A Call for Respect for Faculty Authority Over Curricular Matters

Resolved: That the Sonoma State University (SSU) Academic Senate affirm the unique role of faculty in shared governance in institutions of higher learning with respect to policies on academic and professional matters, as recognized in Section 3561 of the California Higher Education Employee Relations Act (HEERA) of 1978;1 and be it further

Resolved: That the SSU Academic Senate affirm that in the governance of the university, the “…faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction…”;2 and be it further

Resolved: That the SSU Academic Senate express serious concern about recent administrative actions that substitute administrative judgment for the considered conclusions of faculty with regard to questions that have a direct bearing on curricular matters; and be it further

Resolved: That the SSU Academic Senate call upon the Provost to respect faculty authority over the curriculum and submit proposed policies that have a direct bearing on course offerings (such as service learning status) and program integrity (such as the proposed campus internship policy) for review through the established SSU curricular review process; and be it further

Resolved: That the SSU Academic Senate call upon all levels of the university administration to refrain from interfering in department determination of program curricula and the implementation of department curricular policies; and be it further

Resolved: That this resolution be distributed to the SSU president, provost, academic deans, department chairs, chairs of School curriculum committees and the chairs of the Educational Policies and Faculty Standards and Affairs Committees.

Based on the principles of academic freedom and shared governance as practiced in the California State University, faculty have the primary responsibility for curriculum and methods of teaching, including establishing program requirements, review of courses that meet those requirements and determination of their successful completion.  A special administrative responsibility is effective consultation with faculty on matters of university policy that has a direct bearing on curriculum and pedagogy.  Especially important for successful shared governance is “…a mutual respect and commitment for the process ..if consultation in the context of shared governance is to be successful.” 3   In matters where a final decision is delegated to a campus president, a decision adverse to faculty judgment should only be made “…only in exceptional circumstances and for reasons communicated to the faculty.”Recently, decisions by SSU administrators have violated the spirit and practice of shared governance and called into question the administration’s commitment to maintaining faculty authority over curricular matters. 

For example, faculty have raised serious concerns about the draft internship policy and implementation process currently being circulated on campus.  To date, consultation on the draft has consisted of discussions with Senate standing committees and department chairs councils.  An “open house” on the implementation process is planned at the Center for Community Engagement on May 5.  These conversations, while appreciated by faculty, leave the specific wording of the policy and design of the implementation process to the administration.  Because of the policy and implementation process’ potentially significant impact on the curriculum and program requirements, the Senate Executive Committee on April 28 voted to formally request of the Provost that the policy be taken through the formal shared governance process, including the Educational Policies Committee (EPC), the Faculty Standards and Affairs Committee (FSAC) and the Academic Senate (after review by the Senate Executive Committee for readiness). 

A second example is the overturning of a curricular decision made by a department chair in adherence with a department policy.  The Sociology Department’s service learning policy was created to establish criteria for, and department curriculum committee review and approval of, courses that use service learning.  The department chair rejected a plan by a lecturer to teach a Fall 2016 course as a service learning course because it had not been reviewed and approved by the department’s curriculum committee.  The Interim Associate Vice President (AVP) for Academic Programs overturned the decision.  The AVP’s reasoning was that while the department can determine whether or not a course meets the department’s criteria to satisfy a major requirement that may be met with a service learning course, with regard to any specific course service learning is a pedagogical decision to be made by individual faculty, not a curricular decision within the department’s purview.  In response to the Interim AVP’s pronouncement, the Academic Freedom Subcommittee (AFS) issued the following statement on April 27:

“Although academic freedom is typically associated with individuals, departments can also be afforded academic freedom.  Departmental academic freedom can potentially be in conflict with the individuals in the department.  In regard to the concern brought to the Academic Freedom Subcommittee, the members unanimously agreed that the Sociology department was within its rights to have a policy regarding the use of Service Learning in its courses.  In keeping with SSU’s statement of professional responsibility, the AFS feels that any faculty member teaching courses in the Sociology department should be expected to abide by this policy.”

The Senate’s Faculty and Standards Affairs Committee affirmed the AFS statement on April 28. 

