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Rethinking the role of the academic senate

As hearings concerning Canadian Senate reform begin today, McGill has begun a process to consider the  reform of its own academic senate.

Across Canada, academics, students, and professionals alike are engaging in discussion about the Senate’s role at universities.

At McGill, these concerns may soon lead to change; at the Oct. 16 Senate meeting, debate on the topic of Senate reform led Principal Suzanne Fortier to form a special subcommittee to identify solutions to issues concerning Senate’s purpose and structure.

Academic Senates are governing bodies in charge of a university’s academic affairs. One of the first comprehensive explanations of the purpose of an academic Senate in Canada comes from the 1906 Report of the Royal Commission on the University of Toronto, which identified Senate as a necessary body, despite its flaws.

“Much of [the Senate’s] work has, in practice, been relegated to committees,” the report reads. “Experience has shown that the reports of these committees must, in general, be adopted without debate, if the transaction of business is not to be unduly delayed.”

Over 100 years later, many academic senators have criticized Senate for very similar reasons. At the most recent meeting, senators criticized a lack of debate on motions and inefficient use of time due to lengthy informational presentations.

Joey Shea, senator and VP university affairs of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), emphasized the need to reform the schedule of the agenda to address this issue.

“If we could have that time period set aside at the beginning of every Senate, I think it would make senators much more engaged and willing to speak about things, instead of knowing they’re coming to Senate to simply raise their placard and approve things that have already been slated for approval […] or to just passively listen to reports,” she said.

However, information sessions are necessary for senators to gain an understanding of the issues at hand, according to biology professor and Faculty of Science Representative Graham Bell.

“The sessions for information are sometimes a bit dry, but on the other hand that’s what makes the university business transparent,” Bell said. “If those information sessions are not included in Senate meetings, we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Senate’s power in decision-making is at the core of many contemporary questions about the academic Senate in Canada, according to a 2004 study by Glen A. Jones, Theresa Shanahan, and Paul Goyan.

“Our study suggests that Canadian Senates have an important traditional and symbolic role, but that their practical and meaningful participation in important, defining university decisions is limited and perhaps even diminishing,” their report reads.

In response to similar problems, other Canadian universities have revised their Senate structure. For example, the University of Guelph reduced its Senate from 215 to 162 seats in 2011 to promote active participation, according to University of Guelph Secretariat Kate Revington.

“[Senators] expressed a wish to see if the size could be reduced proportionally—while still respecting the need for representation of the constituent groups—in order to increase opportunities for Senators for engagement,” Revington said.

Political science professor and Faculty of Arts Representative Catherine Lu said Senate plays more of a participatory role in academic affairs, rather than being directly involved in decision-making.

Lu cited McGill’s decision to offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year. Although the topic of MOOCs was discussed at a Senate meeting in January 2013, the Senate was not involved in making the decision to implement them.

“[Senate] had a very wide-ranging discussion with many divergent views about whether or not MOOCs would be a good thing; but the fact is that Senate was never asked to make a decision about whether or not in principle we should pursue this,” Lu said.

Lu suggested that committees provide written recommendations that must be debated and endorsed by Senate before action is taken by the senior administration.

Despite the governing body’s flaws, Shea said Senate is still a necessary component of university governance to properly represent all members of the university.

“I think it’s very important to have a senate because Senate is the only time and place where all parties in the university are [together] and are represented,” Shea said. “So I see a lot of potential for Senate, but right now the way it’s structured is not as efficient.”

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