Asserting the Academic Senate’s Voice: The Importance of Relationships and Education

ASCCC President

In the May issue of the Rostrum, President David Morse and I wrote an article providing a progress report on the work of the Academic Senate, specifically focusing on a number of the goals outlined in the 2015-2018 ASCCC Strategic Plan. In reflecting on the past two years, we discussed the benefits of the organization’s commitment to establishing collegial and collaborative relationships with system and external partners as well as the value of these relationships as the Academic Senate advances the interests of the faculty in statewide initiatives, projects, and discourse. This fall, the ASCCC Executive Committee will be evaluating the progress made on the goals and actions of the Strategic Plan. As we prepare for that discussion, the first goal of the Strategic Plan, to “assert the faculty voice and leadership in local, state, and national policy,” continues to be critical, especially in light of summer events.

The Academic Senate, Educational Policy, and Dealing with Misperceptions

In the past two years, the ASCCC Executive Committee has established key relationships with legislators and their aides as well as staff members in a number of government branches such as the Governor’s Office, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and the Department of Finance. Overwhelmingly, our experience in working with our colleagues at the Capitol has been positive and encouraging. During our inaugural ASCCC Legislative and Advocacy Day in May 2016, we visited numerous legislators and aides, some of whom we had never contacted in the past, and were warmly welcomed. Most of the people we spoke with were interested in learning more about our organization and the work we do on behalf of students and faculty. However, we did experience a few less than heartening experiences with individuals who had preconceived notions and, in come cases, biases against faculty. These events served as a reminder that we must increase our efforts in developing productive relationships with members of the legislature.  

The importance of connecting with and educating the legislature was demonstrated at a Senate Education Committee hearing in Early June. Approximately 30 bills were on the agenda, and the Academic Senate had a keen interest in one in particular, AB 1985 (Williams, 2016) on Advanced Placement Credit, since the legislation would, in part, interfere with faculty purview in setting academic standards by eliminating the ability for faculty to set the academic credit score for advanced placement tests in general education courses at their colleges. During the hearing, amendments were offered that removed most of the problematic language, which was extremely helpful, but an equally significant aspect of the discussion was how the testimony of the individuals speaking in support of the bill reflected a lack of understanding of the role of faculty in setting academic standards for students as well as the Academic Senate’s responsibility to provide recommendations, advice, and consultation to local senates, the Board of Governors, and the Chancellor’s Office in academic and professional matters.

In comments to the committee, individuals providing support for the bill criticized the community college system for not having a systemwide policy on AP credit, called out colleges that had AP policies requiring scores of 4 or 5 in awarding AP credit for general education courses when a score of 3 is generally accepted by CSU and UC, and censured the Academic Senate for being aware of the need for an AP credit policy for at least eight years but not acting to implement both a systemwide policy and policies at individual colleges.

Certainly the supporters of the legislation have good intentions and believe they are acting to guarantee students receive credit for completed coursework. Of course, the Academic Senate shares their interest, as evidenced by the number of resolutions and policies we have developed to support student success. Further, their comments may act as reminders for faculty to review their colleges’ AP credit policies to ensure that their policies do not create impediments that deter students from receiving credit for coursework they have completed. The proposed legislation should remind colleges that policies need to be reviewed and revised as the needs of our students change and the educational environment evolves. All of these things are positive aspects that arose from the AB 1985 discussions.

However, the criticism directed at the Academic Senate, and by association faculty in general, is more troubling. Evidence offered in support of the legislation included references to two resolutions:  Resolution 04.04 Spring 2008 CCC GE Advance Placement (AP) Equivalency and Resolution 04.01 Spring 2009 Adopt and Publicize California Community College General Education Advance Placement (CCC GE) List and Template. Both resolutions articulate the Academic Senate’s support of awarding AP credit for students and urge local senates to develop and widely publish AP credit policies. The individuals testifying at the hearing were aware of the resolutions, but their comments indicated that they misunderstood the role of faculty, local senates, and the ASCCC in policy development and implementation at the state and local level.

The most striking aspect of the comments at the hearing was how little the legislators understood the role and function of the Academic Senate. This situation is not unusual. To anyone unacquainted to our governance system, why we do what we do and how we do it can seem complicated and perplexing. The Academic Senate is a deliberative organization that is directed by the resolutions adopted by its members. This deliberativeness is often seen as a barrier to change when in fact, if the Academic Senate is brought into a policy discussion early, we can act as a partner in collaboration for change and innovation. In carrying out resolutions, the Academic Senate works collaboratively with faculty, local senate presidents, administrative colleagues, and system partners. This process frequently means developing and assisting with the implementation of policies and effective practices that improve teaching and learning, assist students in reaching their educational goals, and change the community college system for the better. For the resolutions that urge local academic senates to act, implementation is incumbent upon local senates to carry out the directions of the resolutions, often by developing and implementing polices and effective practices, in collegial consultation with administrators, staff, and students.

When we are interacting with individuals who have experience with our system of higher education or have taken the time to learn about the role of faculty, local senates, and the ASCCC, engaging and explaining issues is less difficult. The challenge lies in developing relationships with those who are not familiar with our work and perhaps even misunderstand our role. Until we are able to come from a place of mutual understanding, misconceptions can act as a barrier to developing relationships, especially with those who may not be predisposed to respect the role of faculty in the higher education. The Academic Senate and faculty must continue to reach out, educate, and change perception.

Addressing the Strategic Plan Goal on Faculty Voice

The first goal set by the ASCCC’s strategic plan states that we will “assert the faculty voice and leadership in local, state, and national policy.”  This statement is more than an aspiration; it is a foundational principal of the Academic Senate. The Strategic Plan contains strategies that will help us to achieve this goal. The ASCCC Executive Committee will continue to work on these strategies, including developing new relationships with legislators and their aides as well as maintain our existing relationships with individuals and organizations. Additionally, we will turn our attention this year to increasing efforts in educating others about how our organization functions and the good work we do, both at the local and state levels.  We should not be known for just our governance role but also for our work in providing professional development, leadership training, teaching and learning forums, and equity and diversity activities as well as all our events and institutes.

To communicate our work to stakeholders and the public, the Executive Committee is implementing strategy 1.1C in our strategic plan: Develop a public relations plan to promote the visibility of the ASCCC. This plan will involve strengthening our communications, producing materials that publicize the work of faculty and the Academic Senate, and increasing our presence on social media.

The Academic Senate is in the third year of implementing our Strategic Plan, and the strategies we employ are moving us closer to achieving our goals. We must continue our efforts to benefit of our students, our colleges, and our communities.