Representing the faculty voice at Penn

Since 1952, the Faculty Senate has served as a liaison to University administrators and an advocate for the faculty’s point-of-view.
As the representative voice for every member of the standing faculty from all 12 schools—all 2,600 individuals—it is comprised of an executive committee and nine standing committees. In the standing committees, members address issues such as academic freedom and responsibility; the economic status of the faculty; faculty development, diversity, and equity; and students and educational policy, among other topics.
Santosh Venkatesh, the chair-elect of the Senate and professor of electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, says the work of the Faculty Senate is akin to the innerworkings of a car engine—crucial, though not always visible.
“If you think something should be done, one doesn’t really know where to turn to,” he says. “The idea is, there is a structure that allows you to air issues and there’s a structure to say where in the scheme of importance [the issues] are.
Venkatesh, along with Chair Laura Perna and Past Chair Reed Pyeritz, serves as the leadership of the Senate Executive Committee. The three elected members hold regular talks with Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price; review changes in formal policy; and explore issues of interest to the executive committee leadership. In addition, Venkatesh, Perna, and Pyeritz serve on standing committees and sit on the University Council steering committee.
The time commitment is significant—as is the number of meetings, says Perna—but the opportunity to serve Penn and advocate for a faculty point-of-view is meaningful.
“Serving in this role helps to build understanding of how this university works,” says Perna, the James S. Riepe Professor in the Graduate School of Education. “The faculty are part of this community. You can’t criticize a place if you don’t put anything back into it, if you don’t try to figure out how to make it work better. And, it is possible to make a difference.”
Just last year, in fact, a standing committee identified an issue with the University’s patent policy that led to a change. Pyeritz, a professor of medicine and genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine, says another committee reviewed the schools’ conflict-of-interest policies, and discussed differences among them with the deans and senior administrators.
While most committees have specific charges that remain constant from year to year, certain timely issues do bubble up. Perna says the March of Solidarity, held in mid-November to support students who were targeted with racist GroupMe messages, was a different approach by the Faculty Senate.
“It was important for us as a faculty to take a stand on and make visible our support for black Penn students, faculty, and staff,” Perna says. “So much of what happens as part of university life happens in the classroom and with faculty. We, as faculty, have critical roles and responsibilities. We are now thinking about what’s next—we passed a statement, we had the march—what is the role of faculty in continuing to address important issues of diversity and inclusion on our campus?”
Perna notes that one committee’s work—the Senate Committee on Economic Status of the Faculty—helps faculty know if they’re being paid fairly. That committee’s findings are published each year in The Almanac.
“There’s a clear charge and significant role for that committee at a private institution,” she says. “I was at a public institution before I came here. There, you could look up [salaries] in the student newspaper—people knew exactly how much everybody else was paid. Here, at a private institution, we don’t have access to that information. Not all private institutions have a committee like this one.”
Indeed, the very structure of the Faculty Senate is unlike other faculty governing bodies at peer institutions, says Pyeritz.
“One of my ideas when I was the upcoming chair was to form a discussion group with the faculty senate chairs of all of the other peer schools, particularly Ivy League schools,” he says. “That was something that turned out to be impossible because very few of these other schools had anything resembling the Faculty Senate at Penn.”
The structure of Senate leadership encourages collaboration and ensures consistency. The upcoming chair can prepare and learn for a year before assuming the position of chair—and the senate executive committee also retains the institutional memory from the past-chair.
“It’s really helpful to have the year as chair-elect to learn, to observe, to get to know many of the players, to think about the things that the Faculty Senate is involved in, can be involved in, should be involved in,” Perna says.
Venkatesh adds, “You don’t forget things, things don’t just disappear. If you just had a change of chairs without this continuity, then ideas would disappear.”
The tri-chairs say they welcome more volunteers; some commitments can be as small as 10 hours a year.
“We spend a lot of time trying to identify people to serve on different committees and we are intentional about making sure that there’s cross-school representation and diversity,” Perna says. “This type of service is a great way to meet people from across the University.”