01/28/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Only in California: The Academic Senate Filibuster

The Academic Senate at El Camino College, near Los Angeles, couldn't take feeling slighted any longer. Over the objections of the Senate, the community college's vice president had eliminated the study-abroad program to address budget shortfalls. He'd also cut out winter session online classes. To add insult to injury, some of the snubs had no fiscal angle: the president, asserting that the appropriate process was not followed, revoked the designated parking place for the winner of the annual Outstanding Adjunct Faculty award.

At the top of these faculty leaders' Spring 2012 list of slights was the board of trustees decision, 10 years before, to revise the college's governance handbook, Participation in Local Decision Making, in a way that they felt "disempowers the Senate." To dramatize the continued seriousness of their protest the senators adopted a Resolution of No Confidence, a term used by faculty committees when they want to send the strongest possible message. According to the senators the disagreements over the Senate's role have caused "unnecessary delays, wasted time and resources." They noted that straightforward tasks such as writing policies on the use of copyrighted materials and use of the computer network are undergoing "years of revision and consultation" before being finalized.

Here is what the faculty senators are upset about. They want it to be clear that trustees and administrators "cannot independently override a recommendation of the Senate." They insist that any time the board of trustees disagrees with the academic senate's view on any of 10 broad topics including budget and planning processes, "representatives of the two bodies shall have the obligation to meet and reach mutual agreement." Reach mutual agreement. In other words, while students, staff, faculty and community members have the right to be heard, the academic senate gets veto power.

Before I started looking into this issue I would have assumed that the awkward term "collegial consultation" meant to respectfully seek input. Indeed, to be effective a campus leader must communicate with campus constituencies, especially faculty, before making major decisions. In the 112 California community colleges, regulations require trustees and administrators to "consult collegially" using a meaning not found in a dictionary. They must either follow the lead of the academic senate ("rely primarily") or give the senate a veto power ("mutual agreement"). So while the El Camino senators' decade-long insistence on "faculty primacy" may seem like an unreasonable demand, their righteousness is buttressed by the regulations: they are demanding adherence to the Byzantine procedures spelled out by the statewide Board of Governors in 1990.

The claim to legal authority doesn't end there, however. Presidents and trustees can point to a different source of the law: the statutes as enacted by the state legislature. They make makes it very clear that the governing boards and their appointees are responsible for... well, governing, as the name implies. The boards must hear from students, staff and faculty, and they may defer to administrators and to academic senates. But they defer at their discretion: no one has equal authority and no one has primacy; ultimately the buck stops with the governing boards.

It should perhaps be no surprise that the conflict between the Academic Senate's role as described in statute and regulations has created confusion. But it is worse than that. The conflict essentially creates dueling governing boards vying for power, for "primacy" in decision-making. Intended as an assurance that the academic senate would be given due respect, the regulations have served instead as an invitation for obstinacy, leading to paralysis and dysfunction at colleges across the state.

No wonder student needs are not being adequately addressed.

In early December California Competes, which I direct, filed a legal challenge with the statewide Board of Governors, seeking changes to the regulations to end the procedural gridlock at El Camino and other community colleges. Our suggested revisions would require trustees and administrators to get input from students, faculty and staff, and to explain any difference of opinion with senates on issues of curriculum and academic standards. State Chancellor Brice Harris is expected to give an initial answer by the end of January, followed by a 45-day comment period. Over the coming weeks California Competes will be posting more descriptions of the damage that the regulations have caused to students and to the state.