In these specific instances, concern was great enough that Academic Senate committees felt compelled to make a formal statement about administrative decisions.  This resolution builds upon those statements to address the larger shared governance issues raised by the administration’s decisions.

The Senate approved the following statement be included with this resolution:

Dear Members of the Academic Senate:

I appreciate this opportunity to present my understanding of the events outlined in the rationale of the resolution now before the Senate and to clarify the events and statements attributed to me and the Administration. But most critically, I will state foremost that I heartily agree with the tenor of this resolution.

With respect the third paragraph of the resolution, there was never an intent to overrule a department’s control of its curriculum. As proof, I provide the text of the one communication I had with the department on this issue, from March 11, 2016:

“I understand you were informed that a course wishing to employ service learning pedagogy would need to be approved through the curricular approval process. From my understanding, pedagogy is the choice of the instructor, and thus falls under academic freedom. Curricular/course approval covers content and learning objectives. I would not want to hinder innovative pedagogical choices by our instructors over what sounds like incorrect information. I cc Laura (EPC Chair) to make sure I am not missing something.”

My message did not direct or overrule, simply raised a concern over the intersection of the curriculum and academic freedom and even deferred to an appropriated Senate committee for an authoritative judgment. This case, and the response from the Academic Freedom Subcommittee, points to the need for clarity from the faculty on balancing an individual’s right to academic freedom while assuring the recognition of a department’s oversight of its curriculum.

Second, there simply is no mechanism available for my office to prevent approved curricula processes from being implemented. In fact, I am saddened to report that I directed an office in Academic Programs, one designed to support this form of pedagogy, to cease working with the instructor who was developing the course in question, given the sentiment raised by this resolution.

Third, all constituencies of the campus, including the Administration, and no one more so than myself, understand the primacy of the faculty’s control of curriculum. This brings me to the issue in the second paragraph of the resolution.

During this academic year, my office has been developing an internship policy, following a directive from the Office of the Chancellor. In drafting the policy, we have been seeking broad input from across the campus, including multiple sources of input from the faculty. As a past member of the faculty, and having served on the Academic Senate and various Senate committees, I am fully aware that business items may arise from within the committees of faculty governance. Thus when we brought the draft internship policy to the Faculty Standards and Affairs Committee and the Educational Policies Committee for review and feedback, I knew these committees had the right and responsibility to make the draft policy Senate business. The request to the Provost at the Academic Senate meeting of April 28th was also heard, and after incorporating the feedback we received, the internship policy will be returning to the appropriate Senate committees in the fall. 

In closing, I have been and continue to be one of the strongest proponents of the faculty’s control and command of the curriculum. So I agree with the resolution that shared governance is critical to the functioning of the university, and in matters of the curriculum, the administration and faculty must confer on matching curricular needs with available resources. In my current position I aim to aid the faculty in any way to develop a strong, coherent, and meaningful program of study for our students.

Thank you.
Richard Whitkus 
Interim Associate Vice President for Academic Programs 
Sonoma State University

1. http://www.perb.ca.gov/laws/statutes.aspx#ST3561

2. American Association of University Professors, “Statement on Governance of Colleges and Universities,” 1967, updated 1990, http://www.aaup.org/report/statement-government-colleges-and-universities

See also “Report of the Board of Trustees’ Ad Hoc Committee on Governance, Collegiality, and Responsibility in the California State University,” adopted September 1985, in Principles and Policies:  Papers of the Academic Senate, The California State University, p. 41, http://www.calstate.edu/AcadSen/Records/Reports/pp.pdf.

3. “Statement on Shared Governance and Consultation at California State University, Sacramento,” CSUS Faculty Senate, April 2010, http://www.csus.edu/acse/Docs-and-pdfs/Statement-on-Shared-Governance.pdf

4. Ibid.

See also “Report of the Board of Trustees’ Ad Hoc Committee on Governance, Collegiality, and Responsibility in the California State University,” adopted September 1985, in Principles and Policies:  Papers of the Academic Senate, The California State University, p. 41, http://www.calstate.edu/AcadSen/Records/Reports/pp.pdf.