The University of Michigan Senate Assembly convened Monday afternoon in the Michigan League to discuss the implications of electronic voting and participation in future meetings as well as what responsibilities University faculty hold regarding letters of recommendation.

After opening the meeting with announcements, Senate Assembly Chair Neil Marsh, professor of chemistry, opened the floor for discussion about electronic voting and participation in future Faculty Senate meetings. Remote participation would be achieved through video chat platforms like Bluejeans or Skype. The discussion was a response to concerns that quorums rarely occur due to the participation minimum of 100 faculty members. As a result, there have only been three instances in which a faculty quorum has been able to vote on issues since 2004.

“We never get a quorum, only when a crisis comes up … Which is not the best time to make policies,” Marsh said.

Other assembly members, including Social Work professor Shanna Kattari, agreed the Senate Assembly would benefit from electronic participation because the current meetings are not accessible to many faculty members.

“It’s a (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) issue with access … Someone who is disabled … Who has children … in any other situation could use Bluejeans,” Kattari said.

U-M Dearborn professor Caitlin Finlayson echoed Kattari, saying during the workday with “other communities and responsibilities” it is difficult for her to travel the hour to Ann Arbor to participate in meetings.

Those opposed to electronic participation expressed concerns that faculty could experience technical difficulties preventing them from participating. They also worried video chat participation would make it more difficult to discern what is happening at what time during the meeting with possible delays in connection.

Assembly member John Traynor, a professor in the Medical School, brought up another concern. He worried the assembly may actually have less participation if people are able to participate online.

“Will people even bother to participate?” Traynor said. “Or will they switch on computer and just do other things?”

Courtney Snyder, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said assembly members needed to “think carefully about the implications” of assembly meetings being broadcast online, fearing it created an opportunity for retaliation from administration and colleagues against statements made in meetings.

The conversation then switched to the rules and nuances of how electronic participation would be carried out. Assembly members expressed concerns that participation will vary depending on what platform is used for participation. There was also concern that as the group gets larger, it may become more difficult to pass motions.

After the discussion, via straw polls, the assembly voted in favor of four proposals: remote participation for the Senate Assembly, electronic voting for Senate Assembly, remote participation for the Faculty Senate and remote voting for the Faculty Senate. Though these polls do not hold any governmental power, they gauge the Assembly’s thoughts on future steps.

“How do we move forward now that we know there is interest in moving forward?” asked Ruth Carlos, Senate Assembly member and professor of radiology.

During the second half of the meeting, the assembly broke into small groups to discuss the implications of a recent controversy concerning the duty of University faculty to write letters of recommendation. This dialogue follows the University’s choice to discipline Prof. John Cheney-Lippold for rescinding his offer to write a student a letter of recommendation upon learning that the letter would be used for a study abroad program in Israel. The small groups then reported to the larger group, which would send out its concerns to the Duderstadt Blue Ribbon Recommendation Letters Panel.

The assembly members discussed any rules in their departments regarding letters of recommendation, key concerns regarding recommendation letters and recommendations any faculty members have to improve the process of writing letters of recommendation.

As a whole, assembly members were unaware of rules regarding letters of recommendation in their departments. The assembly members had not heard many concerns until recently and viewed this situation as an outlier.

Assembly members were more concerned about how this controversy may set a precedent for writing recommendations in the future. Specifically, members expressed concern they would be forced to write a recommendation for everyone who asked them. Traynor said letters of recommendation “would be useless if we went to that stage where everyone is forced to write a letter”.

Further, assembly members expressed concern University administrators could make policies which constitute an abuse of power. Traynor mentioned rules surrounding writing recommendations could easily violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

“(Faculty) should be able to not support certain institutions along with free speech,” Traynor said, providing the example of the right physicians have to refuse to perform certain procedures based on beliefs.

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