Taking One Step Forward, Not Two Steps Back
Posted by The NCCFT Executive Committee
On May 5th, we sent an email to the NCCFT Executive Board informing them that contract negotiations have begun. Under normal circumstances, we would have allowed your department representatives to bring that news back to you without any intervening commentary from us. Moreover, in keeping with the principles of good faith bargaining, we would certainly not have made public any aspect of our initial discussions with the administration. However, because one item on which agreement has already been reached bears directly on the bylaws ratification meeting that will take place on Thursday, May 11th, we are, with the administration’s consent, sharing news about that item with you now.
We will not here rehearse the history of the revised Senate bylaws that were approved on April 27th at a special meeting of the Academic Senate. Suffice it to say that they represent a compromise reached by President Keen and the Academic Senate Executive Committee (ASEC) after the ASEC refused to accept Dr. Keen’s initial proposal to the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF), which eliminated Article II from the bylaws completely. This proposal was unacceptable because Article II defines the mechanisms whereby the college president is held accountable for responding to Senate actions in a timely manner. Without this accountability, the president could allow to die on his or her desk any Senate action with which he or she disagreed, rendering the Senate effectively powerless against that disagreement.
The revised bylaws—which we will ratify, or not, on May 11th (read a copy here)—reflect the consensus of the GRTF about what should be presented to the faculty for consideration, and they do require the president to respond to the Senate in the event that he chooses not affirm a Senate action. However, as those who argued unsuccessfully to amend the bylaws rightly pointed out at the April 27th meeting, nowhere do these new bylaws actually hold the president accountable for this response. Here is the relevant language:
If the formal actions of the Academic Senate are not affirmed by the President then the Academic Senate Executive Committee will review the reasons with the President.
Noting that the absence of a specified time frame for this review would give ample, if implicit license to any president who did not want to respond to a given Senate action, our colleagues offered an amendment setting a limit of ten (10) days for a presidential response. In fact, the Governance Review Task Force had already discussed this issue. At that time, Dr. Keen made the case that a defined time frame, even one as reasonable as ten days, would artificially limit the flexibility a president might need to do research, consult with others, or elicit responses from outside sources, such as SUNY, that might take longer than the time limit allowed. This seemed to him an unfair and unreasonable constraint, and so he refused to accept it. On April 27th, he took the same position, declaring the amendment unacceptable and asserting that, were it approved, he would feel compelled to veto the bylaws outright.
As you know, the amendment was defeated and the revised bylaws were approved for ratification, unfortunately leaving the question of the president’s accountability to the Senate unresolved. This poses a real threat to Section 20 of our collective bargaining agreement. After all, if that accountability is not enforceable, the Senate essentially loses whatever authority Section 20 allots to it. Given the urgency of our current situation—a Middle States report is due in September and a team will be visiting us in October—we brought this concern to Dr. Keen as soon as we sat down to start negotiations, and we have been able to obtain from him a written commitment to the following:
Upon ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement—meaning that what is written below is not contingent on any other aspect of negotiation—Section 20 will be amended to reflect the following changes:
In Section 20-1.1:
“To examine, approve and recommend curricula for examination by the President and the Board of Trustees.”
Will be changed to this language:
“To examine, approve and recommend curricula for examination by the President who will respond within a reasonable timeframe.”
In Section 20-1.3
“To formulate and propose academic policies including policies on class size, academic advisement, educational TV, and academic calendar for the consideration of the President and the Board of Trustees.”
Will be changed to this language:
“To formulate and propose academic policies including policies on class size, academic advisement, educational TV, and academic calendar for the consideration of the President who will respond within a reasonable timeframe.”
These changes accomplish two things, the first of which—clarifying that the Senate proposes curricula and policy only to the college president (and not to the Board of Trustees as well)—would have had to happen anyway, as per Middle States’ requirements. (As far as we know, no one objects to this.) The second, and in our view far more consequential change, is that the new language makes it a contractual obligation for the president to respond to the Senate “within a reasonable timeframe.” It’s true that, as per Dr. Keen’s position, “reasonable” is left undefined, but the fact that the word is in the contract makes its opposite, “unreasonable,” a contract violation, which we can grieve, giving NCC’s president, whomever he or she is, a vested interest in timely responses.
We know this new contractual language does not resolve all questions surrounding the revised Senate bylaws, for example those that have been raised about the administration’s role in the Senate; nor does it resolve all of our continuing concerns about shared governance, such as the lingering issue of the language in Board Policy 1300 or the relationship between the Senate and the Institutional Planning Committee. What the new language incontrovertibly does do, however, is explicitly put the weight of the contract behind Article II, holding the president accountable to the Senate in a formal, legally actionable way that we have never had access to before. We cannot think of a way in which this does not strengthen our position vis-a-vis shared governance on campus.
While we would never presume to tell any individual faculty member how he or she should vote on Thursday, we have made our position clear at Senate meetings, at meetings of the GRTF, on this blog, and elsewhere. We believe that ratifying the revised bylaws is the wise and prudent thing to do so that we can move forward as an institution, and now that Dr. Keen has agreed to this new contractual language, we are even more strongly committed to that position. As you read, consult, discuss, and deliberate in preparation for Thursday’s vote, we hope you will take what we’ve written here to heart. We now have a position of strength from which to move our conversation about shared governance forward. A no vote on Thursday will almost certainly result in our having to take two steps backwards.