A Conversation with the Committee on Faculty

by Catherine Williams
(Note: interview occurred on March 30, 2016.)

Like most liberal arts colleges and universities, Hobart and William Smith operate a shared governance system in which the faculty body actively participates in decisionmaking, weighing in on issues from the adoption and assessment of new academic programs to information technology resources, library services, employment matters and the tenure process. To undertake this work, the faculty at Hobart and William Smith use a committee structure that, although revised over the decades to meet the changing needs of the Colleges, can be traced back to at least the 1930s.

Of the 11 standing committees that make up the backbone of faculty governance at HWS, the Committee on the Faculty (CoFac) has what is arguably the broadest mandate: oversight of the policies and practices associated with academic freedom, research, faculty workload, faculty working conditions and faculty compensation. The committee also provides input on the budget, faculty recruitment, retention and tenure and promotion. It’s a far-reaching agenda that takes as one of its key priorities the review of the standards and criteria of each academic program.

That work invariably leads to what Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens describes as a “synoptic purview.” Arens, who has chaired CoFac for the past two years, sees the committee’s charge as broadly covering anything having to do with the “life and experience of faculty…. So when we talk about the academic program, that conversation links to one about admissions and retention, to finance and the budget. CoFac makes the connections.” Comprised of five faculty members spanning all levels of the faculty – assistant, associate and full professor status – CoFac membership must also represent all of the Colleges’ academic areas – the humanities, social sciences, fine and performing arts, and natural sciences.

What better source, then, to get a snapshot of the kinds of conversations happening within the faculty body.

Q: What is the Committee on Faculty?

Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens: We are advisory to the Provost and Dean of Faculty who comes to us to get a faculty perspective. Because of our makeup, we bring a diversity of perspectives from the faculty at large. We also have, in a very constructive way, become a sounding board for the president. With Carolee White (vice president for finance) coming on board we’ve been, I think, a useful resource for her in talking through some of the issues that are particularly relevant for faculty.

Provost and Dean of Faculty Titilayo Ufomata: From my perspective, CoFac represents faculty interests and the work life of faculty. It negotiates on behalf of the faculty with me, the administration in general, and trustees. Over the years, CoFac has served as a valued and valuable resource in my decision making process. They provide frank and candid feedback and also help me think through issues from a faculty standpoint.

Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Rose: CoFac drives conversation as well. For example, CoFac has been on the forefront of discussions about diversity this year and we’ve met with other faculty and staff as well as the chaplain, provost and president. Nan and I sat on the initial Strategic Diversity Planning Committee and we brought that work to the faculty floor and put it in our reports. And we do that with any number of issues.

Arens: We did that with the Sexual Misconduct Policy. The revisions to that policy really emerged out of CoFac two years ago. There’s a level of frankness that happens within CoFac because we’re working on very different issues so we’re able to see connections that may motivate us to drive larger conversations.


Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Thomas Drennen: CoFac tries to get at the following questions: How do different departments evaluate effective teaching? What does that mean? What happens when a student does an evaluation of a faculty member and gives that faculty all ‘ones’ or all ‘fives’? How do different departments treat that? How do we effectively perform classroom observations of our colleagues to make sure that our teachers are doing the best job possible?

Arens: Issues around diversity emerged last year with our review of the Standards and Criteria (SAC) documents. These are materials that each academic department uses during their self-assessment process. CoFac oversees that self-assessment and provides feedback to academic departments. The conversation around the table was that some academic departments and programs are doing a really good job of articulating their goals around diversity and compensating for the structural issues inherent in individual faculty reviews that may disadvantage some people. Others are not. That forced us to confront the situation and think about how we dismantle it.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Greg Frost- Arnold: How do we attract and retain faculty who are not only white? We’ve been doing well in some ways and not so well in others, especially when it comes to retention. That gets into how we evaluate candidates for tenure and promotion. Are we doing things in the tenure review process that inadvertently create a gap and an unfriendly or unwelcoming climate?

Drennen: Research shows that students give women lower teaching effectiveness grades. People of color tend to get worse evaluations. People who have accents that are not the accent of the student’s native language, get a lower evaluation. So when we, during the tenure review process, mandate that in order to get tenure, faculty must get a certain score on evaluations by students, what’s the unintended consequence? The bar’s higher for some people and that gives some an unfair advantage.

