Most students don’t know what the University of Oregon senate is — those who do may know it for its fiery history with the administration. But new senate President Elizabeth Skowron and Vice President Elliot Berkman want to change that.
“I'm really motivated to open the door [and] continue opening doors,” Skowron said, “so that we have greater diversity of representation and engagement.”
The UO senate makes academic decisions affecting everyone on campus, from deciding curricula and helping give out scholarships to establishing committees focused on race, gender, sexual orientation and overall diversity. Skowron became president of the UO senate automatically this spring after serving a full year as vice president. Berkman will slide into the presidency at the end of the 2019-2020 school year after he was elected as vice president in June.
Skowron and Berkman said they hope to make the senate more accessible for members of the UO community, but they also want to get more involved with the decision-making on campus. They both said they want to ease tensions with the administration to make decisions together more efficiently.
Last March, UO President Michael Schill announced that the university would be making $11.6 million in budget cuts. Those cuts have now been finalized. While many of the cuts avoided major academic changes, Skowron and Berkman feel like they should have been more involved with the process. The UO senate only has jurisdiction over academic matters, but to Berkman, budget cuts often affect academics.
Berkman said having the senate involved in these budget talks would allow them to be the voice of the people and “be the adults in the room.” Skowron thinks that being more proactive in planning for budget deadlines would keep a budget crisis like the one the university is experiencing now from happening again.
“We want to be part of it,” Berkman said. “And so to be part of it, we need to find ways to work with them. And so that's where we're going now, is acknowledging that budget cuts are inevitable and that we want to position ourselves so that when they happen in the future, we're part of the process.”
Skowron and Berkman have sat on and chaired too many committees to mention, ranging from committees in the senate, the administration and the greater UO. They are both heavily involved in research within UO’s psychology department — research that has influenced the way they do their jobs in the senate.
“I do a lot of consulting in organizations, and this is always the question: When a new leader comes into an organization or business or large non-profit or government and says, ‘I want to change the way things work around here,’ how do you do that? Those are really fascinating research questions to me, and it feels like a time where there are people all over UO that are asking that question,” Berkman said. “It feels like a good time to step in.”
Provost Patrick Phillips started his new position in July, just as Skowron and Berkman stepped into their new leadership roles. At least four committees within the senate work as advisory committees with the Office of the Provost and the relationship between the two is integral to the senate’s duties.
“We’ve worked with Patrick Phillips in other kinds of ways and other committees in the past few years, so we have working relationships with him,” Skowron said. “We’re looking forward to working with him in his new role.”
Skowron co-chaired the committee that eventually selected Phillips as the new provost in a closed-door search last year. Before that, Skowron and Phillips worked together on the advisory board and the diversity committee for the Knight Campus. Phillips also knows Skowron and Berkman by reputation, calling them “leading scholars” in their field of psychology.
“Plus, they’re great people,” Phillips said. “Their approach and their attitude towards the relationship is right in line with what we would hope, and of course they have their own independent voice. … The senate is actually a fairly broad representative body, and I think they're going to do an outstanding job of representing that point of view as well.”
One notable candidate that applied for the provost position was Skowron's senate president predecessor, Bill Harbaugh, who ran a public campaign selling himself as the “half-price provost” — saying he’d accept the appointment with just half the pay.
“I just thought that it was worth pointing out how absurdly high these salaries have become now. So, that's why I did the whole half-price provost thing,” Harbaugh said, calling it a “tongue-in-cheek” campaign. “Plus, I wanted to get a picture of my car on the news.”
Harbaugh is not afraid to voice his opinions and posts watchdog-style stories about the administration on his blog, UO Matters. Harbaugh’s blog often features sarcastic headlines about administration officials like “Pres Schill celebrates tuition increase with raises for football coaches.” Skowron and Harbaugh have both recognized that their styles of governance in the senate are vastly different but that they both have their place.
“I think Elizabeth is going to be more friendly to the administration, and I think that's both good and bad. I think it's good in the sense that we have a new administration and it's good for people to try to cooperate with them, but there are also a lot of things that the administration wants to do that are not necessarily new, just [new] to the students,” Harbaugh said. “And so someone needs to keep an eye on that process.”
“I learned a lot about what I would consider to be sort of the sausage-making,” Skowron said about serving as VP under Harbaugh last year. “I'm sitting down with people often — frequently with people who have vastly different ideas about things and how to, in several different instances, work together to produce some good outcomes.”
Provost Phillips said that UO Matters could potentially affect the working relationship between the administration and the UO senate. However, the provost chooses to see it in a similar light to Harbaugh’s point of view.
“It just reminds us — not just the blog per se, but everything — reminds us on the importance of working closely together,” Phillips said, “and also to make sure that we're focusing on, from our perspective, on the many positive things that we're doing and this is really constructive engagement.”
Skowron said her background in psychology has taught her how to make decisions in groups and how to more effectively communicate with those who have different opinions.
“I think that reasonable people, across a continuum of ideas about how things should be done, can come together and work together to form reasonable solutions to difficult problems,” Skowron said. “I think we’re capable here at this institution of doing that, and I wanted to be a part of continuing to move us in that direction.”
One of Skowron and Berkman’s goals is to increase student participation in the senate, and they intend to get an updated website running soon where students can fill out a form and get their input out to the right committees in the senate.
“One of the big things we want to do this year is to make it even easier for even students that aren't elected as senators — even students that don't volunteer to serve on these committees — to have a voice,” Berkman said.
Skowron said she realizes the senate hasn’t traditionally been a comprehensive voice for all groups at the university in the recent past, and she is committed to changing that.
“I want the senate to become the voice of the people,” Berkman said.