Opinion | Columns

Senate Confidentiality

Where is the Senate going?

The Senate was formed after 1968 to represent all Columbians. Since then, it has gotten involved with everything, including the creation of the Biomedical Engineering and IEOR departments in SEAS, setting sexual harassment policy, and pushing for transparency from the administration, to say nothing of the infamous NROTC debates. The Senate handles issues affecting faculty and staff as well. Anything of any importance spanning more than one school is addressed through the Senate.

But now, two items are threatening the organization. The first is President Bollinger’s statement two months ago at a Senate plenary (the main meeting) that the Senate is an “advisory body.” The second is a new set of “senate confidentiality guidelines” which will reduce transparency and efficacy.

The de jure powers of the Senate granted by the University Statutes make it the most powerful organization on this campus, with the exception of the Board of Trustees. It can censure members of the administration and has the ability to fundamentally change policy. The administration must administrate based on those decisions. But the administration has not ceded some of the powers given to the Senate and in several instances refuses to turn over information.

What is more troubling is that if the Senate enacts a resolution, the administration may disregard it. Last year Billy Freeland (CC ’09, SIPA ’10) went committee-to-committee writing a resolution requiring professors to post syllabi before classes started. It was vetted and approved, but at the plenary Senate leaders changed wording in an effort to make it “better.”

The resolution effectively went from saying “All professors should post syllabi because it helps students plan and budget for how much textbooks will cost” to saying “The Senate highly suggests that professors consider that maybe they should post syllabi if they would like to be considerate of the pocketbooks of some of their students. Maybe.”

Following this resolution, the administration took no substantial steps to send the new “requirement” to faculty. Billy Freeland’s resolution was penicillin for a problem students face. It became generic-brand cough syrup. The same thing happens to many resolutions proposed by Research Officers, faculty, and other groups.

The Senate wanted to find “consensus” because it is supposedly “better” than results achieved by majority vote where someone loses. But as a result we have words without backing and an administration that views the Senate as an advisory body rather than a policy-making force.

If the Senate wants to really be an effective body, it has to accept that not all real change will occur with “consensus.” The second action in the Senate right now is part of an effort to get more information from trustees. Some senators want to make all Senate committee minutes sealed for FIFTY YEARS. This move, headed by CC Senator Monica Quaintance, is the most reckless proposal I have ever seen.

The Senate was created to provide representation. The definition of representation has evolved over the last 40 years since the inception of the Senate to include transparency. This proposal runs counter to that. Plain and simple.

What is even more astonishing is that the Senate wants MORE transparency from the administration and from the Trustees, but they are willing to sacrifice that same transparency for their constituents. Where is the representation in that?

The rationale for 50-year secrecy is that people should be free to express themselves in meetings. Senator Quaintance worries she may say something in a meeting that could be used against her when she runs for political office in 25 years.

With all due respect to Monica, who I consider a friend, I disagree. My individual opinion does not matter in any meeting I enter. What matters is the opinion and best interests of SEAS students. I represent them. At no point should I ever say anything that is against the interest of my constituency. That is my responsibility as an elected official.
This move toward secrecy is something dangerous which needs to be settled at the next meeting of the Senate. They should be told that the policy goes against everything that the Senate stands for.

The members of the Senate are there to help their constituencies and they know that the University is here to educate students. However, the view of the Senate as an “advisory body” rather than a “policy-making body” and a move towards secrecy will inhibit that mission and will make the Senate defunct and cause it to fall into a hole of irrelevance.

The danger is clear and present. What steps the Senate takes now will shape its future and, in turn, the future of the university itself.

Rajat Roy is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior majoring in industrial engineering and operations research with a minor in environmental engineering. He is a University senator from SEAS. Cutting the Blue Tape runs alternate Thursdays. opinion@columbiaspectator.com

Rajat Roy is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior majoring in industrial engineering and operations research with a minor in environmental engineering. He is a University senator from SEAS. Cutting the Blue Tape runs alternate Thursdays. opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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