In March 2020, when the Rutgers University faculty, staff, and students were sent home to work and learn remotely in response to COVID-19, SC&I’s Assistant Dean for Information Technology Jon Oliver faced a dilemma. As Chair of the Rutgers University Senate, Oliver feared he might need to cancel the senate’s spring meetings because of the pandemic. If he did, it would mean that the Senate would not be able to fulfill its shared governance responsibilities at the university.
“The senate is responsible for advising the president on issues important to the entire university,” Oliver said. “Each of the campuses have their own faculty councils, however, the senate is the only recognized shared governance body at Rutgers and it encompasses the entire university community, not just the faculty, but also staff, students, alumni, and part-time lecturers. Therefore, it’s critically important that the senate’s work not be interrupted or delayed, and that the University community see that the senate is still meeting and working on shared governance issues.”
Despite the need to hold spring meetings, Oliver also knew the senate would need to start retooling itself immediately to be able to work remotely. In the past, Oliver explained, the senate did not prepare itself to work online, because by definition it is a deliberative body that functions by discussing issues face to face.
“Before the pandemic,” Oliver said, “We did very little work remotely. Occasionally, if a member of the executive committee wasn’t able to attend a meeting in person, we would ask him or her to phone in to listen and participate. However, neither the entire senate nor the committees have ever worked 100 percent remotely. So, I knew immediately that it might be a challenge to keep the senate working.”
As head of information technology services at SC&I, the senate can’t have a Chair more knowledgeable or prepared than Oliver to address these complex IT issues, and Oliver is taking several major steps to ensure the technology will be ready for the next full senate meeting on May 1 - the first in Rutgers’ history to be held entirely online.
Oliver said it is absolutely essential that the May 1 meeting be held, and it is critical for several extremely important reasons. First, because it is the first meeting of the new senate -- the senate that has been elected but does not begin officially until July 1. During the May meeting, the senate must elect the chair, the vice chair, and the parliamentarian. The new senate members must be a part of this vote.
As a result, Oliver said, this meeting will also be the first in the senate’s history that they will need to vote electronically. They will use WebEx, because of the University site license, and the voting apparatus will be custom made.
At this meeting the senate also plans to celebrate President Robert Barchi’s tenure as Rutgers University’s president by reading a resolution thanking him for his many contributions to the university and the senate.
The senate plans to also thank all of the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) healthcare professionals for their work and the many sacrifices they’ve made during COVID-19, and one to announce that the senate will prepare a report about the university’s response to COVID-19, which will include the lessons the senate has learned from the pandemic and how it can help position the university for the future in the event that another crisis of this magnitude occurs.
To help ensure the remote meeting works smoothly, Oliver proposed to the senate that the committee pre-record their reports and post them electronically before the meeting, so senate members will be able to read them ahead of time and be ready to vote.
While the pandemic has meant Oliver has needed to design new ways of moving the senate forward in terms of technology, during his first year as Chair, Oliver has already established a track record of introducing new initiatives to the senate.
One of the first new measures Oliver introduced is to ensure the senate hears updates from a number of University bodies. Oliver said, “I think it’s very important for the senate to learn what the offices, centers, institutes at the University are working on. So, I launched a new initiative to ensure the senate hears about their important work. I first invited Sarah McMahon, Director of the Rutgers Center on Violence Against Women and Children to talk about what her center’s mission. I also invited Director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences Robert Kopp and Associate Professor of Professional Practice at the Rutgers Business School Kenneth Lyons to come in to discuss the recent report from the task force they are jointly chairing at Rutgers: The President’s Task Force on Carbon Neutrality and Climate Resilience. I also invited CNN legal analysist, former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and executive director of the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities Elie Honig to provide a talk during the March meeting on risk and community security, but unfortunately this was cancelled because of the pandemic.”
Another recent change Oliver has made to modernize the senate and help build rapport with the Rutgers community is to launch social media accounts for the senate, including Twitter and Instagram.
Oliver said the first tweet he sent from the @RutgersSenate account was to thank and celebrate the heroes at Rutgers who are on the front lines of COVID-19, in particular Rutgers health care professionals. “We always think of our faculty, staff, and students as heroes, and they all are heroic in many different ways. But right now, the people I find are the most heroic are the RBHS healthcare professionals who are working to save our lives.
“Social media can help us be transparent and show the university community what the senate does and why we do it,” Oliver said. “We want to explain the ways the Rutgers senate is there for all of us, and increase an understanding of the deliberations the senate engages in. It is vital to share the humanity behind our deliberations and decisions. We are all rowing the boat to the same destination. We may not always be going in the same direction, but the goal is to get to the same destination.”