Michael Bérubé’s Opening Remarks-September 18, 2018

Last April, when Matthew handed me the reins, and the gavel, in what was mostly a peaceful transfer of power, I made some brief remarks, during which I referenced a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the sorry state of many faculty senates in American higher education. Because it was 5:30 in the afternoon, only about fifteen people heard my remarks, though I want to thank Provost Jones personally for sticking it out to the bitter end. This is the article I mentioned. I urge all of you to read it, because if you do, I think you’ll have greater appreciation of what we have managed to do in this body over the past few years. There are plenty of Faculty Senates around the country that are rudderless, and plenty of faculty senators at other institutions who worry that they are ineffectual. I am very happy to report that at Penn State, we don’t have that problem.

Last year we worked on two critically important university policies, and I want to report back to you on them in order to close the loop. In both cases, our input was substantial. The first of these is policy AC80, “Private Consulting Practice.” Many of you will recall that our contact for this was Clint Schmidt, Director of the Conflict of Interest Program in the Office for Research Protections, housed in the office of the Vice President for Research, Neil Sharkey. Now, if you’re in the humanities, as I am (my degree is in English), you might think that this policy doesn’t pertain to you. At first, I thought it was directed only at those STEM faculty who are always off patenting things and creating new startup companies or consulting with major corporations. Actually, AC80 pertains also to anyone who might be offered a short-term visiting scholar gig at another university, as has happened to me twice—for six weeks at Cornell University in the summer of 2013, and for four weeks at Cornell College in Iowa in the summer of 2011. (For some reason I am really popular at places called Cornell.) AC80 does not prohibit such activities; it merely requires me to report them to my department head. In some cases, your activities in private consulting will require approval; and in some cases, cases involving conflict of interest with your responsibilities as a Penn State faculty member, they will be prohibited.

When the policy was revised two years ago, Clint Schmidt and his office understood the new policy as a liberalization of the old policy—permitting a greater variety of activities, and streamlining the process for prior written approval. But when it came to Senate, we read it over and came to the conclusion that there were grey areas that needed further clarification; we worried that some language in the policy might be read as giving Penn State jurisdiction over every waking hour of a professor’s life and some of our REM sleep as well. That was an overreaction, but we were doing our due diligence—and most important, to my mind, we objected that there was no appeals process built into the policy. If you thought your activities were X, but your department head determined that they were Y, where do you go to resolve the disagreement? Do you go to the next highest administrative level? That seemed to us to be suboptimal, since you’re putting one administrator in the position of potentially contradicting or undermining another administrator. We suggested instead a horizontal appeal system, whereby disputes would be resolved by the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, which includes representatives from both faculty and administration. I am happy to report that, working together with Clint Schmidt’s office, we hammered out these differences with care and thoughtfulness, and the result, we think, is a much better policy. We worked on this for two years, and it is the work of many hands.

The other policy was AD92, “Political Campaign Activities,” and it came from the office of the general counsel. The timing was unfortunate—it was announced a few weeks before the election of 2016, and came as a surprise to many faculty. The policy states: “It is the University’s policy that it, and its employees and representatives, when acting in their official capacities for the University, may not, directly or indirectly, participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office.” Well, first of all, we wanted to know, what constitutes indirect participation or intervention in a campaign?

In 2008, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced a policy forbidding political bumper stickers on the cars in faculty parking lots. Seriously. Apparently, some local wingnuts had the ear of UIUC administrators, and were able to convince them to enact this ban, presumably on the grounds that professors are all flaming liberals and their bumper stickers have magical powers to indoctrinate students. The policy lasted all of fifteen minutes after being reported on in Inside Higher Ed, whereupon it was immediately ridiculed out of existence. We didn’t think that AD92 was anything like the Illinois policy, but still, we wanted to know: would policy AD92 prevent faculty from canvassing door-to-door for a candidate? Would it prevent us from discussing the election in a political science classroom? Would it prevent a unit from showing a film on climate change?

Now, most of the policy was boilerplate, and would pertain to any nonprofit institution. Don’t use University resources—letterhead, email, computers—if you are working for a campaign or for an elected official. If you are involved in a campaign, make it as clear as possible that you are acting as a private citizen and not as a representative of the university. Basic, right? But the Senate leadership asked for a meeting with the general counsel and his staff so that we could talk through the gray areas. At first, they were puzzled, and wondered what part of compliance with federal law we were objecting to. But we convinced them that the gray areas are gray. We’re not wage employees; nobody knows when a professor is off the clock. And though you may be thinking you’re acting as a private citizen, what if a campaign or an elected official solicits your advice because of your scholarly expertise? Part of your authority as an expert, after all, would derive from the fact that you are a professor at Penn State.

And then there is some ambiguity about what it means to use University resources. The policy forbids the use of University facilities for any political event, and the term “political event” “includes any event that has the purpose or primary effect of promoting the election of a particular political candidate.” Well, we argued, it’s one thing if an event has the purpose of promoting somebody’s election. But who determines if the event has the “primary effect” of doing so? That clause, I argued, opens the door to all kinds of mischief, whereby someone could complain about events devoted to the subject of climate change. Here, too, consultation with the Faculty Senate produced a better policy, one tailored more specifically to the realities of our workplace, and one that emphatically reaffirms the principles of academic freedom enunciated in policy AC64 (which I strongly recommend you revisit).

Now, I don’t have time to go into the grainy details of our discussions, but I do want to make two important announcements, because we are about to head into what could be a consequential election cycle this fall. One: in response to our request for further guidance, the office of the general counsel has given us a series of examples of permitted and prohibited political campaign activities. That is available on the Senate website at http://sites.psu.edu/facultysenate/faculty/examples-of-permissible-and-prohibited-political-campaign-activity/. Two: in our October meeting, assistant general counsel Zahraa Zalzala will join us to discuss this policy and take your questions. Between now and then, I urge you to read this document, distribute it widely in your college or campus, reread AC64, and bring your questions and concerns in October.

Those are just two examples of how the Senate has strengthened the practice of shared governance at Penn State, but they are important ones. I look forward to working with all of you over the coming year and continuing the critical work we are doing in Faculty Senate.