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In historic move, faculty votes
to give itself the vote

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted this week to establish an elected faculty senate—the first in Yale's 312-year history—in a move that one proponent sees as both "a historic shift" and "a no-brainer."

The vote (49 in favor, 7 opposed, with 4 abstentions) declares support in principle for an elected body to represent arts and sciences faculty. It asks President Peter Salovey ’86PhD to appoint a committee to propose a structure and rules by December 2014, when the faculty will vote again.

“Yale is quite unusual in not having something like this," says political science professor Steven Wilkinson, chair of the Faculty Input Committee whose recommendation led to the December 9 vote. 

"Elected bodies are not a panacea,” historian Beverly Gage ’94, a member of the Faculty Input Committee, notes wryly in a phone call from the nation's capital. "But for an institution that has never had a representative body, it’s a really big deal." She compares the move to changes in Yale's tenure system several years back: "on the one hand a historic shift for Yale, and on the other hand, kind of a no-brainer bringing Yale in line with” peer institutions.

The committee looked at nine other elite research universities. Only MIT lacked any elected faculty body, like Yale.

While Wilkinson acknowledges that "governance is not a burning issue" for many Yale professors—indeed, Monday's voters make up less than 10 percent of the arts and sciences faculty—questions about how faculty can best voice their views arose last year amid discontent about several issues, including Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

In each of those controversies, "something had gone wrong in the communciation between the administration and the faculty," Gage says.  

"There’s no body that’s regularly charged with getting opinions and providing two-way communication,” Wilkinson points out. Furthermore, Yale's existing faculty organizations operate town-meeting style, which “works more easily with a smaller group," he says. Many peer institutions also began with a town-meeting approach but added elected senates "as they got bigger and more complex.”

The committee's research found that senates elsewhere "don’t seem to have gummed up the works and been obstructive"—one fear of an elected body—Wilkinson says. But he and Gage note other potential pitfalls, including the added burden on faculty; the difficulty of making the body truly representative (“We feel pretty strongly that it shouldn’t just be ladder faculty," Gage says); and what she calls "the question of capture," or independence from the university administration.

The senate will be advisory: “It’s not going to be approving budgets, certainly," Gage says. But she sees it as "a big gesture for the new administration" of Salovey and provost Ben Polak. "It could also change the culture," helping faculty to "feel like they have a voice, a place to express grievances, and a more transparent structure."

Asked for comment, Salovey says in an e-mail: "I'm looking forward to receiving the advice and counsel of the faculty committee that will be appointed to examine the matter of an FAS faculty senate. I anticipate that the careful work of this committee will take some time, and I appreciate the willingness of members of the faculty to undertake this examination."

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