As Columbia’s University Senate celebrated its 40th anniversary, the policy-making body was marked this year by dissension among senators and a lack of administrative support.
While the Senate eventually passed a new policy intended to alleviate hardship for students taking late end-of-semester exams, it came after months of heated debate and left some students unsatisfied.
And as the Senate commemorated its 40th year as a school institution—it was created in the wake of the 1968 riots on campus, and currently consists of 96 representatives from the University’s schools and communities—it was wracked by questions of its own identity and place on campus.
University President Lee Bollinger caused a stir in September when he was asked whether the Senate would have the power to implement a possible smoking ban on campus, and responded that the Senate’s job is to “advise the University about the policies, but we [the Senate] don’t have the power to implement them.”
“The Senate can’t force a policy,” Bollinger reminded the senators.
But Executive Committee chair Sharyn O’Halloran stressed that the “voice of the Senate on this kind of issue is very important.”
Bollinger’s comments appeared to have struck a chord with O’Halloran, as she broached the issue again in the second plenary meeting of the Senate—where she pointed out that based on the Senate’s bylaws, the body does have policy-making power. Bollinger did not attend the meeting, though he sits on the Executive Committee. He missed four of the eight Senate meetings this year.
At the first plenary meeting, astrophysics researcher Daniel Savin, chair of the Research Officers Committee, also urged the University to release the results of a salary equity study for research officers that they proposed over three years ago, along with the Committee on the Status of Women. Despite promises from the administration saying the results are on the way, Savin said, the results had still not been seen—though he claimed that preliminary results “showed significant discrepancies in salaries among certain Columbia research officer titles.” As of the end of the year, the results have still not been released.
Senate confidentiality and the academic calendar became the focal points of this year’s meetings, overshadowing resolutions on dual degrees and changes in academic department names.
While the possible campus smoking ban and swine flu temporarily took center stage, the Senate’s own confidentiality policy emerged as the most contentious issue of the fall semester.
In October, Monica Quaintance, CC ’10 and chair of the Structure and Operations Committee, and astrophysics researcher Daniel Savin, chair of the Research Officers Committee, proposed a new set of confidentiality rules for the Senate that would have instituted a policy to make the minutes from committee meetings confidential for 50 years.
The issue was a polarizing one for the Senate. The current policy states that committees are supposed to release a set of minutes to the public, including the outcome of all votes. However, the current practice is not to release minutes from any committees. In December, Quaintance said, “The actual policy is meaningless because we don’t follow it.”
She and Savin argued that their proposed policy would be more transparent than the current practice of de facto permanent confidentiality, while others argued that the proposal would in fact create less transparency, if one compares it to the current written policy. Andrew Springer, a student senator from the Journalism School, said that the new policy “will prevent journalists … from doing the kind of reporting that will hold this Senate accountable.”
In response to the controversy over the draft of the new guidelines, Quaintance and Savin solicited feedback from the other committees. In December, Quaintance said she hoped the proposal would come to a vote in January. As of yet, though, nothing has been publicly done on the issue, and it has seemingly been forgotten in the wake of the academic calendar issue, which gripped the Senate throughout the spring semester.
While confidentiality proved to be a mostly internal debate, the fight over the academic calendar pulled outside students and council leaders to the Senate floor.
Student dissatisfaction with the Dec. 23 end date for the fall semester sparked a 2,000-signature Facebook petition demanding that the academic calendar be changed or provisions made for students with late exams. The students brought the petition to the attention of the Senate.
The Education Committee, which is in charge of the decennial review of the calendar, explored conflicting options, support for which was largely divided along student and faculty lines.
By late March, the Senate body was caught between the student council-proposed solution to start a week before Labor Day two out of every seven years when the holiday falls late, and the faculty-proposed solution to hold classes on Election Day Monday and finals over the weekend. Neither camp appeared willing to accept the other’s proposal in full, and both options were ultimately dismissed, to the disappointment of student council leadership.
The Education Committee and Student Affairs Committee eventually presented a formal resolution, which passed unanimously at the final plenary meeting in late April. The new policy will allow students to reschedule exams set for the 23rd to an earlier date.
Responses to the resolution were mixed. Engineering Student Council President Whitney Green, SEAS ’10, felt the resolution “was not alleviating the problem we were looking to address in the first place,” while senator Alex Frouman, CC ’10, deemed it a compromise. “All of us were able to come together this morning and reach a solution,” Frouman said, adding that the Student Affairs Committee will review the policy’s efficacy next December.
Half a dozen students attended the last plenary in protest and urged increased communication on the part of the Senate.