Friday, April 24, 2009

On the other side

This week, my unit achieved something remarkable -- and something that's been a long time coming. For the last four years, we've been engaged in a conversation, an argument, a discussion -- whatever you want to call it -- about our status on campus. Back in 2005, the faculty senate expressed concern about the notion of interdisciplinary faculty when our tenure guidelines came up for ratification. Since then, with varying degrees of intensity, the faculty has been talking about how to staff the Honors College.

Last week there was a heartstopping setback when agreed-upon faculty handbook language was questioned by the senate. But this week, with only hours to spare to get the resolution on all the appropriate agendas to be ratified before the academic year's end, modifed language was finally approved.

It's impossible to describe here the roller-coaster ride that I've been on for the last four years. Tenure is an arcane academic notion. But it's central to a full-fledged academic enterprise. Without tenure, we are unable to attract and retain quality faculty. Without tenure, we're vulnerable to changing political winds. Without tenure, there's a conspicuous absence of the university's vote of confidence in the academic program or its staff.

The process of getting it back -- because it was actually given to us at one point by administrative fiat but then limited by faculty governance -- was, to quote a faculty senator this week, "byzantine." It was not always clear to anyone the issues at stake. Senate sessions came and went, apparently unable to compel their successors to exit the holding pattern. Public meetings had to be held. The terms of the debate and the values that governed it shifted month to month.

But whatever problems might exist with the eventual compromise solution -- as yet untested in real life -- there's a very important victory in this moment. At times over the last several years, it's not always been clear that the faculty at my institution wants my academic unit to exist. Our founding (and the addition of dedicated faculty) seemed to be thought by some to be tainted by connection to unpopular administrations. We consistently encounter misunderstandings -- sometimes outright misinformation -- about our purposes and procedures when we talk to folks from other departments. There have been deep valleys in the last few years where we believed we were in a struggle for survival.

This past year, as the search for a way to recover our tenure came to a head, we were heartened to discover that the faculty as a whole demanded a solution, because they believed the Honors College must continue and must be able to have its own faculty. They would not allow the process to fail, fraught with pitfalls and posturing and old wounds as it might be. In the end there were no voices raised to demand the extinction of interdisciplinarity on campus. The value of what we do was affirmed. The perspective of the process shifted from a desire to curb unwarranted license, to the desire to institutionalize the health of a vital campus resource.

When the senate finally passed the tenure language yesterday, sending it to the Board of Trustees just under the deadline for the last meeting of the year, there was celebration in our offices. The long fight was over. And although there were serious compromises whose import has yet to be fully understood, we had achieved something unprecedented in our history: acceptance as full partners in the common faculty enterprise. It's not a status I'm ever likely to take for granted, not after decades on probation and four years in limbo.


Doc Thelma said...

Congratulations! I know how ugly academic posturing can get and I hope the battle is behind you.

Eric B. said...

As an alum I'm heartened that the other faculty on campus recognized the need for fully supported faculty in the HC. Congratulations, each and every one of you deserve it.