Chair Talk 3.22 Modeling Good Citizenship
There is much talk amongst academics about how we can do a better job at preparing our students to be engaged citizens, armed with a respect for facts and evidence-based decision making, and ready to participate in improving civil society. Many of us are excited by newly energized student activism, and what it portends for the future. We hope that the next generation will actively work to change society so that it serves the entire community. Those of us who are not quite ready to blow up the system understand that the best hope for the future is at the ballot box, electing representatives who will work for the kind of society we want to live in. All cynicism aside, we get the politics we deserve.
In this context I want to talk about campus politics, and specifically about the elections for faculty governance. In the primary elections just concluded there were 3246 eligible voters, a number that now includes both tenure track and career track faculty. Of these, exactly 480 chose to exercise their right to vote, and to participate in the process. That is roughly 15%. One can only hope our students were not watching too closely.
How can this possibly be explained? Well, the first thing is that we have an unnecessarily cumbersome election system, involving both a Primary and then a General Election. Perhaps many eligible voters wanted to wait for the “real” election. As it turns out, however, many of the positions up for election are not contested, and the results of the Primary finish the job. Suffice it to say for now that we intend on changing this system, to simplify it.
Another possibility, nay probability, is that many (most) eligible voters feel that the whole enterprise is a waste of their time – including the elections and the entire structure of faculty governance it supports. Perhaps the same logic applies to the low turnout rates in elections to state and federal offices – it makes no difference according to this (nihilistic) view.
I strongly disagree. Faculty governance is alive and well at the UA. We may not make many decisions outright, but we definitely influence most decisions that are made. There are ample examples of this, all the way from the purely academic decisions about programs and curricula to the financial decisions about what priorities to set in spending whatever discretionary resources the UA has at its disposal from year to year. If you don’t believe this, ask anyone who has served on the Strategic Planning and Budget Advisory Committee (SPBAC), whose recommendations on priorities have a strong impact on what ultimately gets decided. I admit that it has not always been this way (and I’ve been involved with SPBAC since its founding in the early 1990s), and the influence of this committee waxes and wanes as different administrators take it more or less seriously. But right now we have a Provost who takes it seriously, and we have an incoming President who has already expressed his support of shared governance. Now more than ever we all need to make our voices heard – and a 15% voter turnout rate is barely above the noise level.
In the upcoming General Election there will be several contested seats on SPBAC – four candidates vying for two faculty seats. There will be eight candidates vying for three at-large Senate seats. Who represents you in these venues matters, trust me.
I have been devoting the better part of the past few years to the shared governance enterprise at the UA – my final years as an academic after a long and eventful career. I write these Chair Talks to inform and cajole, to push and to pull. I could just as easily be walking on the beach here in Sydney, or padding my CV by writing one more review paper. But I insist that this stuff is important, and because of that I am urging those of you who read this to help out in the following two ways: first, take the time to vote, and second, talk to 10 of your closest colleagues and ask them to vote as well. Aim particularly at junior colleagues, so we can start to create a culture of regular engagement that ultimately will benefit us all.
Thanks, as always, for your attention.
Chair of the Faculty