Auburn's University Senate
Most public universities have some form of faculty senate or council which shares in the governance of the university. Indeed, it is a bedrock principle of American governance that an elected legislative assembly shares power with the executive. We see this structure in all levels of government, whether federal, state, or local. A properly formed faculty senate can provide a critical check on the otherwise unconstrained power of appointed administrators. Unfortunately for Lee County and the State of Alabama, Auburn University lacks a true “Faculty” Senate, instead making do with a “University” Senate, a hybrid body that strangely includes administrators as members. Are we to actually believe that powerful administrators at Auburn somehow lack a voice in terms of governing the institution?
Auburn’s University Senate is specifically designed to limit any form of real shared governance with the faculty. The University Senate constitution states that it is “an organization representing the University Faculty and OTHER members of the University community.” In typical Auburn fashion, these OTHER members include nine administrators (deans and vice presidents) appointed by the President. Even the committee charged with determining the agenda of the Senate (the “Steering Committee”) contains direct Presidential appointees and the Provost. Naturally, regular faculty members can be easily intimidated by administrators, but this, it seems, is not enough: the enormous power the administration has over the careers and livelihoods of the faculty representatives in the University Senate is insufficient, and faculty independence must be limited further by packing the Senate with administrators. Further, the Senate (by construction) is merely advisory to the President, so any Senate outcomes the administration does not agree with can be summarily rejected, regardless of the strength or breadth of support. There are even examples of the administration failing to hold legitimate elections for faculty senators to stack the Senate with compliant individuals.
By its very design, the University Senate facilitates an administration that is unaccountable for both its abuses of power and its lapses in performance. This sorry history has discouraged many sincere faculty members from ever serving in the Senate. On the other hand, faculty members wishing to curry favor with the administration have a powerful incentive to be involved in the Senate, which regularly offers them opportunities to express unqualified public support for administration policies. As a result, it is common for less than 25% of the faculty to even bother voting in elections that determine Senate “leadership.” Unsurprisingly, numerous Chairs of the University Senate have acted as direct agents for the administration, advancing the leadership’s agenda and helping to silence any dissent. There are significant rewards for those willing to do Samford Hall’ bidding, regardless of any resulting harms to the students, the University, and the broader community.
The past four years have exemplified the fundamental nature of Auburn’s University Senate as a corrupted body that protects the administration and silences dissent. The Senate Chair is (supposedly) constitutionally bound to conduct meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order, and frequently announces at the start of Senate sessions that those procedures will be followed. Senate meetings typically begin with unscripted remarks by the University President and the Provost. Even though Robert’s Rules requires all members to be treated equally, these administrators are allowed to speak freely about whatever topics they wish, and they direct speaking privileges to others without being recognized by the Chair. However, when the floor is opened to others, recent Senate Chairs have interfered with their ability to speak or ask questions if such speech or questioning embarrasses the administration. This interference is either patently inconsistent with Robert’s Rules, or else the rules are selectively applied to silence dissent. In contrast, members of the administration and compliant faculty are generally allowed to speak freely and violate Robert’s Rules whenever they wish.
A recent episode illustrates the depth of the problem. In their opening remarks at the August, 2021 meeting, both the President and the Provost discussed faculty raises. A faculty member with extensive knowledge concerning raises at Auburn University was later recognized to speak. That faculty member’s remarks and questioning of the President and Provost quickly disclosed that secret pools of money were being set aside in the Provost’s office to reward favored individuals in violation of the published raise guidelines shown to the Board of Trustees. Depressingly, as that faculty member was drawing public attention to highly dubious raise schemes, the Chair abruptly declared that the faculty member had exceeded the ten minute time limit allowed to speakers. That claim was easily proven to be false as the tape recording of the meeting showed the speaker had used only HALF his time.
This incident is hardly unique: the “leadership” of the Senate has strong incentive to protect the administration in return for favors. Consistent with the Auburn tradition of zero accountability for those in positions of power, the Senate constitution specifies no mechanism whereby the Senate Chair can be impeached or removed for misconduct or betrayal of office. The incentives to curry administrative favor and silence dissenting faculty speech are purposely quite substantial, with examples of rewarded loyalty easy to find. It is no surprise that one former Senate Chair subsequently became a lavishly paid Associate Athletics Director. In October, 2018, a faculty member was recognized to speak towards the end of the Senate meeting. He proceeded to criticize (former) President Leath for frequently failing to show up at Senate meetings and called for reform of the Senate constitution to allow for the impeachment of Senate officers. The Senate Chair responded by angrily instructing that faculty member to “get away from the mic.” Violating Robert’s Rules, the Faculty Handbook, and the first amendment to silence dissenting speech has unfortunately become a tradition at Auburn University, much like putting toilet paper on oak trees.
The good citizens of Lee County who don’t work or attend classes on campus might wonder why they should concern themselves with the governance practices of Auburn University. There are several reasons. First, the University represents a significant fraction of Lee County’s economy. The dysfunctional and corrupt governance of the University frequently results in serious waste such as the $4.5 million payoff of former President Steven Leath, or the nearly $20 million renovation of the President’s mansion on campus. Second, the University is interconnected with both the local and state governments. It is no surprise that Mike Hubbard, the disgraced former Speaker of the Alabama House, was closely associated with Auburn University and several AU Trustees. Indeed, Mike Hubbard got his start in the Athletics Department of Auburn University. Citizens of Lee County who are troubled by the way Mike Hubbard conducted himself in high state office (conduct that resulted in multiple felony convictions) should ask themselves where he got his training in government ethics.