Senate Source

June 2012

Professor Sandra Weiss

Senate Source Interview



Sandra WeissWhat is your reaction to being named a recipient of the 2012 Oliver Johnson Award for Distinguished Service in the Academic Senate?

It’s fantastic! What could be better than to be recognized by my colleagues in the UC Senate?

What first motivated you to get involved in the divisional Senate?

My involvement began as a very young faculty member. A mentor who was actively involved in the Senate recommended that I be appointed to a divisional committee. I knew very little about the Senate at that time so her sponsorship was critical to my becoming engaged with Senate activities. This kind of mentorship is so important in identifying faculty who can serve the Senate effectively and in being a bridge for their entry into Senate activities.

Why did you want to serve as systemwide Senate chair?

Service as chair of the systemwide senate provides a superb opportunity to have an impact on so many aspects of University function and policy, including research, education, and fiscal priorities. I saw the position as contributing to University governance at the highest levels by working with the President’s Office and the Regents. In addition, I have always enjoyed activities that involve diverse constituencies who have contrasting views. I don’t see opposing views as a barrier to decision-making. Considering a diversity of perspectives helps to ensure that decisions are more informed and ultimately more optimal. The diversity of the University is perhaps greatest at the systemwide level where you encounter every type of academic discipline and huge cultural differences across the 10 campuses. I found all of this to be both stimulating and enlightening.

What do you view as the most significant highlights of your divisional and systemwide Senate and University service? What accomplishments or issues do you feel most proud to have been a part of during your tenure?


It’s hard to choose among the highlights – there have been so many! But two highlights stand out. When I was chair of the UCSF senate, we were addressing a number of issues that were quite salient to the faculty, such as bridge support between research grants and processes for allocating resources to campus programs. Faculty were intensely engaged in Senate activities. At one divisional meeting, our largest auditorium (Cole Hall) was standing room only! The discussion was animated, with faculty and administrators expressing heated and divergent views. But the discussion was also respectful and highly productive, with outcomes that just about everyone felt good about. It was exhilarating to see the value of negotiation and compromise as well as the responsibility that faculty were taking for moving the campus forward in positive ways. That Senate meeting was a spectacular example of how shared governance can and should work! A second highlight was in my role as chair of the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates of California’s public colleges and universities (ICAS). The California legislature had established a blue ribbon commission to consider needed changes in the State’s public Colleges and Universities. The existence of this commission was, of course, very controversial. They came forward with a series of recommendations that had significant implications for higher education in the state, including extensive cuts in state funding and a proposal that tenure be abolished. As chair of the consortium of Senates, I organized an effort to respond to the commission’s report, including meetings with the commission and legislative committees. The personal contact with the legislators was particularly successful in helping them to develop an appreciation for the needs of higher education and the value of tenure. I was inspired by this experience. By working together as multiple senates of the state higher education system, we created a strong, unified voice and made a real difference.

Regarding my "accomplishments," there are three outcomes about which I feel very good. While chair of the systemwide Senate, I worked with the chair of the Regents and the President to enhance the Senate’s voice with the Regents. I acquired Senate representation on all key Regent committees and established a time for informal discussion with different Regents at monthly Academic Council meetings. Prior to my role as chair of the systemwide Senate, I chaired a systemwide Task Force on the Research Climate to identify barriers to faculty research and develop specific strategies to support the faculty’s research mission. Our report has served as a resource to UC campuses as well as other Universities throughout the country, achieving special recognition by the National Council of University Research Administrators. Lastly, as chair of the UCSF Senate, I worked with the Chancellor’s office to develop a joint Senate-Administration Strategic Planning Board. This body made recommendations about allocation of campus resources based upon alignment with academic priorities on campus. The Board evolved in response to faculty concerns that resource decisions were being made ‘behind closed doors’ and with no relationship to our academic mission. Prior to that time, the Senate only had input through its Academic Planning and Budget committee.

How can UC help reinvigorate public investment in higher education?


I think that the public sees the University as invulnerable - that we have been a successful presence in the state for years and will find a way to retain our greatness. Unfortunately, that is a misguided view. We need to increase our efforts in educating the public, including the legislature and key opinion leaders, about the devastating implications for the University if support is not forthcoming. Recently, the Regents and UC administrators have initiated stronger advocacy efforts in this regard. Faculty need to work with the administration to make presentations, write articles, and create videos for multiple media platforms, describing our many contributions to the state and the devastating impact for the public if those contributions are no longer possible.           

Besides the budget, what in your eyes are the biggest challenges facing the University right now and into the future?

I don’t believe that our biggest challenges can be separated from the budget. Funds for research are diminishing rapidly, including federal and private monies. This trend will most likely continue. The University must find ways to support and sustain active programs of research among its faculty, even when traditional resources aren’t available. A second major challenge is the recruitment and retention of high quality faculty. We must assure salaries and adequate academic support that can compete with other universities. Addressing both of these challenges may require innovative partnerships with business, government, private investors, and donors to achieve mutually beneficial goals.


What philosophy has guided your career and shaped your service? How does Senate service complement your professional career?

My philosophy about my career is the same as my philosophy about life. I want to use every minute I have to make a difference in the world before my life ends – to improve things in some small way. Senate service is very congruent with this philosophy. And I definitely believe that service complements other aspects of one’s career. Senate service provides an ideal platform for developing and practicing communication and leadership skills that transfer to other areas of the career. In addition, service aids in meeting like-minded colleagues and building networks of collaboration for research and teaching. And it expands our thinking beyond the specialty areas in which we are engaged to strengthen our breadth and depth as human beings.

How would you describe the state and condition of shared governance at the university?


I’m concerned about ‘shared governance’ within UC. We all seem less willing to do the hard work that is required to achieve some modicum of a win-win situation for different constituencies and the best outcome for the University as a whole. But this problem is not unique to the University. It is rampant in our country and the world. When times are tough and resources are scarce, shared governance and a unified effort are more difficult but more essential than ever. Shared governance has made our University the stellar institution it is. This sentiment has been expressed by many University presidents, chancellors and faculty leaders over the course of time. A continued commitment to shared governance is vital if we are to preserve this great institution.

What would you say to new or existing faculty who are considering becoming involved in Senate service?


Service to the Senate can be one of the most rewarding and significant aspects of a faculty member’s academic career. It shouldn’t be viewed as something that detracts from other ‘more important’ faculty responsibilities but as an integral and valued part of the highly complex faculty role.