In a time of change, Faculty Senate seeks to make its voice heard

Faculty face plenty of challenges as fundamental change sweeps over higher education, but the biggest one of all may be to participate as decision makers.

At Northern Arizona University, the Faculty Senate operates under the philosophy of “shared governance,” said Senate President Allen Reich. As he begins his second term as senate president, Reich, a professor in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, emphasizes “the need for faculty to play an increasing role in policy making.”

“Traditional higher education is based on an extremely complex, multi-dimensional organizational structure,” Reich said. “Wherever an initiative starts, we just want everyone to get together to make sure it’s effective.”

That doesn’t imply resistance to change, Reich said, although he acknowledged that such an attitude is at times attributed to faculty.

“The faculty realize that the economic structure of the university has changed,” Reich said. They also are adjusting to the Regents’ Enterprise initiative, which Reich said will “make sure we’re successful in an increasingly challenging competitive environment.”

“All of this necessitates a change in mindset,” Reich said, “and change can be uncomfortable.”

Reich has consistently reiterated NAU President John Haeger’s message that what used to work can no longer be assumed to be effective. The traditional model of higher education needs an extensive reassessment.

“Since virtually all universities are dealing with the same issues, we now have to directly compete with them,” Reich said. “We have to operate more similarly to private business, looking at revenues and expenses, and thinking more like marketers to promote our image as a quality provider of higher education.”

Reich said that Faculty Senate has played an active, although often behind-the-scenes, role in some of the initiatives being launched at NAU. Through ad hoc task forces and 12 Senate committees, “there is a process that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” he said.

Reich personally served on the task force that honed the University College concept recently implemented at NAU. “Many faculty helped in the creation and thought process,” Reich said, crediting vice provost for academic affairs Karen Pugliesi, who is also the dean of University College, with listening to faculty concerns about organizational structure and making adjustments.

“It’s significant that University College did not create a new bureaucracy,” Reich said. “It’s an extremely low-cost endeavor relative to the potential outcome.”

In another example, Reich explained how Grade Performance Status, an online academic feedback system, demonstrates that “in higher education, the process needs to go more slowly.”

“GPS was created with faculty participation,” Reich said, “and then faculty helped determine the process for implementation. The next step is for them to try it out and offer suggestions for improvements.”

Only at that point in the process, Reich said, can it be reasonably hoped that a majority of faculty will adopt the system. He’s confident in the outcome.

“Eventually, this will become a normal part of NAU’s operational procedure because it’s critical in helping NAU achieve higher retention,” he said. “We’ve already seen a 4 percent increase in retention for students of professors that have used it. That’s a significant improvement.”

Reich previewed university program assessment as “one of the big initiatives” of faculty senate in the upcoming academic year, tying it to the rapidly emerging conversation about competency-based learning. NAU recently announced a Personalized Learning program that places it among the nation’s leaders.

“Personalized Learning is not only a superb program but it is being recognized as one of the most progressive education developments in years,” Reich said.