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The Tribune Explains: McGill Senate

What is the McGill Senate?

The McGill Senate was established in 1935 as an elected body intended to serve as a link between the McGill community and the Board of Governors (BoG). The BoG is partially comprised of elected Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) executives, with remaining members appointed by the administration. Officially, Senate is the highest governing academic body at McGill and debates and advises on policy related to academia, such as revisions to research misconduct policies and examination policies. The Senate is made up of 13 undergraduate representatives on behalf of SSMU, eight graduate representative on behalf of PGSS, and 90 faculty members and staff, including deans and professors elected from within each faculty. Elected faculty members serve for three years, whereas student representatives serve for one. The Principal and the Secretary-General chair Senate meetings and have the responsibilities of moderating debate and giving the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

What does the McGill Senate Do?

Being an academic body, the Senate focuses on curriculum decisions as well as academic research, and is influenced by the general desires of the student community.

By contrast, the BoG is recognized as McGill’s highest legal body. SSMU Vice-President University Affairs Erin Sobat expressed displeasure that such an arrangement delegates the Senate to the role of an advisory body, with the majority of decision-making happening within the Board and, thus, without much student influence.

“A lot of things that come to Senate are already decided on at the committee level or the administrative level,” Sobat said. “Oftentimes, when something is brought up that’s more operational in nature, usually they’re administrative decisions that they don’t want to discuss more publically, they’ll say that it’s a matter for the Board and we can’t talk about it [at Senate].”

Regular Meetings, Joint Board-Senate Meeting, and Confidential Sessions

There are three arrangements of Senate meetings: Senate’s regular committee meetings, the annual Joint Board-Senate meeting, and confidential sessions.

The Senate is composed of several committees, most of which meet once a month. It has regular standing committees that do not change over time and can create ad hoc committees to address emerging issues. It also has standing regulation committees that are convened when specific regulations are enacted–such as the Committee on Student Grievances–which meets only when a student files a complaint against a university employee.

The Joint Board-Senate meeting has members of the BoG and Senate meet once a year to discuss an important theme. While no binding decisions are made at these meetings, they are important for fostering discussion and cooperation between these two governing bodies. At the end of each meeting, members are asked to suggest next year’s theme. The theme for 2016-2017 is “McGill's Sustainability Plans and Initiatives” and past years’ themes have included “Designing a Smart Campus for the 21st Century” and “Mental Health at McGill University.”

“Board members and Senators are asked to fill out a questionnaire after each Joint Board-Senate meeting; one of the questions is for suggestions of topics for future meetings,” Secretary General Edyta Rogowska said. “No decisions are made [at the meeting], it is simply an opportunity for the Board and the Senate to discuss matters they consider relevant to the university’s mission.”

Senate can also meet confidentially on topics related to private affairs of individuals.

“In practice, [confidential sessions are] generally [for] the Report of the Honorary Degrees and Convocations Committee which contains recommendations on honorary degree recipients and recipients for other awards,” Rogowska said.

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