Arens: When you have faculty candidates coming forward for tenure review and the primary mechanism to evaluate their teaching is the student course evaluations, you may disadvantage some individuals over others. Frost-Arnold: We’re trying to get each department, in their SAC document, to really consider those issues.

Drennen: And so what we want to do is make it explicit so that department overview committees have to think consciously and speak explicitly about how they understand the implicit bias that may have gone into those course evaluations.

Arens: We crafted by-law language and put it before the faculty, we discussed it and voted on it and now it’s part of our by-laws.

Ufomata: Departmental and Program SAC documents are supposed to be in alignment with the broad institutional policies on tenure and promotion. They are not supposed to supersede them; where there’s a dissonance, the broad institutional goals are supposed to prevail. CoFac is trying to ensure that SAC documents are a little more equitable in terms of how one group compares to the other. If a department doesn’t have an approved SAC document, they cannot hire, they cannot ask for a new line.


Q: What are the major issues facing the Colleges? How do you talk about them?

Rose: Nan and I sit on the Committee on Admissions and Retention, and President Gearan has made it clear that retention is an issue. The demographics in the United States are challenging. There are increasingly fewer college-aged students in the Northeast and that’s where many of our students come from. What role can faculty play, and what contributions can we make? Getting good students will lead to better retention.

Arens: That’s our revenue stream and we understand that. From my perspective, getting faculty to participate in larger strategic dialogues is vital. If we decouple who’s coming in and how we’re working on retaining them, from what goes on in a classroom, office, lab or studio, we’re not going to be able to move forward. We must all pull on the same oar.

Rose: So we’ve become a sounding board for Admissions on this issue.

Arens: From a budget perspective, we’ve had a real sea change in terms of the depth and coherence of the dialogue we’ve been able to have. Getting faculty to understand the budget is going to be an incremental process, but it’s important for us to understand where we need to contribute.

Rose: And you can’t talk about the budget without talking about admissions and retention.

Arens: You can’t talk about salaries without talking about budget, which then gets you talking about admissions and retention. You can’t talk about academic budgets without talking about mission and diversity; it’s all interrelated. We’ve been trying to get people to think from that interrelated perspective.


Q: How does CoFac help build a better HWS?

Rose: Our goal as faculty members is to try to create better citizens. We’re members of a community and part of a democratic community is having discourse, is agreeing to disagree sometimes, but to keep raising the normative questions and to keep trying to strive toward being better individuals. And so we do have these governing mechanisms but our preferred choice is to have discourse and to call ourselves to our better selves.

Arens: We’re telling our students that they need to be good citizens and affect positive change, to have informed discourse and treat people with respect. Those are the kinds of values that we want our students to espouse and I feel like if we don’t model that behavior, if we’re not engaged in that kind of discourse, if we’re not invested in that kind of community change, then we have no credibility.

Ufomata: Keep in mind that the underlying philosophical ethos of this place is egalitarianism and that’s why we have the step system.

Q: Explain the step system.

Ufomata: Faculty members who come to HWS with the same number of years of experience post terminal degrees receive the same salary. The faculty salary scale defines all steps relative to the base salary of an assistant professor. In essence, the system rewards longevity of experience.

Drennen: We’re very different from most schools in that way. At HWS, somebody coming in with a Ph.D. in English makes the same as somebody coming in with a Ph.D. in economics or physics.

Q: Does the concept of the step-system ever emerge as a point of conversation within the faculty?

Drennen: It’s a sacred cow to the faculty. The trustees ask me every year: ‘Why do you want the step system? Why wouldn’t you want a merit-based pay system?’

Arens: In the step system, everyone gets paid the same for the same number of years of service.

Drennen: And the real benefit of the system is that it removes any jealousies between fields and just simplifies the process of annual raises; everyone is treated the same.

Q: So there’s a love of the egalitarianism of the step system – that it’s a part of the Colleges’ ethos. But are there also tensions?

Frost-Arnold: Yes, I think so.

Arens: The academy is intrinsically hierarchical in every possible way: first-year students versus seniors; assistant, associate and full professors; associate vice president or vice president. But the people who are drawn to the liberal arts environment are also intrinsically highminded, devoted to notions of equality and egalitarianism as we understand them.

