Attending your first Academic Senate for California Community Colleges plenary session with hundreds of colleagues from the 113 colleges in the system may seem overwhelming. To a new attendee, plenary can feel like a foreign land where one must decode the language, purpose, and procedures without a guidebook. However, a little understanding of history and some preparation for the event can enrich the plenary experience.
What is Plenary?
In 1969, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges held its first meeting, bringing together local academic senate leaders from throughout the state to discuss policy and issues of common concern. Plenary sessions have continued to be held on at least a bi-annual basis since that initial event. In 1988, the Commission for the Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education reinforced the role of academic senates in governance as delineated in AB 1725 (Vasconcellos, 1988). This legislation gave substantial new responsibilities to local senates, and these responsibilities are now codified in Education and Title 5. No other educational system in the nation grants this type of influence on institutional governance to faculty. However, with that influence come responsibilities and a need for guidance for both new and experienced local leaders. ASCCC plenary sessions provide such guidance by bringing together the leaders of California’s diverse system of locally controlled colleges to consult on common interests, to receive leadership training, and to make recommendations on important issues like minimum qualifications or curriculum standards. Plenary sessions are designed with a vision to create a truly representative and democratic governance venue for faculty colleagues to meet and collaborate through a resolution-driven decision process. The resolutions determine policy and action which help guide and support individual colleges and their faculty members. (See ASCCC history at http://www.asccc.org/papers/brief-history-academic-senate-california-community-colleges.)
The Resolutions Process—Setting Priorities, Policy, and Direction
The plenary session is designed to provide professional development on key statewide issues by engaging leaders in the discussion of important topics relevant to the mission of participation in college governance.
The ASCCC uses a formal resolution process to define the majority opinion of the faculty who work at the 113 colleges. As soon as the initial set of resolutions from the ASCCC Executive Committee are published, local senate presidents should send the resolutions to their senates. Presidents may wish to summarize key points in order to guide their senates through discussion of the issues and resolutions. In turn, this discussion will prepare the president to adequately represent his or her senate.
The plenary session is preceded by area meetings that allow attendees to bring local concerns for discussion, to amend the initial resolutions, and to submit additional resolutions. At the area meetings, senate representatives examine the resolutions by looking at the background and context which led to each resolution. Additional resolutions may also be submitted by any plenary attendee on the first day of the plenary session, and amendments to resolutions can be submitted on the first two days. On the final day of the plenary session, after all resolutions and amendments have been submitted, delegates from local senates vote on each resolution in order to establish ASCCC positions and give direction to the Executive Committee.
The resolutions process may seem foreign, and new attendees may not know how to engage in the discussion. However, most plenary attendees quickly become familiar and comfortable with the process and begin to participate more fully. A complete lesson on the resolution process can be found at http://www.asccc.org/sites/default/files/resolution-handbook_1.pdf.
Planning Ahead to Get the Most from the Plenary Event -- Bringing Colleagues and Asking Questions
Each local senate should determine which representatives from the college or district should attend plenary. Because of the amount of information and training available, having a team to share the work will enable a senate to return to its campus with more complete information. Whether faculty come as a team or individually, all should realize that other people plenary attendees may also be new or unfamiliar with the processes, meaning, or outcomes of event. Attendees therefore should not hesitate to ask questions. In order to effectively represent a local senate, attendees must understand the issues being debated. Area representatives and all members of the ASCCC Executive Committee are available to answer questions, give advice, and help to orient any plenary attendee in need of assistance.
Leaders Leading -Who are these people?
Many of the faculty who come to plenary sessions attend multiple academic senate events and have interacted with each other numerous times, and thus a new attendee can easily feel that all of the other participants in a plenary session already know each other. However, the majority of plenary attendees enjoy making new friends and hearing new perspectives. Not only are most veteran plenary participants willing to answer questions and explain both procedures and issues, but many are happy to invite new attendees to join them for dinner or to include them in other activities. ASCCC Executive Committee members are especially committed to welcoming new attendees and helping them find their way, whether in formal plenary activities or in social interactions. In addition, individuals who wear badges that say “ambassador” are available to answer any questions regarding plenary processes and practices. Attendees should not hesitate to introduce themselves to others, to begin conversations, or to join a table at lunch or in the evening in order to get to know their colleagues.
