UF faculty want meaningful input in effort to be in top 10

by Susan HegemanPresident, UFF-UF
Special to the Gainesville Sun, Thursday, May 29, 2014

The editors of the Gainesville Sun got a lot right in their May 13 editorial, “Rising Together.” The Sun addressed the disparity between the good news—the University of Florida’s “pre-eminent” designation and its efforts to break into the top ten of public universities nationwide—and the apparent widespread discontent among current faculty. Citing data from the United Faculty of Florida’s 2014 UF Climate Survey, the Sun concluded that stagnant faculty salaries were at the heart of faculty dissatisfaction. But a closer look at the Climate Survey results reveals a more complex story.

Certainly, faculty who, as the Sun says, “stuck with the university through five years of cuts” are concerned that their salaries lag behind those at peer institutions. But the Climate Survey found that as many as 75% of responding faculty agree with the statement, “I would leave UF if I were offered a comparable job elsewhere and personal factors did not keep me here.” Lagging salaries alone cannot explain this.

For the second year in a row, the survey found significant levels of discontent across colleges and on a wide variety of topics. While the survey results suggest that most faculty feel able to exercise academic freedom in the classroom and in their research, a large majority also feel that their input into decisions and operations of their colleges and UF is not meaningfully incorporated; that they are not given the information needed for effective participation in these functions; that the administration does not clearly communicate its decisions about strategic direction, policies, and actions; that the allocation of resources is not well balanced between administrative needs and faculty needs; that there is no climate of accountability for administrators; that the working climate between UF faculty and administrators is not healthy; and that they do not have confidence in administrators’ decisions setting the future course of UF and its colleges.

Given these diverse concerns among a sizable portion of the faculty (the response rate in several large colleges was around 40%), I would argue that what is really behind faculty dissatisfaction is concern over their role in UF’s plans to achieve prominence.

No doubt, many workers elsewhere can relate to feeling shut out of important decisions, but this is a particularly troubling issue at a university that claims to adhere to “shared governance.” In a shared-governance model, administrators and faculty meaningfully share responsibilities for the running of the university. But because faculty are the experts within their particular disciplines, there are certain areas in which faculty participation is especially important: setting the curriculum and standards for degrees, defining research agendas and evaluating research outcomes, and selecting and evaluating professional peers. The dissatisfaction registered by the Climate Survey may reflect the faculty’s perception that our key role in the governance of the university has been seriously eroded. There is concern, for example, that the hiring being done as part of “UF Rising” is being conducted without the appropriate faculty consultation. Similarly, faculty are concerned about UF’s quick movement into online courses and its implications for faculty oversight of teaching and the curriculum. Indeed, as faculty have seen core departments decimated by retirements and departures for other universities, many are concerned that the university is being reshaped not only unguided by the faculty’s knowledge and experience, but haphazardly: in response to fads, donor interests, or the pursuit of new funding streams.

I applaud the Sun’s view that all of UF’s employees, current and incoming, need to “Rise Together.” I especially commend the Sun for noting that graduate student employees, who teach more than 50% of the classes at UF, need better pay and relief from student fees. But I would also suggest that there will not be much to “UF Rising” beyond empty rhetoric if the effort is not built upon the faculty’s meaningful participation in the governance of the university.