November 23, 2014

SKORTON | The Role of Shared Governance in Changing Times

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As most Cornell Daily Sun readers know, our university is experiencing several significant transitions in leadership over the next several months. In such times of transition — which are full of excitement and promise, but can also be unsettling — Cornell’s shared governance groups take on even greater importance. They represent the concerns of their constituents in a process of consultation and deliberation that goes beyond the term of any university administration, working collectively to identify, communicate and resolve issues.

Our current shared governance groups grew out of student unrest in the late 1960s and 1970s, which led to the creation of a 132-member University Senate. After two studies of campus governance and a community-wide referendum on alternatives to the University Senate, the Board of Trustees in 1981 approved the charters of the Employee Assembly, Faculty Senate, Student Assembly and University Assembly; the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly received trustee approval in 1993.  In addition, two students, two faculty members and one employee, elected by their constituents, serve as full voting members of the Board of Trustees.

Today, shared governance remains an important way for members of our university community to participate in decision-making processes with senior administrators and with the Board of Trustees as well as the Weill Cornell Medical College Board of Overseers. During my time at Cornell, I have attended 83 meetings of the shared governance groups supported by the Office of Assemblies and reviewed or responded to 743 of their resolutions.

Here are just a few of the many issues of importance to our campus communities on which the assemblies have deliberated and had significant input during my time at Cornell:

I realize that some in our community question the legitimacy of shared governance on the Ithaca campus, as was the case in relation to the Student Assembly last semester. It is worth remembering, though, that the constituencies served by each shared governance group have the opportunity to select those who will represent them. These constituencies have the power to influence the composition of these bodies by familiarizing themselves with those running for office and then exercising their right to vote.

In a recent Cornell Daily Sun editorial, there was a call for me “to reach beyond the structure of the shared governance bodies and engage with the student body itself to generate potential new priorities to focus on and to communicate the administration’s agenda.”

I agree: Everyone’s opinion is important in our community. For that reason, I have continued a tradition started by Vice President Susan Murphy ’73 Ph.D. ’94 of meeting regularly with elected student leaders in and beyond the Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, including representatives of M.D. and Ph.D. students at Weill Cornell Medical College. In addition, I hold regular, publicly advertised office hours open to the first 10 students who sign up and share my private email address with students. Representatives from the faculty, staff and student body also are serving on the search committees to find successors for Provost Fuchs and Vice President Murphy.

Shared governance provides processes — to elect representation, to voice dissent and approval; to hear and be heard; and to foster change as times and circumstances require. I invite all members of our campus communities to use this time of change as an opportunity to clarify and confirm the “shared” parts of shared governance, to consider running for election to one of these groups, and when you receive a ballot next semester to cast your vote.