Columbia’s University Senate hopes its members can keep a secret.
Established in the wake of the infamous 1968 protests to address student concerns about a lack of transparency at the University, the organization’s 40th anniversary marks an ironic twist.
At the October plenary meeting of the senate, the Structure and Operations Committee proposed a draft for new policies on confidentiality and the release of information by the senate’s committees. Monica Quaintance, CC ’10 and Structure and Operations Committee chair, and Daniel Savin, Research Officers Committee chair, are spearheading these new guidelines.
The current policy for confidentiality, as it is laid out in the Guidelines on Confidentiality and Release of Information by Senate Committees released by the senate staff, is that the senate exists to find a “consensus of large majorities” in the discussion of University problems.
“To surround the deliberations of the Senate or any of its committees with secrecy would be to frustrate the intentions of the community in so decisively adopting the Senate form, and would exclude the rest of the community from sharing in the making of the decisions,” the guidelines say.
The rules state the need for secrecy during committee deliberations, but say that “thought-out positions” are not to be confidential: “Each member of a Senate Committee is responsible not only to his/her constituents, but to the entire Senate and community for his/her considered opinions and votes, which, except in matters of personnel, should always be public and available to anyone interested.”
The committees that should remain confidential, according to the guidelines, are those “involving the selection of personnel for leading positions, the bestowal of honors, or the recruitment of administrators.” Although discussion itself would not be recorded, a set of minutes to be publicly released would include the “majority and minority opinions on questions of major interest, or substance of arguments of pro and con,” as well as the outcome of votes.
The guidelines also explain that, when necessary, committees also make reports to the Senate to supplement the minutes, which “should be made public at the time of release to the Senate.”
All of the plenary meetings are also non-confidential.
Policy versus practice
Although the guidelines call for two sets of minutes from committee meetings-one confidential and one public-this does not reflect the current practice of the senate.
The senate always creates a set of confidential minutes for each committee meeting, but it currently doesn’t create a set of public ones.
“I have never seen or written any public minutes for any closed, confidential meetings,” said Tom Mathewson, the manager of the senate since 1988.
The senate only releases a set of public minutes from the monthly plenary meetings. Committees also give updates during the plenary meetings, and these updates are part of these public minutes.
Quaintance believes that “the actual policy is meaningless because we don’t follow it.” The current practice of the senate is “based on precedent and not from legislation,” she said.
Some senators believe that this status quo is adequate for the senate’s purposes.
“I believe the current policy is adequate to cover the senate’s needs,” Sharyn O’Halloran, the chair of the Executive Committee, said, referring to the current practice and not the current policy.
The Structure and Operations Committee of the senate proposed new guidelines for senate confidentiality, which have been discussed at the October, November, and December plenary meetings of the senate.
Quaintance said her committee is “not trying to change anything” about what is done now, but they are trying “to clean up the current confidentiality policy” to make it up-to-date.
Rajat Roy, a student senator from SEAS and a opinion editorial columnist for Spectator, wrote in his Nov. 11 column that these guidelines are in fact part of “an effort to get more information from trustees.”
The main proponent of these new guidelines, as presented at the October meeting, is a 50-year confidentiality policy on committee minutes.
“Committee records shall remain confidential for a period of 50 years, subject to the need to comply with lawful legal process,” the draft of the proposed guidelines states. The 50-year confidentiality rule “matches that which currently exists in the University Archives for the records of the University Board of Trustees,” it says.
According to the October meeting’s minutes, Howard Jacobson, a member of the Structure and Operations Committee, said that the current guidelines were “anachronistic, both in tone and in some of the concepts.” He added that the current policy, requiring two sets of minutes, seems “impractical” and that the new draft was “an attempt to keep the sense of actual practices.”
Quaintance also said that a set of public minutes was not required because “we don’t have the manpower to make them.” There are 17 committees on the Senate that meet once or twice a month, and three people work on the Senate Staff.
She added that most of the content of these public minutes would “come out in the reports anyway,” which are public knowledge.
Considering that there is currently no practice of making the committee minutes non-confidential, she said, “50 years is better than never.”
“I am wholly against the Structure and Operations Committee’s proposal to hold committee meetings in secrecy,” said Andrew Springer, a student senator from the Journalism School. “I haven’t spoken to a single constituent of mine that is even somewhat in favor of it. Quaintance’s and Savin’s proposal is not only ridiculous, it’s wrong,” he said.
Springer believes that the new policy “will prevent journalists … from doing the kind of reporting that will hold this senate accountable,” adding that, “If senators are afraid of retribution, let’s all remember that being held accountable is not meant to make you feel comfortable.”
