Opinion | Op-eds

A modest proposal for senate reform

Undergraduates can see that the University Senate is unresponsive to our preferences. The current institutional scheme, established by the Guidelines on Confidentiality and Release of Information that the senate passed on Apr. 29, 2011, largely disempowers students by discouraging direct student participation. Undergraduates have only six representatives in the senate to begin with, and meetings are closed by default. Excluding student voices directly decreases our ability to accomplish any policy change. Without adequate representation, collective advocacy is our most effective means for setting the agenda. However, institutional rules preclude this option. Barriers to students’ ability to work with their senators diminish the clout of Columbia’s student body. The importance of procedure in achieving any serious policy goals cannot be overstated. Accordingly, we propose a set of concrete reforms that will go a long way toward fixing the problem. We believe that these reforms are feasible and could be implemented with speed.

1. We need to open up the process. The vast majority of senate work happens in committees, but right now the public is not even allowed to know what committees are working on. An open process is the minimum requirement for students to be able to participate. Foremost, that means opening up committee meetings to public scrutiny: open meetings, open minutes. Current rules prohibiting senators from discussing ongoing committee deliberations with the public—and hence, from collaborating with their constituents through the committee process—should also be abolished (unless confidentiality is a serious issue). Because students currently cannot collaborate with their representatives on policy, there is no way to aggregate student voices. This reform will bring students into the process. 

2. Dialogue must be open to participation from all community members. Presently, the senate accommodates input from “stakeholders” through a process of consultation. A truly deliberative process, however, would accommodate public participation. Full meetings of the senate present a rare opportunity for our representatives to question the administration and to air grievances. This opportunity should be available to all students. We propose that time be set aside at each meeting for direct public participation from CUID holders. Naturally, committees ought to accommodate public participation as well, since the senate does its most important work in this setting. 

3. We need to make it easy for students to participate. Town halls sound great in theory, but tend to be exclusive in practice. We are encouraged by the success of WTF Columbia, which has helped bring student voices into policy discussions within the Columbia College Student Council and other undergraduate councils. A similar or adapted technology platform could revolutionize the way students interact with the senate. Such a platform would allow students to set the agenda. In the 21st century, direct participation should not be a fantasy. 

These policies would be smart, sensible steps toward democratizing the senate. By finding consensus between faculty and student delegations, we can begin work on a comprehensive program immediately. We believe that faculty will be receptive to this reasonable reform program–after all, rules requiring secrecy and limiting participation hurt faculty members, too. At the very least, we can make openness the norm. There will inevitably be some exceptions to senate-wide transparency. Some committees, like the Committee on Budget Review, may be more difficult to open up than most. Others, like the Committee on Faculty Affairs, Academic Freedom, and Tenure keep their deliberations secret for good reason. But garnering support for making openness the default mode for senate committee proceedings should not be difficult. 

We began a conversation about Columbia’s democratic deficit last spring, and we are glad to see that momentum for reform has been building since. We are particularly encouraged by the recent senate election, but we are concerned that momentum could be lost if it is not translated rapidly into policy change. Marc Heinrich, CC ’16, was elected on a transparency platform, with an impressive voter turnout. We applaud Marc for making transparency his first priority. Indeed, transparency is the first step toward real senate reform. Still, senate reform must ultimately move beyond transparency, so that students can participate in the process directly. The senate must make reform a priority if it is to function as a legitimate forum for open deliberation. 

Jared Odessky is Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is a University senator representing Columbia College. David Froomkin is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and a former candidate for University Senate.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com. 

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