The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday October 18th

Op-ed: Secretary of the Faculty holds too much power

Last week, The Daily Tar Heel reported that every person to fill the office of Secretary of the Faculty since its genesis in 1823 has been a white man.

This should not come as a surprise. New men have taken the office only six times since 1969, an average of once every 10 years, and only once since 1996. It stands to regrettable reason that the office would be a lagging indicator of the faculty’s diversity.

What might startle us, though, is the scope of the office’s power and the way the Secretary is chosen.

The Faculty Code gives duties to the office of the Secretary that are, well, secretarial. The office keeps minutes of various meetings. It maintains files of nominations for honorary degrees and other awards. It keeps records of the charge and personnel of faculty governance committees. It handles faculty governance elections. 

Though the Code doesn’t mention this, the Secretary has also assumed the role of parliamentarian in the bodies on which he sits, explaining and enforcing Robert’s Rules of Order.

This account doesn’t begin to capture the office’s true reach. According to the Faculty Code, the Secretary of the Faculty also:

  • Sits on the Advisory Committee, the body that advises the Chancellor.
  • Sits on the Faculty Executive Committee, a body to which the Code gives broad powers to consult and act on issues important to the University’s mission, as well as the specific power to act in certain situations when the full Faculty Council can’t meet.
  • Sits on and chairs the Agenda Committee, which determines what the Faculty Council and the General Faculty will address when they meet.
  • Sits on the Honorary Degrees and Special Awards Committee, which sifts nominations for various faculty awards and honors, conferring some directly and making recommendations about others to the Faculty Council, the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors.
  • Sits on the Faculty Committee on University Government, the overall keeper of the entire faculty governance system, responsible for developing, interpreting and suggesting alterations to the Faculty Code.
  • Sits on and chairs the Nominating Committee, which recruits faculty members to run for positions on elective faculty committees and makes recommendations of faculty members to serve on appointive committees.

This is an enormous amount of power for one position to hold. 

The problem is heightened by the undemocratic process the Code creates for selecting the Secretary. For most faculty governance positions, two or more candidates are presented for a vote. 

But the Code fixes a different method just for the Secretary: the Advisory Committee submits a single name to the Faculty Council. While Council members can technically nominate opponents to the Advisory Committee’s choice from the floor, no Advisory Committee designee has been rejected in current memory.

What can we glean from all this?

It’s not just the gender and race of the holders of the office of Secretary that seem to carry forward the norms of an earlier era. It’s also the concentration of power in that office.

Make no mistake: the job of Secretary of the Faculty is enormous, and the men who have filled it recently (now Vincas Steponaitis, and formerly Joseph Ferrell) deserve endless gratitude for their commitment to the faculty and the University. Few are the individuals who would take on such responsibilities. Fewer still would perform them as well and devotedly as Vin and Joe.

But there is a problem with the office itself. It comes a lot closer to reflecting the world of 1823, when it was created, than it does ours.

The Faculty Committee on University Government, the Faculty Council and the General Faculty should make a priority of revising the Faculty Code to bring the role of the Secretary of the Faculty into alignment with the needs of faculty governance in the diverse and democratic world of today.

Deb Aikat (Journalism)

Misha Becker (Chairperson, Linguistics)

Barbara Entwisle (Sociology)

Sue Estroff (Social Medicine)

Mary Floyd-Wilson (Chairperson, English & Comparative Literature)

Daniel Kreiss (Journalism)

Jennifer Larson (English & Comparative Literature)

Cary Levine (Art & Art History)

Beth Mayer-Davis (Chair, Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health)

Eric Muller (School of Law)

Elizabeth Olson (Chairperson, Geography)

Michelle Robinson (American Studies)

Kim Strom (School of Social Work and Director, UNC Office of Ethics and Policy)

Ryan Thornburg (Journalism)

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