Drennen: This ties back into the SAC documents – how do you govern if you’re just asking questions and making suggestions? CoFac is an incubator for the by-law ordinances. And the faculty by-laws govern the SAC documents. So the way we make actual change— the way we actually govern—is we propose by-laws to the faculty as a whole, and they either vote them up or vote them down.

Arens: And the way we stimulate conversation is through a by-law because that generates a faculty-wide conversation.


Q: As a group, do you talk about what could make the Colleges a stronger academic community?

Arens: We will be a stronger HWS if we have a more diverse student body. And we will be a stronger HWS if we have more diverse staff and faculty at all levels.

Drennen: We will be a stronger HWS if we can recruit the best possible candidates for faculty positions. That’s really important.

Arens: And hang on to them. We will be a stronger HWS if we learn how to have respect, to have hard conversations that are respectful. We must address the really difficult issues and have serious, hard conversations where we’re honest with one another.

Rose: To our credit—and maybe I’m being naïve in this—but I feel like as a community, we’ve been pretty good about having the difficult conversations. So the conversations around diversity could’ve gone sour fast. Conversations around the budget thus far have been really good.

Arens: We had a lot of hard conversations about sexual assault and I think we did a good, honest job with it. And Tom has led the conversation on the budget in ways that have been very constructive. The diversity conversation has been broad and wide-ranging. Hard stuff was said and it was heard. I agree with Justin: it could have gone badly but it didn’t. We’ve taken a quantum leap.

Drennen: Everybody – all the faculty, all the administration and all the staff – care about the future of this place. And so that’s why I think we can have, in the long run, a positive conversation.

Arens: That’s true. That was my experience around the sexual violence conversation and in the wake of The New York Times article. We were able to come together and support one another because we all deeply care about the institution, about our role in it, and about its future.

Drennen: That’s where we’re also so different from a modern company or a corporation. When faculty come here, we come here to stay our whole lives. We’re not looking to come for two years and leave. We’ve decided to spend our career at HWS, and so you want it to be a good place.

Arens: To build the kind of community we want, we have to be intentional about how we think through the implications of one approach to a conversation over another.

A few years ago, Susan Pliner (the director of the Centennial Center for Leadership and the Center for Teaching and Learning), hosted a community read of the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott ’67. The thing that I learned and reflected on is to be intentional about the conversations you’re having; I really need to think about who I’m talking to, what they are going to hear, what they are not going to hear. I need to be intentional in the way I interject myself into conversations. What works for one group of people might not for another. I try to think about how I can tailor what I want them to hear or what I need them to hear to what their ears are willing to take.

Assistant Professor of Music Mark Olivieri: The admissions and retention issue, finding a way to bring in the kind of students that will affect the institution in a positive way, issues such as the budget, finding meaningful ways to negotiate without compromising what’s at our core, the student experience, and what we value as an institution…. It’s difficult to navigate those things. What I enjoy about this process and about CoFac is that as a junior faculty member, I’ve learned more about the institution in the weeks that I’ve been on CoFac than the five years that I’ve been here.

Rose: Oh yeah, without a doubt.

Olivieri: And having Nan and Tom on this committee, sometimes I just sit back and absorb everything like a sponge. It’s really taught me how to have meaningful conversations and how to talk about these sometimes very difficult subjects.

Arens: Tom and I have very different approaches to things but we care about the students and the Colleges. That motivates us to sit down and talk through our issues. And Tom has influenced my opinion on things, from his different perspective.

Frost-Arnold: Like in a class, the kinds of conversations we have mean that we are always pushing different sliders. When I teach a class on composition, I’m talking about nuts and bolts stuff and about the creative process, but I’m also talking about history and analysis. CoFac operates the same way. So we have this social justice issue and issues of diversity but we’re also talking about the budget. It’s complex.

Rose: This group, because of our care for the institution, because of our respect for one another and for the faculty as a whole, this has been a very productive and enjoyable experience.

Drennen: I don’t think we ever walk out mad at each other.

Arens: Nope.

Rose: And given the contentious issues that we deal with, that could be a weekly occurrence.

Arens: We are all committed to the quality of the dialogue. And because we are committed to the quality of the dialogue, we’re willing to be honest with one another—and I think we have been. You can disagree and just have it be a disagreement. And that’s okay.

Rose: And our egos are not tied up on this. We want to create an even better place.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.