Professors in the Legislature
The most direct and dramatic way to make faculty views prevail in state government, where most of the funding and policy for higher education originates, is to elect faculty to the legislature. The United Faculty of Florida (UFF) recognized this when we helped elect three of our members to the Florida House of Representatives in November. We already have one member in the state senate and we plan to send another to the senate in 2010. (See December Advocate page 4.)
This makes a critical difference in what kind of debate legislators hear before they vote. When I testify in education hearings, speaking for the 20,000 faculty the UFF represents in the state, I am given three minutes to make arguments. I make a series of bullet points, tell a story to illustrate the argument, and drive home the conclusion. Sometimes there are questions that give me time to expand on my testimony. Sometimes the process gets enough media attention to dramatize the issue—but not always.
The dynamic is different when a faculty member sits on the committee taking testimony. This legislator will comment on what I have said, illustrate the truth of it from personal experience in higher education, and finish with a question directed to me that draws other legislators into the debate. Because of an unwritten protocol that legislators defer to the experience of other legislators when discussing issues, legislators pay attention to what is said.
Suddenly the testimony a faculty member gives becomes a live issue debated by legislators, and they often want to know more details from me before making their decision. In part, this is because they see the press suddenly focusing on the “live” issue, too. It becomes a real debate, not just an exercise. They understand that the fate of faculty and students hangs in the balance. If a student testifies too, it reinforces the message and stimulates students to contact legislators.
Let me be clear: this may not mean more money for higher education. But if there is a bill that will cause damage to higher education or the faculty, the extended testimony and coverage of the issue can create problems for the bill’s sponsor, which means it will not come to a vote on the floor.
In the last legislative session, this is how we stopped a bill that would have stripped the Board of Governors of policymaking authority and given that authority to legislators, who could have created any policies they wanted to for the state’s universities.
-Tom Auxter is a philosophy professor at the University of Florida and president of United Faculty of Florida (NEA/AFT), representing 20,000 faculty members at 11 universities and eight community colleges. Contact him at email@example.com.