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Credit: Kylie Cooper

The pandemic has proven that Penn is resilient, but it has also frayed the ties that bind the Penn community together. As a faculty member, I want to describe one challenge that I see, a problem masked by the pandemic to some extent, and propose a way to address it.

One issue that keeps coming up in my experience is that many fellow faculty members do not trust the administration. I obviously haven’t surveyed the whole faculty, but over the last eighteen months, I’ve encountered many colleagues who question whether the University has made the best decisions and do not fully believe what they are told in University communications. I am not saying that the skepticism is always justified, but it is often rooted in real experiences, and it is a challenge that the University ignores to its detriment.

Something else has become apparent to me as well, in part from attending meetings of a newly formed Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an organization established to defend the faculty’s role as part of the governance of the University. Listening to colleagues there and in other contexts made clear to me that the pandemic was magnifying a distrust that already existed within Penn’s culture.

If this sense of alienation predates the pandemic, what motivates it? One of its sources, I have come to realize, is a weak culture of faculty governance, of faculty sharing responsibility for University decision-making. Penn embraces a vision of shared governance, but in practice, faculty do not play a very active role compared to their counterparts at peer institutions. This is partly due to the fact that many faculty are overextended or disengaged, but it is also because of a governance structure that sharply curbs the faculty’s collective ability to shape the direction of the University.

A timely example of this weakened status is the faculty’s role in the search for the next University president. Here is the role of faculty in the search for a new president as envisioned in a joint statement by the AAUP, the American Council of Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges:

“Joint effort of a most critical kind must be taken when an institution chooses a new president. The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty…”

Times have changed since this statement was formulated in 1966, but the underlying principle has not, and today’s AAUP urges universities to avoid closed searches and reaffirm their commitment to transparency and active faculty engagement in the process.

Does the ongoing search for a new president of the University of Pennsylvania live up to this ideal?

Part of the process does. In accordance with University rules, the Faculty Senate, which represents faculty interests to the administration, has elected five representatives to a “consultative committee” which is charged with seeking the advice of their respective constituencies on the challenges that a new president will face. The members were elected, and there has been an opportunity to discuss search priorities within the Senate (guilty admission: I did not attend this meeting).

But look a little closer, and there are problems.

The first is not one that would have been on people’s minds during the last presidential search in 2003, but is now recognized as an issue that threatens the future of academia — the marginalization of the many teachers and researchers hired outside the tenure track system.

The Faculty Senate is not fully representative of Penn’s faculty. Membership is limited to tenured and tenure track faculty for the most part, and does not include many faculty employed outside the tenure track. That means excluding a large percentage of those who teach and work as researchers at Penn. These are people vital to the work of the University, and yet they have no representation in this process, even in theory.

The second issue occurs during the second, murkier part of the search process. Football games are won or lost based on what happens in the second half, and that is the part of this process where things go astray.

The consultative committee offers advice important for the opening stages of the search, but at a certain point, the committee is replaced by a specific search committee that actually selects the finalists who will be seriously considered for the role. There will only be two faculty members on that committee, and their identities are not being revealed. 

Are two faculty members adequate representation for the faculties of twelve schools — approximately 5,000 professors according to Penn’s website? Is it right to conceal their identities from the faculty they represent?

Contrast the current situation with the last presidential search in 2003, where the consultative committee, formed from an equal number of trustees and faculty, was the body to settle on three finalists. In 2003, it seems that there were faculty who complained about not being properly represented, but they had a bigger role in that process than faculty do in this one, and the rules of the search process were clearer as well. The difference between then and now mirrors the decline of faculty governance over the last few decades. Those who think faculty are important to the University should push back; this situation is not just an embarrassment for faculty but risks the health of the University.

I trust that the search will yield a world-class president for Penn as it did the last time, but the lack of full representation for contingent faculty, the shrinking faculty role in the process, and the procedural opacity are important to attend to regardless of the outcome of the search. One reason for faculty to be more fully involved in University governance is that they are supposed to serve as a check and balance on the administration and trustees. Further curtailing the role of faculty in the search process reinforces the impression that they are being cut out of shared governance, which further lowers morale and elevates mistrust. 

Which brings me to my proposal. The presidential search itself is an opportunity to begin to reverse the erosion of faculty governance by engaging faculty more fully in the process than has been the case in the past. One possibility, maybe not the optimal one but far better than the status quo, is to return to the level of faculty involvement during the last presidential search, which concluded successfully. At that time, it was a rule that there had to be an equal number of faculty and trustees on the committee that performed most of the vetting of candidates. What’s wrong with doing things that way? 

Perhaps the reality of recruiting the best applicants requires the secretive process now underway, but it is precisely for that reason that it is important that all the major stake-holders feel they are being adequately represented in the process. More fully involving faculty in decision-making may lead to a wiser decision and will help the future president build a strong relationship with faculty, and it will also represent an important gesture of trust from the University that will encourage faculty to be more trusting in turn. 

I want a new president who recognizes faculty morale and faculty partnership in University governance as priorities, but the University does not have to wait for that role to be filled to begin strengthening trust, and the present calls for an even greater degree of faculty engagement than may have been the case in the past. Penn is a great university on track to survive the pandemic, but it has the potential to be an even stronger institution after the pandemic if it addresses festering problems — including faculty morale that is lower than it should be, a widespread sense of disempowerment, and suspicion of the administration. I submit that the more trusted and empowered its faculty feel, the stronger Penn will be in the post-pandemic age.

STEVEN WEITZMAN is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages in the Religious Studies Department. His email is