The University Senate saw a tense debate a over post-vote revision to a policy prohibiting romantic and sexual relationships between undergraduate students and faculty members at its monthly plenary on Friday. The change—made over the summer without public knowledge or consultation with the Senate body—removed the guarantee of certain student protections in Columbia’s handling of illicit relationships.
The policy, voted on and passed last April after contentious debate, forbids all romantic and sexual relationships between undergraduates and faculty, staff, and teaching assistants. After the April plenary, however, the undergraduate-led resolution underwent revision as it circulated through seven different Senate committees between April and June by the use of “summer powers,” which permits the Senate to revise policies after they have been publicly passed.
The final revised version—which removed language prioritizing the protection of students’ rights—was never shown to the student affairs committee for approval. Revisions included the removal of the line, “At all times, the institutional response shall keep the student’s educational aims and needs foremost,” a move that School of Social Work senator David Cheng objected to at Sunday’s plenary.
Confusion throughout the Senate over the disappearance of this language reflected a lack of transparency and effective communication between Senate general council and Senate subcommittees. Senators voiced doubts regarding the purpose of the University Senate and a plenary vote given that any policy may be revised after it is passed.
“If the senate approves something, but if it goes back to [make] changes that senators weren’t informed of, what’s the point of us voting for anything?” Cheng said.
SEAS senator Zoha Qamar said the revisions seem “insidious” to undergraduate students, particularly as they excluded undergraduate input despite the fact that the policy was spearheaded by the SAC.
“Every sentence is substantive. The words matter because they are legal concerns,” Qamar said.
Members of the faculty affairs committee—the other subcommittee involved in drafting the original policy—also expressed being unclear about the revision process.
“Somewhere along the line, not all connections were made. We all agreed in faculty committee this was not the version we voted on,” said co-chair of the faculty affairs committee Letty Moss-Salentijn.
College of Physicians and Surgeons senator Richard Smiley questioned whether the changes were intended to protect Columbia against lawsuits, noting that the office of the general counsel must approve changes in University legislation.
“For all I know, that sentence went because general counsel decided that had too much liability for the University, because it was too high a bar to always put the student’s education first. ... If they said, ‘[the line] really is a little too dangerous to have out there because someone could sue us on that basis, we’re gonna get rid of it,’ then that’s not okay [to change] after it’s passed,” Smiley said.
Despite anger and confusion voiced at the plenary, Senate Moderator and Senior Vice Dean at School of Professional Studies Sharyn O’Halloran said that the Senate priority for the semester should be creating policies on relationships between graduate students and faculty members, especially given an impending graduate student strike. The student and faculty affairs committees are currently developing a similar policy for graduate students.
Also at the plenary, ombuds officer Joan Waters presented the Ombuds Office Annual Report, which revealed statistics regarding faculty, staff, and student visits to the office. According to the report, Ombuds has seen a 69 percent visitor increase since April of 2014, and between April 2017 and March 2018, 73 percent of visits were at Morningside, and 63 percent were female.
The report additionally found that the top areas of stress across the University were financial issues, faculty unresponsiveness, medical leaves of absence, and housing issues, among others. Ninety-nine percent of all visitors surveyed said they trusted the office to maintain confidentiality and would refer others to the service.