Standing up for the senate
It's the forum where key academic decisions are made, and yet a big issue facing university senates is how to get faculty members to take part
|All those in favour? This snapshot is from a McGill senate meeting earlier this year. Photos by Claudio Calligaris
This was my first time attending a university senate meeting. I'd just been hired as associate editor of McGill University's faculty newspaper, and the editor was showing me the beat. We were in a windowless, semicircular room. The principal and secretary general sat at a desk at the front, facing rows of university citizens. Old, young, mostly attentive, some checking Blackberries or riffling through notes. Hands darted up during the quick-paced discourse of motions, seconds and grants. I was lost.
I leaned over to the editor, asking, "What's going on?" "Robert's Rules," he whispered. I nodded. I had no idea what he was talking about. I'd never thought much about the regulated manners of political forums, let alone knew of General Henry Robert who, in 1876, published guidelines on how to effectively run meetings. His system funneled downwards from parliaments to lesser bodies such as curling clubs, or universities. All I knew was Henry Kissinger's quote: "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."
Over time, the meetings' rhythms began to make sense. I could follow the proceedings, grasp the protocol and begin to understand how the important decisions of a university that shape its direction get made. Sometimes senators would make amusing and feisty remarks. Occasionally I'd get bored.
Often, a university senate (sometimes called academic council) is just the formal and final step to approve decisions that were arduously ironed out at faculty or departmental level by a sub-committee. Usually these concern academic matters, from the approval of new programs to renaming of units ("housekeeping," colloquially put). But depending on the scope of the body, there are also debates on research matters, student funding, changes in administrative procedure, honorary degrees.
One important issue that senates have to deal with is finding people to serve on them. Senates, which vary in size from dozens to close to 200, are made up of ex officio members, such as senior administrators, department heads and student politicians. There are elected faculty representatives and sometimes elected staff members. But it can be difficult to drum up participants.
University of Saskatchewan's Council Chair Jim Merriam agreed to take the position when the nomination committee approached him directly, after two calls from the university secretary failed to produce a nomination.
Dr. Merriam, a professor of geological sciences, sees an overall lack of interest in governance. "Younger faculty are under too much pressure to meet tenure and production requirements to sit on council, and senior faculty - well, half of them are very busy." Though Dr. Merriam doesn't begrudge newer faculty their concerns - "let them get up and running" - he'd like to see senior scholars be more involved. But he isn't sure how to entice them.
Fortunately, this year's 21 council vacancies were all acclaimed, and Dr. Merriam is sure that if they'd fallen short, a few hallway chats and public pleas would have filled any empty spaces.
Though service to the community is part of the holy trinity of academic job requirements, newer faculty members are encouraged to focus on research and teaching. So it can look as though the same political hounds serve on senate, term after term. They've discovered a joy in community involvement and influence, and revel in the exchange of ideas with people from different spheres of the university.
"Like in any organization," says University of British Columbia zoology professor Jim Berger, "the people willing to do these things do a lot of it, because other people usually don't want to touch it."
Faculty ennui was just one of the factors that prompted Chris Ross, former dean of the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, to call for a task force to discuss how senate could be more relevant and interesting.
Dr. Ross has been a senate member on and off for about 20 years, and found that in the last two to three years, Concordia's senate "has been boring to be honest. It just rubber stamps, nobody's paying attention to the issues. Why should I come here once a month? So I complained about the lack of participation."
The same kind of apathy prompted University of Toronto's Paul Thompson to team up with Philippe Constantineau of Royal Military College and George Fallis of York University to write a working paper for the Council of Ontario Universities on the topic of "academic citizenship."
As the COU paper points out, since all faculty benefit from the reputation of their community, it's reasonable to expect them to participate. The continued good health and vibrancy of the institution depend on fair and good governance.
The writers suggest mentoring PhD candidates on good citizenship, requiring minimal committee or service duties of fresh hires (and stating so up front in hiring advertisements) and holding workshops to guide new faculty on how to contribute. The university could show support for service by establishing prizes or by setting minimum service obligations to qualify for tenure or promotion.
Dr. Fallis, professor of economics in the division of social science at York and former dean of the arts faculty, admits that how exactly to build a culture of community service is elusive. Doctoral students understand the importance of research and reflect more than ever on what it takes to become good teachers, he believes, but are far less aware of universities' governance and how academia fits in the world.
There must also be a balance of new blood with old guard. As Dr. Berger of UBC points out, "Every academic senate needs a coterie of people to serve a number of years, just for the institutional memory and to keep things going." For example, if someone proposes to cut courses, and it was done 12 years ago, "no one's going to look through the minutes if they don't know it's there."
As well, the different governing bodies need to foster exchange with each other. At Concordia, Dr. Ross sensed a disconnect between the board of governors and senate. The board is responsible for, and the final authority over, all the highest management and administrative decisions of the university. Senate is primarily concerned with the academic affairs of the university. But neither body seemed to understand what the other did, and communication between the two was poor.
"For example, about nine months ago, the board abolished the position of the dean of graduate studies. I thought Holy Moly, how come this wasn't brought to senate?" He proposes that to improve the relations between board and senate, members could attend the other's meetings.
As university culture changes, so do senates. Not that there ever was a "golden age with witty repartee and grand oratory that's now tarnished," says Anthony Paré, a McGill education professor who has served on senate for eight years.
Nonetheless, Dr. Paré believes "the complexity of decision making has picked up." With more and more decisions to be made about allocation of money and budget, there's less patience at the level of administration than before for deliberation and reflection. While there once may have been the luxury of time, administrators "don't want roaring debate - they don't have time."
Dr. Ross, the former Concordia business school dean, says, "Many boards take a corporate view of universities' function. Boards try to run universities like businesses." Dr. Ross says he certainly understands that senate has to be efficient, accountable and effective. "But universities are not businesses! Universities are like Japanese organizations; they discuss a lot, try to achieve consensus and then make decisions. They cannot be run by fiat."
In this business-minded era, sensitive issues may be discouraged at senates, which are mostly public and post minutes online. For example, Dr. Paré would have liked senate to address such issues as McGill's involvement with Elsevier, a major science publishing house that also organized armaments fairs around the world (Elsevier has since announced they will pull out of arms fairs). But many professors and administrators deem such topics too political.
"Previously, controversy wouldn't affect funding, but now we get donations from philanthropists, foundations - from people outside government," says Dr. Paré, adding that universities "want people to invest in them. They don't want to be tied to controversy and scandal."
When McGill's Johanne Pelletier took the job of secretary general, which oversees administrative matters of senate, almost two years ago, she talked with members about what needed to be changed. After that, the meeting format was relaxed to take advantage of the senators' diverse voices. During "committee of the whole" discussions, regular chairs can switch so they can have a say on the floor. As well, committee members (not only the committee chair) are encouraged to speak for their reports. And Ms. Pelletier struck a senate reform committee (Dr. Paré's a member).
"It's a great group," Ms. Pelletier says. The members review the terms of reference of the different senate committees (McGill has 20) and, instead of addressing each as isolated, are trying to see all the concerns as interrelated. In the next review phase, they'll look at the rules and procedures, including the agenda format, to allow more time for debate and discussion.
An invigorated senate would be interesting and useful, she believes, and new faculty would benefit from seeing how decisions get made. "It's essential for community members to understand governance," she says. "We want to make the best of the time we have. We want people to want to go to these meetings."