Faculty + Staff

Political science professor takes helm of UCLA Academic Senate

Joel Aberbach talks about what’s on the senate’s agenda for 2014-15

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Joel Aberbach
Christelle Nahas/UCLA

The UCLA Academic Senate's new chair Joel Aberbach, who has studied how political organizations function, is taking on the challenge of leading 1,500-plus faculty members in shared governance of the university with campus administrators.

Joel Aberbach, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at UCLA, has devoted his career to studying people and organizations in the world of politics. He has examined political alienation, race relations, the political ideologies of high-level civil servants and members of Congress, and the innermost workings of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

Now, in a switch of perspective from observer to participant, Aberbach is taking on the challenge of leading 1,500-plus faculty members in shared governance of the university with campus administrators. It’s a challenge the new chair of the Academic Senate couldn’t resist.

“This is an opportunity, as an academic, to see a large organization from the inside — something I haven’t done before,” said the professor, a native New Yorker who joined UCLA’s faculty in 1986.

Aberbach is digging into the work of ensuring that UCLA maintains its preeminence as a world-class university with the highest of standards in teaching, research and public service — a preeminence important to every faculty member.

“The faculty has a big stake in the place,” he said.

As Senate activity revs up this fall quarter, one of the first items on Aberbach’s agenda is the upcoming faculty decision on the proposed College Diversity Initiative. Under the proposed diversity requirement, all undergraduates in the UCLA College would be required to take a class to understand and appreciate the diverse experiences and perspectives of people of different races, ethnicity, sexual orientations, religions and more.

The proposal is up for a vote by College faculty this month. It is distinct from previous efforts in several ways, including its status as a College requirement rather than a General Education requirement, and its reliance on a body of empirical research that shows that a curriculum that addresses diversity and inclusion contributes positively to the individual development of students as well as to the campus climate. If passed by the College faculty, the proposal would move to the Academic Senate for approval.

The senate’s role, as Aberbach sees it, is to ensure that the process works properly. “Faculty must feel that the process is fair and done properly — that they understand what is being proposed and have a chance to express their views.”

While he doesn’t intend to campaign for or against the initiative, he did express his personal view: “Teaching students about the issues connected to diversity is morally right,” as is providing them with valuable real-world information.

“We’ve always had diversity in American society, but we’re becoming more and more demographically diverse,” said Aberbach, whose current research looks at contemporary American conservatism and the wide gap in attitudes and beliefs among different political and socioeconomic groups in conflict. “It’s a useful thing for students to have some appreciation of different groups — particularly groups other than their own — because it’s the world that they live in.”

Online education is another curricular matter of concern to faculty.

“The conversation has changed from ‘should we or shouldn’t we do [online education],’” Aberbach said. “It’s happening. You can’t turn back.” But faculty are concerned about many issues, he said, ranging from how to deliver quality coursework online to looking at the workload implications for faculty members who still need to provide personal attention to and proper supervision of students studying online.

Also near the top of the agenda are the university’s chronic budget problems. 

“The quality of the university as an academic institution — which matters a lot to the faculty — is in part dependent on the budget,” said Aberbach. “Most obvious is that we’ve fallen behind in terms of salaries and benefits in a very competitive environment for recruiting and retaining top faculty.”

Enrollment planning, also tied to the budget, impacts faculty and curricula in numerous ways, from class size to the composition of the student body as more international and out-of-state students enroll. And while UCLA’s administrators allocate resources campuswide, the senate’s Council on Planning and Budget plays an important advisory role to the administration, Aberbach explained.

“Being consulted on the budget and having input is very important to us,” he said. “Faculty should be fully informed, and our opinions should be given due consideration and hopefully adopted on many of the issues.”

Faculty, he said, also look forward to working actively with the administration on The Centennial Campaign for UCLA to raise $4.2 billion for the university, from getting the message out to helping determine how the monies are spent. 

“UCLA’s shared governance is a very interesting concept, and, I guess, a little delicate,” compared to the political organizations he has studied, Aberbach said.

“This isn’t a partisan governmental institution where you have two or more parties, and one party is the opposition,” he said. “If we do disagree with the administration, it’s our role to express that disagreement but hopefully to work together to find the best possible solution. The larger mission is a quest for the highest quality university we can have.”

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