policy—perhaps even possessing more information, professional expertise, and time for deliberation than administrators. Still, even on academic matters the Senate’s capacity for policy-making is limited: time and brainpower are in short supply. And the more an issue moves into other non-curricular aspects of running the large and complex UO organization, the more it requires serious information-gathering, analysis, interaction with stakeholders, and full-time professional scrutiny to identify options and their costs and benefits, and so the Senate should presumably step back to ambitions of basic accountability. A complex organization like UO needs administrators to do the full-time, resource-intensive jobs of policy-making and leadership that they were hired to do. Otherwise it will be less able to pursue its mission. In that case I fear it will be end up being less effective for all Oregonians, especially the most disadvantaged among us.

Representation and the UO Senate

The UO Constitution says that the Senate represents the six constituent groups of UO employees. Representation comes in many forms, however. How we see this body as representative of these groups carries strong implications for how it can legitimately act.

It seems to me that the UO Senate is best described as a “selection” of UO employees. Senate elections do not serve as a mechanism to establish that Senators’ views are held broadly in their constituent groups; instead they sample some members from these groups. More often than not they are mainly about self-selection, as people agree to serve on top of their already-busy lives (with varying degrees of reluctance). Actual choices in Senate elections are rare, and even when such choices are posed they involve no public information about the candidates’ views or priorities. I see no reason to think that Senators generally hold unrepresentative views, but it is just a fact that we have no regular mechanism for gauging how representative their views are on anything.

Again I don’t mean this as a complaint. It seems to me that trying to stage seriously-contested elections to a workplace assembly could be absurd. Given Senators’ full-time other jobs, we are fortunate that enough step forward to serve. The nature of this relationship does carry implications, though, that reinforce the preceding arguments for an accountability-focused role, and for linking the main areas of Senate activity tightly to the most unambiguously academic issues. A “selection” relationship implies that Senators’ authority is strongest where they are most confident that they express the typical concerns and priorities of a member of their constituent group. Presumably such confidence is greatest on issues tightly related to their core job responsibilities, most obviously curricular matters.

The inclusion of non-faculty employees in the Senate confuses this point, admittedly, since their core responsibilities extend to all sorts of other operational areas. But since most Senators are faculty—people whom we have no particular reason to expect to have well-informed or representative views on non-academic policies—it seems reasonable to hold that the body’s legitimate purview is unambiguously academic matters (“as commonly understood,” as our Constitution states).

Note that this logic extends to Senate resolutions, not just legislation, even though the Senate’s rules authorize resolutions on any topic while restricting its legislative action to “academic matters as commonly understood.” Even if the Senate may legally make resolutions on anything, it doesn’t seem to me to have meaningfully legitimate bases for resolutions that extend much beyond academic matters. Perhaps there could be occasions when clear local problems or crises call for extraordinary Senate action or resolutions, but these would presumably require rather explicit justification. For example, in a scenario of serious accusations of administrative misconduct, the fact that the Senate is the main assembly of employees might make it the forum to discuss them by default, and as such it might arrive at a resolution about them. Outside of exceptional circumstances, when the Senate is tempted to stray into complex issues of organizational strategy or broad political questions, its representative foundations seem thin.

The Senate’s role in shared governance

Where do these musings leave me? The Senate is a critical part of UO governance, providing the key venue to express views of faculty and staff. As a Senator entrusted with that critical role, I feel that we need to develop a conscious sense of what the Senate can reasonably and legitimately do given its place in the UO arena. Unlike the institutions of the US federal government, UO’s institutions do not feature a powerful policy-making legislature with broad representative legitimacy that was constructed to check and balance an executive branch. Instead UO governance comprises a professional administration that formulates and implements policy and a workplace assembly that selects “typical” volunteer employees into an accountability role. The university as a whole will make its strongest contributions to our state and society if both sides of this partnership play the roles that they have the mandates and resources to play.

It seems to me that this model of shared governance is set up appropriately for a modern research university, and I am eager to help make it work.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about the Role of the UO Senate, by Craig Parsons”

  1. A footnote: I wrote this back in fall 2015, when I first rejoined the Senate, and didn’t push to get it up on the blog until just now—so I’m no longer quite a new Senator, but these thoughts still apply. Thanks to Chris Sinclair for posting it.

  2. Posted for Frank Stahl:

    Craig Parsons presents a useful view of the manner in which our senate can best serve its shared governance responsibilities. He points out that an overextended faculty cannot be expected to take major responsibility for initiating new policies. Therefore, except for the work-a-day matters related to the curriculum and student conduct, the Senate’s most frequent role in governance is likely to be that of watchdog over policies and actions initiated by the Administration. An evident consequence of this role is that the Senate will be in occasional conflict with the Administration. Fortunately, the UO Constitution provides a process for dealing forthrightly and openly with such conflicts.

  3. In his recent address to the Board of Trustees (view at 2:18:24 of former Senate President Randy Sullivan described and, surprisingly, defended a practice of interference by the UO President in the operations of the Senate.(see footnote). Randy justifies this interference by equating the US President’s relations with the US Senate to the UO President’s relations with the UO Senate. To paraphrase Randy’s remarks:
    We all understand, that the US President invites individual or groups of Senators to the White House in order to influence their actions in the Senate. That’s OK, and we cannot imagine a US President that would do otherwise. So, we should equally expect the UO President to call Senators to JH for a bit of jawboning.

    At first glance, we all nod our heads. But in doing so, we overlook two important differences between the US and the UO Senates:

    Anyone entering national politics knows what to expect –- it is a rough and tumble business, and the Presidential practice of jawboning Senators is well understood. In our University, a Presidential practice of “influencing” individual Senate members, if it occurred, would be questionable given the power that the President holds with respect to the professional well-being of these individuals. Such a practice, which would strike me as “interference”, could have terrible consequences for this university in terms of loss of trust.
    The US President has no rights to the floor of the US Senate. Should he wish to influence Senators, he can best do so by inviting them for Tea. The UO President, on the other hand, is a (non-voting) member of the UO Senate and can freely express his views to that body, as he has done on occasion and, according to Randy, expects to do more of. He has no need for individual audiences when he can openly influence the Senate in the spirit of maximum transparency.

    Of course, there is no way to prevent individual audiences, but any sufficiently confident Senator invited to JH for a meeting with the President can decline, or, if curious, can accept with the expressed understanding that the nature of their conversation may be freely communicated by the Senator. But there is one circumstance where Senators are not free to decline or to communicate the nature of their conversations with the President — if the President pushes his views on pending Senate actions in FAC meetings, he is exploiting a gagged, captive, audience of confidants to interfere with Senate business.

    The Senate can take steps to reduce the impact of possible Presidential interference. Here are a few examples for Senate action:
    1. Through legislation, the Senate can remove its Officers from the FAC, thus relieving them of the potentially conflicting responsibilities of being both confidential advisors to the President and servants of the Senate.
    2. The Senate can modify its bylaws to define the role of its officers. For instance, it can specify that the only responsibility of the officers is to facilitate the Senate’s exercise of shared governance in the manner prescribed by the UO Constitution. The bylaws might even explicitly remind the officers that their station gives them no authority to act in the name of the Senate.
    3. The Senate can modify its bylaws to define the parameters within which the Senate President can set the agenda for Senate meetings.

    Further discussion on this BLOG may yield other steps the Senate can take to realize the strong, transparent, participatory Senate that is called for by the Constitution.

    Randy Sullivan’s use of the word “interfere” suggests a lack of respect for the Senate that is contrary to the spirit of collegial, shared governance, and is, on the face of it, so indefensible that I wonder whether Randy meant “influence” rather than “interfere”.

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