Plenary sessions are also a great source of networking and an opportunity to get advice ways to address local college issues. Many experienced local senate leaders are always in attendance and are willing to discuss ideas and give advice as well exchange contact information for further discussions after the plenary. These discussions can help faculty leaders to develop their own perspectives and become better informed on both statewide issues and approaches to challenges on their own campuses.
You Are Not Alone!
While new attendees may feel overwhelmed at their first plenary session, most leaders who attend ASCCC events will recall feeling the same way when they began their experience in faculty leadership. Many people who have long histories participating in local and statewide senate activities have expressed similar sentiments.
“My first plenary, I was sure I was on another planet. I felt like everyone else was clued in and I was lost. I admired people involved in the very structured and weird style of debate, but I admit I was often pre-occupied with all the rules, objections, and what seemed like secret understanding about the pro and con microphones. Don’t even get me started on the serpentine voting – I counted off wrong! Eventually, I learned the procedures and I began, like an anthropologist, to decode the culture of the plenary. I learned rich insights to take back to my senate.” Janet Fulks
“My first plenary, I felt so intimidated. Everyone knew everyone and I hadn’t a clue. Big groups talking and laughing and I didn’t know anyone. I was lucky: I came with a colleague to one of the sessions and she introduced me to the people she knew. It can be scary but if you reach out they will be there for you. Now plenary is one of my favorite meetings. I can get the real inside scoop on what is happening in the state. See old friends, compare notes. Not the least as to who is working where around the state. Catching up after the meetings is so important. This group understands what I do. They understand the problems and frustrations of local senates. Sometimes being senate president can be a hard lonely position. These guys understand this. It’s their world too.” Mary Rees
“My first ASCCC event was the 2007 Curriculum Institute. I attended with a group from my college and district, so I felt quite welcome. I continued to attend Curriculum Institutes through 2011. In 2009, I attended the Faculty Leadership Institute at Granlibakken. My senate president brought me, so again, I was not on my own. We had a great time, and I learned a lot. When I became the local academic senate president, I began attending more ASCCC events, including the plenary sessions. Understanding the “debate rules” was a little challenging the first time, but by the end of my second plenary, I was starting to get the hang of it. Now, going to the mic and debating was another hurdle I had to overcome, but with most things, the more you do it, the better it gets. I still find it nerve-racking. One thing ASCCC could improve on is defining our acronyms. I still get lost with some of them. Overall, I found that when I put my foot forward to participate in ASCCC events and committees, I got to know people state-wide from other California community colleges. I suppose this can be hard for folks that come in from smaller colleges and/or districts, but it is what we must do as faculty leaders.” Ginni May
“I attended my first Plenary in Fall 2012, as I was beginning my term as vice-president of my local senate. I was fascinated by the passionate discussions and the way opposing viewpoints where presented to the delegates (pro and con mikes). Sometimes I felt frustrated, when someone called the question for a vote because I wanted to continue listening to what people had to say, so I could arrive at my own position. Finally, after attending three consecutive plenaries, I had the “schema” and the background knowledge to fully understand the issues being debated. When we are attending our first plenary, we are students of the Academic Senate, learning a new discipline that has a different language. It takes time, so be patient.” Alicia Muñoz
“As a new senator, I was hungry for knowledge. Without any training or guidance from my local senate, I was determined to know policies, procedures, and resources needed to build an effective senate. My first experience at the plenary was exciting, overwhelming, and extremely energizing. I had an opportunity to work with a great group of folks working behind the scene in collecting ballots, counting ballots etc. Although I was not a delegate, I enjoyed participating in the Area breakout session. On the last day of plenary, I found it fascinating observing the resolution debate of pro/con, listening to parliamentary protocol/procedures and what seem like hours--amendment after amendment after amendment on several resolutions. While I am not a pro, I can appreciate the resolution process and as a new delegate, take ownership of being a responsible voter.” Rochelle Olive