Faculty Senate to tackle full slate of topics for 2013-14

As a new academic year begins, so does the work of a select group of faculty charged with addressing university issues and helping to plan for Vanderbilt’s future.

The Faculty Senate, the representative and deliberative body of Vanderbilt’s faculties, comprises 60 elected senators from across the university and medical center, the deans of the colleges and schools and several ex officio members, including Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos.

Faculty Senate Chair Donald Brady (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

The senate has no legislative powers; rather, its duty is to investigate and give measured discussion to the concerns and issues brought before it by fellow faculty members or administrators. Based on these efforts, the senate compiles reports and makes recommendations that help shape policy going forward.

The senate’s power lies in its ability to shine a light on a particular issue and advocate for or against it to Vanderbilt’s decision-makers, said Andrea Hewitt, program coordinator for the Faculty Senate.

Some results of the senate’s work include Vanderbilt’s adoption in 2000 of a policy extending benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of its employees, a measure designed to help recruit and retain top faculty and staff. In 2004 and 2005, the senate debated Vanderbilt’s long-standing ban on classified research and how it relates to the university’s expressed mission to disseminate knowledge. In 2012, the senate issued a report outlining ways the university could better implement and communicate its honor system to students.

Last year, the senate collaborated on an effort to increase the availability of lactation spaces for breastfeeding mothers on campus. The initiative originated with the University Staff Advisory Council, which brought it to the senate to garner faculty support and help advance it among the administration.

“The issue wasn’t necessarily on our radar, but the University Staff Council came to us in part because of our access to higher administrators,” said Donald Brady, current chair of the Faculty Senate and associate dean for graduate medical education.

“The lactation room initiative is a great example of how the senate can simply partner with others on campus to discuss issues and offer support,” added Jeff Johnston, senate vice chair and Stevenson Professor of Chemistry. “Within about six months, it was an approved project.”

Faculty Senate Vice Chair Jeff Johnston (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Brady and Johnston are one-third of the Faculty Senate’s six-member Executive Committee for 2013-14. The other members are Chair-elect Paul Lim and Vice Chair-elect Rolanda Johnson, and Immediate Past Chair Sal March and Immediate Past Vice Chair Lillian Nanney.

“These six provide wonderful continuity for the senate,” Hewitt said. “You have the chair and vice chair from last year who are mentoring the ones from this year, who in turn are mentoring those coming up behind them.” This team meets weekly throughout the academic year to plan and discuss senate business.

The Executive Committee meets monthly with Zeppos as well as Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Jeff Balser and Provost Richard McCarty. “They really have the ears of the upper administrators, but it’s a two-way street,” Hewitt said. “Those administrators also have their ears.”

The full senate convenes monthly throughout the academic year. Senators serve three-year terms and may serve two consecutive terms before rotating off. After sitting out a term, faculty may be re-elected to the senate.

Each senator serves on one of six standing committees: Academic Policies and Services, Faculty Life, Senate Affairs, Student Life, Strategic Planning and Academic Freedom, and Grievances, which examines faculty grievances of a non-tenure nature. Standing committees are charged with taking on topics for a year at a time. When those topics require deeper examination, the senate will appoint a task force, which may convene for multiple years and include faculty outside of the senate as well as staff and students.

Former senator Mary Yarbrough, associate professor of medicine and executive director of Vanderbilt’s Faculty-Staff Health and Wellness program, served as chair for the two-year Student Alcohol and Prescription Drug Use Task Force, which issued recommendations for creating a culture of safety with regard to alcohol and drug consumption among students. The task force included faculty from across campus, students and staff from Student Life, Student Health, the Vanderbilt police department and VUMC’s emergency department.

The senate’s newest committee, Strategic Planning and Academic Freedom, spent last year looking at issues surrounding the burgeoning world of online education. For 2013-14, online education will get its own task force.

“[lquote]This will be one of the big stories that continues to evolve over the coming year—where Vanderbilt is going with Coursera, MOOCs and other aspects of online education,” Brady said.[/lquote] “Faculty have concerns about granting credit for courses, granting degrees based on online credit, intellectual property rights and more.

“We’re appointing a task force to really look at online education from the faculty’s perspective, and partnering with Doug Fisher, director of Vanderbilt’s new Institute for Digital Learning, and the administration to address the issue as a whole.”

Another area of ongoing concern is how Vanderbilt is responding to outside pressures on federal funding and medical reimbursements.

“The senate has the ability to engage in an ongoing conversation—to reflect faculty concerns about these issues, as well as hear back from the administration on how they’re dealing with them and what their thinking is,” Brady said.

The Faculty Senate strives for diversity among its ranks in terms of academic discipline, school representation, gender and race. The senate’s bylaws require that each year’s chair and vice chair represent different schools.

“I think one of the most exciting things about the coming year is the composition of the senate, especially the Executive Committee. If you look at that group, it’s diverse in probably every way,” Johnston said. That diversity is valuable in terms of perspective, problem solving, leadership and more, he said.

Members of the Faculty Senate say they get something significant in return for their service: the opportunity to interact with academic colleagues from different departments and schools, insight on the issues and challenges they face, and a better understanding of how the university works.

“The senate is one place where all of these folks can come together,” said Hewitt, whose primary duty as program coordinator is to serve as the institutional memory of the senate as it tackles issues from year to year.

“One thing I enjoy most about this job is getting to work with these truly amazing university citizens, who give so much of their time and energy to making Vanderbilt a better place.”

The Faculty Senate welcomes questions and input from all of its constituents. Click here for a list of 2013-14 senators organized by school.

For more information about the senate, contact