He also noted that “if current practice were policy, it seems there would be no reason for the Structure and Operations Committee to pursue this change. The effect of their current proposal will cement the cloak of secrecy some senators want to see around the senate.”
To this effect, Springer—along with the Columbia University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the J-School’s student government—sent a letter on Nov. 20 stating its objections to University President Lee Bollinger, O’Halloran, Quaintance, and the members of the senate and the Student Affair Caucus.
“It is hypocritical that this University would preach these ethics with one hand while slamming the door of secrecy in the face of students with the other,” the letter stated, later concluding that, “We condemn this proposal as a hypocritical act that goes against what this University stands for—the free and active pursuit of truth.”
Springer has also recently filed a request with Mathewson to see the public minutes from the previous two Structure and Operations Committee meetings on Nov.13 and Oct. 23.
Besides journalism students, others are also concerned.
“I think making the meetings confidential will be a mistake. In my opinion, this will distance the senate from the Columbia community, while not really providing it with a greater role in the decision making process,” said Matan Ariel, Business School ’11 and former senator for the School of General Studies.
Roy added in his column that the guideline change “is the most reckless proposal I have ever seen.”
Support for Change
Despite this fierce criticism, some support the new guidelines.
Andreas Svedin, GSAS and the chair of the Student Affairs Caucus, believes that some people object to the changes because they misunderstand the terms.
“Most students see confidentiality as something very strict with no flexibility. This does not have to be the case,” he said, while adding, “There might be an issue about wording whereby confidentiality is meant that discretion should be made with sensitive, personal, or privileged information. Discretion is something that I believe all can agree on.”
Still, he added, “For the students the possibility of making committee updates to the other student senators and to our constituencies is very important. Strict confidentiality in all committees would make this impossible. It is key to have discretion in terms of sensitive, personal, or privileged information but strict confidentiality by default in all committees might be questionable.”
Savin believes that this is “a major step forward” for the senate.
“In my six years on the University Senate, campus media has performed an excellent job of doing the reporting necessary to hold the senate accountable. All this has been done under the current confidentiality policy which is a far stricter shroud of secrecy over committee records than the proposed new policy,” he said, in response to the Journalism students’ concerns.
But Savin was referring to the current practice, and not the current written policy.
Additions based on input
According to Quaintance, based on feedback so far, a few new clauses are going to be added to these guidelines to “clarify” some of these issues.
The first of these will define the term “confidentially.” Quaintance said that she feels that confidentiality is a “flexible thing” that reflects “how the Senate functions today … we talk about what we feel is necessary, while not giving away private information.” This term has been misunderstood among students and faculty in the past, she explained.
Quaintance said she advocates the “middle ground.” She believes that the senate cannot afford to ever be completely confidential or completely open, and feels that it should be up to individual discretion as to what should be confidential or not.
Another addition, she said, would be a clause stating that committees are allowed to share information between them.
Savin is adding a clause stating that information shared under confidentiality by non-committee members, such as administrators, should remain confidential until the non-committee member says otherwise, Quaintance said.
She said this means that “all other things discussed in committee have the potential to be discussed under the discretion of the senators should they deem it necessary or appropriate.”
Springer and other senators are willing to negotiate with the Structure and Operations Committee.
“Several senators, including Rajat Roy, Alex Frouman, and Tao Tan, and myself are in favor of a compromise that would make almost all senate committee meetings and their records, by default, open,” Springer said.
“These committees, however, could vote to enter an executive session when the topics of discussion would include budgetary, personnel, or other matters,” he suggested, adding, “On the other hand, a few committees—like budget review, faculty affairs, and honors and prizes—would by default be closed.”
Roy, when asked about this compromise, said, “I cannot confirm nor deny that there is a compromise on the table nor can I comment on the matter under current or proposed confidentiality rules.”
At the last plenary meeting of the semester on Dec. 4, Quaintance said committee members are “still soliciting feedback from committees,” and that she hopes for the guidelines to come to a full senate vote in January.
The vote may be more likely to come in February, though, because the senate rarely reaches supermajority in January, which will be needed for a vote.
Savin agreed, saying that “Structure and Operations is waiting for written responses from the other senate committees with their proposed changes to the draft confidentiality policy. Once Structure and Operations has those in hand we will attempt to synthesize them all and incorporate the proposed changes into the draft policy. At that point Structure and Operations will present a revised draft confidentiality policy to the senate for discussion.”
After noting her surprise at the controversy that has surrounded this issue thus far, Quaintance said of the new policy, “I want to make sure everyone is happy about it.”