In a landmark shift in the representation of full-time faculty, associate professor of marketing Sonja Martin Poole is the new president of the USF Faculty Association, Full-Time (USFFA-FT). Not only was Poole’s election the first of a woman or a person of color to the position since its founding in 1975, but the election had its highest voter turnout since 2000, according to its founder, Mike Lehmann. Three-quarters of eligible faculty voted.
Poole, her new vice president, Keally McBride, and the rest of the elected executive board ran on the slate “ReUnion,” which focused on the reformation, rebuilding and rejuvenation of USF’s union for professors, associate professors and assistant professors. Poole received 314 votes to her opponent Paul Lorton Jr.’s 47 votes. This year’s election saw a new, external online voting system, an election committee and a running slate that Poole summed up in an interview: “Apathy’s not a good thing, you know?”
Traditionally, Lehmann said, executive board officers (president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and sergeant-at-arms) were elected multiple terms in a row. Every president since the union’s founding, for example, has served at least 12 years. “Consequently, there was a great deal of continuity and consensus in and among the office holders,” Lehmann said. “Elections, for instance, were typically uncontested and turnout was low.”
This is exactly the issue that Poole and the policy board hoped to end.
Poole and her running mates, Keally McBride, Gabe Maxson, Ed Munnich and Justine Withers, now make up the executive board. They envision “a union that is more democratic, participatory and effective in holding [the] administration accountable to the core values of this university,” according to their campaign letter.
Poole had always been vocal on the policy board, but when she was approached one year ago and asked to run, she said she wasn’t planning on it. But looking at the union, she realized she had insight into issues from across campus, having heard them at meetings for three years. She became convinced to run for the position. “I saw areas where I could probably help,” she said. “[The faculty] know me, they know my work. I felt like I could represent them well because I know them. But that doesn’t mean I know everything about their issues.”
For Poole, this campaign was – above all else – about people. “How can we energize the membership and get them more involved in issues related to faculty well-being?” she asked. The answer to this turned out to be a series of listening sessions the slate hosted to hear faculty issues. Poole believes these greatly helped with voter turnout.
Beyond the groundbreaking participation, this election was significant in electing the union’s first person of color and female president. Poole said that, although she by no means believes these attributes were responsible for her election, the milestone reflects changing attitudes at the University.
“When the union was started…you know, it was basically all white males. But that’s what the University was back then,” she said. “But we’re changing, we’re shifting. And so I think I’m just sort of reflective of the change.”
Poole’s educational background was in economics, but as a financial consultant, she frequently worked with educators and was asked to teach lessons on economics. “I was relaying the concepts of efficiency in a way that students would understand,” she said. When she decided to follow the “family business” and go into education, she became a middle school and high school teacher. It was then that she took interest in the organization of education, or in her words, “how we deliver education.” Her attention to efficiency and interest in social change landed her in the realm of marketing for nonprofit and educational institutions. She calls it “marketing for good.” “I look at resource allocation, I study the ways to be more efficient in delivering educational services and products,” she said.
Poole hopes to bring these skills to the table for the upcoming contract negotiations and to all negotiations with the University. “The USFFA-FT is not just about pay and benefits, it’s about the core values of our university,” she said in her ballot letter. “I know that the best way to protect these values and the students we serve is to stand together.”