Monday, March 01, 2010

And the Senate Has Spoken....

After a good deal of discussion, the SUNY Fredonia University Senate voted to table the Executive Committee's special budget resolution by a 2-1 margin. I don't know why the Senators voted as they did, and I didn't help matters with the way I handled the discussion, but the way I would summarize the comments against the resolution is as follows:

The Local Custom Argument

We have a tradition in the Senate of discussing an item in one meeting and then voting on it in a subsequent meeting. My argument for suspending this tradition, which is not in Robert's Rules, was as follows. Once a bill leaves certain lower-level committees and goes to the final committee before it is killed or goes up in a vote before the entire State Senate or Assembly, it is very difficult to amend it. We don't know when that will happen, but the rumors coming from Albany are that it could well happen during our spring break or before the legislative recess in late March. Because our next meeting falls on the second Monday of April (due to our having a travel day the first Monday), postponing the vote until then could well make our resolution irrelevant. In response, several Senators argued that giving them time to study the matter and consult their constituencies outweighed the risk of irrelevance. I could always call another special Senate meeting or stated faculty meeting (or the President could call a special faculty meeting) to hold the vote, or we could do it electronically.

The "Stabbing in the Back" Argument

In response, other Senators argued that it was improper for the Fredonia University Senate to intrude on UUP territory. While I should have argued in response that I have been meeting regularly with our local chapter UUP President all year, that the Senate has the right to make recommendations to both the campus President and the chapter President, and that I was willing to participate in any open forum or union-sponsored event, still, the perception remained that I was inserting the Executive Committee's views where they don't belong and betraying the state-wide union in the process. In my view, unions should thrive on internal debate and discussion; unfortunately, that view has never been shared by state-wide leadership since I have been a UUP member (back back back to fall 1998). I am not personally aware of any consultation between the state-wide union and local chapter leadership, although since I have tried to keep my role as Senate Chair distinct from my role as UUP delegate, I have not participated actively in chapter Executive Board meetings or its listserv. All I know is what I saw at the Delegate Assembly in Albany at the start of the month, which was not encouraging: what appeared to be hastily-developed talking points and marching orders; a demonstration in support of our "friends" in the legislature barely attended by any of them; and an address by the recipient of the Friend of UUP award, Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick, in which she mostly focused on state revenue shortfalls and the difficulty of even mitigating the Governor's proposed cuts. Long story short: I didn't see any way to keep this discussion private and internal, or, to tell you the truth, much point to it. Rather than a stab in the back, my airing the resolution publicly, here at CitizenSE and on the floor of the Senate, was a full-frontal assault, not only on certain aspects of UUP's position, but, and more important, on all the players in Albany who are supposed to be representing public higher education, as well. (On which more later, here at CitizenSE.)

I'm willing to continue it on my campus or off with anyone who wants to discuss the fundamental issues involved and not simply reel off talking points. I'll just be doing it as a member of Fredonia's English Department, a Fredonia chapter UUP delegate, and UUP member, among the many other hats I wear. Phil Smith will be coming to Fredonia on March 24th, during the visit of the Middle States accreditation team. If he wants to be on a panel with me then, I'd be happy to have a public conversation with him. And if the Fredonia UUP chapter or Student Assembly wants to invite me to participate on a panel, I'd say "yes" in a heartbeat. If not, fine. I would just like to hear what the local UUP Executive Board or individuals on it think and what efforts they've made to take the temperature of their constituency. I consider many people on it my friends, and even when I disagree with some of them on some issues, I don't let it carry over to other issues. I'm genuinely curious how convincing they find the talking points of both UUP and SUNY.

The "Only a Fool Stands in the Middle of an Intersection" Argument

Perhaps a better title for this argument would be "Don't Get Caught in the Middle of a Pissing Contest." Several Senators argued that we ought to simply stay out of Albany politics altogether, particularly on matters that are, if I may paraphrase the sentiment from the room, "above our pay grade." Well, better to be a fool than a knave or a coward. We're not in the military and our state-wide leadership in Albany, in both the University Faculty Senate and UUP, are ultimately supposed to represent our values and our interests.

In any case, what's going on in NY isn't really an argument between Nancy Zimpher and Phil Smith, or the Governor and the Assembly, or any individuals or organizations. We don't have to choose one side over another and worry about the consequences of pissing off the other. This is about whether we ought to have a public higher education system in the State of New York and, if so, how best to support its mission, structurally and financially. It's about a whole mess of related issues, some of which which I've taken a stab at sorting out once or twice before (oh, all right, more often than that), and some of which I've been mulling over more recently. Better for us all to have it out now, when the NYS Legislature has a huge decision facing it, than to wait until we're on the verge of a budget meltdown, singularity, or apocalypse. We're not quite there yet, but the signs aren't good. Everyone leading SUNY right now had better get a handle on the scale of the problems facing us and start thinking much more creatively and collaboratively about how to solve them.

In the coming days and weeks, I'll be addressing the issues and problems from my own personal perspective. So please be active in comments, do posts of your own, and generally inform yourself and join in the discussion. Now is not the time to stick our heads in the sand and hope that this all goes away, nor is it the time to hunker down with tried and true stalling tactics. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Depending on the course of those conversations and events in Albany, I may or may not call another special Senate meeting or a stated faculty meeting so that we can have it out together at Fredonia. But probably a more constructive next step would be to work with my counterparts in UUP and the Student Assembly to see if they are interested in any public forums or private discussions on these matters.

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