As evidenced by countless editorials, Facebook commentaries, and Bwog bashings, we have all been shocked by the inability of anyone to resolve the current academic calendar debacle. With the issue coming to a head in the latest plenary meeting of the University Senate, I was among the many students who naïvely believed there might be a chance for a final resolution. After all, even as late as last February, this paper was espousing the common knowledge that the senate was in spite of its lethargy ultimately a place where students, despite being a minority group, could "form a coalition that enables them to voice their concerns to a high-level body that takes them seriously." With that sentiment in mind, I attended this plenary meeting, eager to watch a vigorous debate and finally see this mangled corpse of an issue laid to rest. It didn't happen. For some time I have suspected, and this disheartening result has only given me more reason to believe, that the senate—the one real tool for students to influence University-wide policy—has become completely useless to and even hostile toward student concerns. It would be easy to lift our shoulders in a jaded shrug, to cite as we often do—even in this paper—the excuse that the senate is "a body infamous for inaction," and walk away disgruntled to sulk in Bwog comments. But this has not always been the way students spoke of the senate. At the dawn of the new millennium, the senate was actually a vibrant source of debate and common discourse among the student population. It would be unfair to mythologize this past era—doubtless the senate was still riddled by ineffectiveness. There remains, however, a vague institutional memory of the past, to make the current state of the senate and its blatant dismissals of the student population all the more infuriating. The lethargy of the senate, in bringing large issues to the floor in its current incarnation, seems likely to evolve (if it has not already) into a systematic discrimination against student interests and voices. Many in-depth studies needed to create an honest and meaningful dialogue on major topics take years to prepare and present. As was seen in the case of the delayed release of a pay equity study this past November, the time it takes to produce results usually causes the figures and conclusions presented to be dated and dubious. More importantly for students, though, the term length for our senators is generally two years. This means that, in many cases, by the time an issue makes its way to a viable point in the senate, not only is the data possibly irrelevant, but all of the passionate voices have been replaced by the neophytes with other concerns on their minds. Even if an issue reaches the senate floor, the time it will take for a three-fifths majority to convene to hear it against the pile-up of other concerns can cause the resolution to hang in limbo indefinitely. The senate recognizes its problem, but refuses to alter its schedule, even—as Bollinger himself noted at the last plenary—to accommodate Muslim prayers. The chances of getting a passionate, knowledgeable, and unified student coalition in attendance, simultaneously with an issue reaching fruition and a three-fifths majority, are veritably non-existent. True, debates are still held, but they usually involve senators talking at each other and not to each other. At the last meeting, students mainly haggled with James Applegate—the professor behind the faculty position on the academic calendar—about childcare, only to have him admit that the childcare issue was his own highly subjective interpretation of the faculty's simple prioritizing of a post-Labor Day start. Applegate has, as this exchange led me to believe, presented through a distorted lens the logic in committee meetings that led to the faculty's position. Though, theoretically, the minutes of these meetings should be published for all to see, in truth this has rarely if ever been done for many years now. Unable to see the logic behind committee choices directly, we depend on senators' words, laden with their own agendas, and waste our energies on shouting matches that miss the true core of the issue or possible alternatives that could have been grasped otherwise. And now, the senate wishes to make this negligent behavior a law. Unable to argue their case, doomed to pointless shouting matches, worn down by less time to make their mark, and outnumbered by faculty, student positions are almost doomed from the start in the senate, if they dare to differ from the will of the University at large. Sadly, the system seems bent against us. Perhaps, later in life we may be heard through withholding donations, but for now, we are voiceless, and I sincerely believe that it is no accident. Reform from within seems unlikely. But we are a vital and large part of this University, and we need and deserve a real outlet for our voice and force. If the senate cannot provide that, we must dream up something novel, impactful, and lasting. Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff