Coronado: The ultimate legislative body of the faculty

Jorge Coronado, Op-Ed Contributor

In December 2020, Northwestern’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors  made public a report that critiques the University administration’s handling of the pandemic. Among the recommendations our chapter made were that administrative support must be rehired, that academic units be properly supported across the University, that retirement funds should be restored to faculty and staff from whom they were unilaterally withheld and that the administration make the University’s budgets transparent to all. 

More than a year later, these issues persist despite two years of significant budget surpluses. In a public meeting organized by our chapter following the report’s release and amid the administration’s loud silence, the option of convening a meeting of the Faculty Assembly was discussed to give the faculty an opportunity to speak on these matters in one voice. Last fall, we learned that Faculty Senate leadership was moving to modify Faculty Assembly bylaws to significantly curtail the Assembly’s powers.

Although the motivations for this move, particularly in light of so many urgent matters that require the Senate’s attention, is far from clear, a recent op-ed published in The Daily by Faculty Senate President Robert Holmgren offers a rationale for the proposed change to the Faculty Assembly bylaws. Though presented as definitive, in reality it is only a flawed interpretation of the existing governance documents. 

“The present bylaws incongruously refer to the Faculty Assembly as the ‘ultimate legislative body of the faculty,’ but it has only one legislative function: it can amend its own bylaws with a quorum and agreement from the Board of Trustees,” Holmgren wrote. 

But as Stephen Eisenman, founding Senate president and co-author of our current faculty governance system, has expressed, the most important function of the Faculty Assembly is to serve as a check on the Faculty Senate.

The current Faculty Assembly Bylaws make this clear: “While the Faculty Senate is the elected, representative body of the faculty, when the Faculty Assembly is convened with a quorum (10% of membership), it becomes the ultimate legislative body of the faculty at Northwestern.” 

The idea is since all faculty are members of the Assembly, their views — when a quorum is present — should take precedence over the merely representative Faculty Senate. In addition, the Assembly may “pass resolutions on any matters referred to it … and submit recommendations and resolutions to the Board of Trustees on any matter affecting the general interests of the University.” There is nothing “incongruous” here. 

While Holmgren rightly points out the Faculty Assembly has rarely achieved a quorum, the full faculty should retain the right to act when circumstances demand. The Faculty Assembly represents an avenue toward faculty participation in the governance of the University. We need more such avenues, not fewer. That Holmgren and Faculty Senate leadership have spent months pushing these changes against the views of many of their colleagues in the Senate and outside gives us pause. That the issue is being pressed at a time when so many other important matters face us is disturbing. In order to further the proposal to modify the bylaws, the innocuous metaphor of “housekeeping” has been employed numerous times by Faculty Senate leadership. But who focuses on dusting when the house’s soundness is in doubt?

Jorge Coronado is a Spanish and Portuguese professor and serves as the president of NU-AAUP. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.