Faculty Senate will work to boost transparency, access to information

Professor Paul Horwitz | Guest Columnist

Yesterday the University’s Faculty Senate held its opening meeting for the 2014-15 academic year. Last year’s events – most prominently, controversies over racial segregation on campus and misdeeds in the municipal election off campus, as well as questions about the administration of the student government elections – made it a busy one for the Senate. This year, two issues should dominate our work.

The Faculty Senate has two important jobs. The first is the “routine” work of communication between the faculty and the administration on matters of daily importance in university life, such as information technology, building plans, safety issues and parking (especially parking!).

Beyond those important but routine matters, the Faculty Senate has another essential job. It is a key voice on matters of central concern to the University. It monitors what the administration is doing on those issues, urges further action and demands – sometimes loudly – that the University get out in front on those issues rather than lagging behind.

The issues at the top of the Senate’s agenda this year should not be controversial. To all sensible people, they are not. But they are important, long-standing issues; they demand uncomfortable discussions; and they will require a great deal of commitment and force of will to achieve progress. The Senate will be a loud voice on both issues.

The first is the continuing effort to make our campus – especially its oldest and largest Greek houses – truly transparent and non-discriminatory. The Senate and the administration were prominently involved in those issues last year. 

But the real leaders were the students themselves. From those sorority members who urged a more diverse membership despite the interference of foolish adults, to the members who went public with their concerns, to the many who marched on campus last fall. Not all students acted so commendably: some of the students who spoke out were shunned by others in the Greek system, and Snapchat suggests that others have a lot to learn. Still, the most important changes on campus last year came from the students: not from President Bonner, and not from the Faculty Senate either.

The news from this year’s sorority rush suggests continued progress, but there is still much to be done. The Faculty Senate will continue to be active. It must encourage the work of the Task Force appointed last year to address these issues, promote public discussion of those issues and demand that the administration swiftly implement any needed reforms.

We must demand hard numbers, not just soft statements. In particular, the question of the Old Row fraternities is very much a live issue. Both the fraternities and the administration have been remarkably silent about this. We will expect real data showing progress by the fraternities, a fair and open selection process, and public leadership rather than back-room compromises.

Nor have we forgotten that both the segregation issue and the controversy over election fraud on and off campus are intertwined with the so-called “Machine,” which has done great damage to this university. On this issue, too, we expect leadership and action. Secret societies breed corruption and discrimination. The Machine should grow up and go public, or go away. The administration and the Senate will demand just that.

Another issue has risen to the top of the University agenda nationwide in the past year – campus sexual assault. It is now a top priority for the federal Department of Education. Many universities have made a strong commitment to openness and change in addressing it. Others have remained silent – and a few have been exposed as having failed to protect their own students from this terrible crime. The University of Alabama is not on the list of the worst offenders, but there is a lot of room for improvement in educating and protecting our students.

What we need, first and foremost, is more information and public discussion. The Senate should work to make sure that the University carefully collects and distributes all available information about sexual assault at the Capstone: information about how, where and why it happens. It should find out whether those numbers are comprehensive or incomplete, where the worst problems occur on campus and demand action and leadership. You should expect to hear a lot about this issue this year.

There are many other issues, large and small, that we can expect the Faculty Senate to address this year. But if we were to focus only on these two issues, and achieve continued public discussion and perhaps reform, it would be a good year.

Paul Horwitz is a Gordon Rosen Professor at the School of Law and a member of the Faculty Senate.

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