Most undergraduates haven’t the foggiest idea of what the University Senate actually does. It makes an appearance in conversations across campus come campaign season, but over the course of the academic year, it remains shrouded in mystery, despite the body’s open plenary sessions and student press coverage.

But while the University Senate’s performance might appear to be the least sexy debate on campus today, it forces us to ask what kind of university we want.

These sort of campus conversations inevitably return to 1968, the year of Columbia’s original sin. The events of that year set the standard we use to consider the health of our University and its community, and the University Senate was inaugurated in their wake. Student participation in university governance had not always been a feature of higher education, but faculty and administration hoped it would act as a prophylactic against future anarchy. Of the 40-or-so plans proposed to restructure Columbia after the student uprising, only the senate—the brainchild of a faculty committee (though overwhelmingly approved by student referendum)—found implementation.

In the half-century since, it seems that it has fulfilled its mandate, providing students with a voice along the way. The senate can claim credit for advancing a breadth of policy initiatives that have improved the Columbia experience. The Quality of Life survey conducted by the senate’s Student Affairs Committee every two years provides a wealth of information the senate can use to better student life. Last spring, the senate passed resolutions to affirm its support for the freedom of expression in the academic environment and on campus. Recently, it voted to establish an African-American and African Diaspora studies department, pending trustees’ approval.

Some might say the University Senate doesn't go far enough to represent students. Frankly, I don't understand why.

Though only seven undergraduates serve on the University Senate, these critics raise the question—should university governance actually be democratic? To the extent that a democratic deficit exists, there is good reason to believe that it's reasonable: The senate puts students in the same room as high-ranking faculty and administrators; it also prevents us from ramming through the ill-advised proposals of a passionate student majority—think graduate student unionization and the activist flavor du jour.

That's not to say the University should be totally undemocratic: Intellectual discussion and debate rests on the premise that your core convictions could well be proven wrong by a better argument—it is, in this specific sense, an inherently democratic institution.

I like how tenured professor Wm. Theodore de Bary described his support for the senate in 1969: “I suppose if you believe that there are good things worth conserving, then you are a conservative. I believe this university is worth conserving. But of course this is only part of the picture—nothing good can be preserved simply by holding on to the status quo, and refusing to adapt to new challenges."

This is, after all, what the University Senate has done since its inception: It allows for the conservation of time-tested practices and behaviors, while also permitting adaptability to student needs. It enshrines the hierarchical structure of the University environment, while also providing means for students to effect real, tangible change. We hate to admit it, but the University works best when those with knowledge and prudence developed during years in academia are empowered to make wise decisions, justifying the ratio of faculty to students in the senate.

But this can only be the case if we are allowed a say when the University messes up. Sometimes we forget that in addition to students we are customers—and as such, we shouldn't be afraid to speak out when given short shrift by the University. Sometimes, the best way to fix problems is through the senate; sometimes it's through a stern email addressed to the Columbia bureaucracy or a shot across the bow in these pages.

The senate over the course of its existence has proven an incredible capacity to improve our Columbia experience, but it's no panacea, and we shouldn't view it as one.

Most undergraduates haven’t the foggiest idea of what the University Senate actually does. It makes an appearance in conversations across campus come campaign season, but over the course of the academic year, it remains shrouded in mystery, despite the body’s open plenary sessions and student press coverage.

But while the University Senate’s performance might appear to be the least sexy debate on campus today, it forces us to ask what kind of university we want.

These sort of campus conversations inevitably return to 1968, the year of Columbia’s original sin. The events of that year set the standard we use to consider the health of our University and its community, and the University Senate was inaugurated in their wake. Student participation in university governance had not always been a feature of higher education, but faculty and administration hoped it would act as a prophylactic against future anarchy. Of the 40-or-so plans proposed to restructure Columbia after the student uprising, only the senate—the brainchild of a faculty committee (though overwhelmingly approved by student referendum)—found implementation.

Jimmy Quinn is a junior in the School of General Studies majoring in political science. He spent two years at Sciences Po in France, where he studied social sciences and was editor of the campus newspaper. In his spare time, he likes to regale his friends with nonsensical stories that lack clear endings, but you might also find him on the bouldering wall. His pet peeve is large groups of slow people blocking the sidewalk. Reach him at jtq2104@columbia.edu if you also miss Nuss or just want to send him hate mail. He tweets @realjimmyquinn.

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By JIMMY QUINN
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Discourse & Debate: Is the Columbia University Senate doing its job?

Created in the wake of the 1968 protests, the University Senate was originally meant to restructure the University’s administrative and governing systems in order to effectively incorporate student and professorial input in university-wide policy decisions. Is the University Senate fulfilling its mandate?

How effective is a governing body if students aren’t fully aware of its endeavors?

The intent of the University Senate was to facilitate and include student and faculty perspectives in policy decisions after the unrest of 1968. In order to diffuse heightened sentiments about the construction of a segregated gymnasium in Morningside Park, the University Senate assembled as a meeting ground for students and the institutional establishment. In many recent agendas, the University Senate has made strides in progressive campus and academic concerns, most notably the vote in support of an African Diaspora and African American Studies department just last week. But in light of the controversial campus activism in the past decade, from fossil fuel divestment to freedom of speech, I have two concerns about the operations of the University Senate: its level of transparency, and its imbalanced representation of students, faculty, and administrators.

As a sophomore undergraduate student, the most exposure I have had to the University Senate was during election season when representatives asked for votes. If this lack of knowledge is the norm for a majority of students, how open and effective is the University Senate? The main form of communication with the constituency of Columbia should not be asking for our votes. We should be notified about decisions that will impact us. The inconsistent involvement of students makes it feel as if we are not truly being considered in the decision-making process. If the senate is an environment where Columbia students can express the concerns of their constituency, then the constituents should at least be notified about policy developments.

To my point of representation, there is a great inequality between student and administrative voices in the University Senate. Of the 108 seats, only 24 are reserved for students while 84 are for faculty, administrators, and other staff. I do believe in a fair distribution of voices on the University Senate, and its makeup should consider the proportional number of seats to the cross-school student population—Columbia enrolls over 32,000 students, and has about 4,000 faculty. The students should be regarded as a main component, not grateful add-ons. If the voice of the senate is not that of students, who is actually speaking on behalf of Columbia?

The University Senate may be powerful in that it establishes official Columbia policies, but the senate is not representative of the students on campus. Historically, election campaigns for councils and boards have tended to capitalize on the concerns and stories of minority students. Elections typically grab hold of the struggles of marginalized students and contort them into self-advantageous talking points. Including but not limited to within the senate, students who live under harsh social realities should be heard whether or not they are running for a representative or political seat. Nevertheless, even if underrepresented students do make it to the table, they often are not offered a substantial plate.

In analyzing the University Senate, I think back to the 1968 activists who were demanding justice and recognition. While the democratic model of the senate looks promising and inclusive, the senate needs to rethink who ought to be the real beneficiary of this organization of bright minds. If the University Senate wants to be a force of influential dialogues and action, it can only be so if students of diverse backgrounds and experiences are included and informed about the choices being made about us.

How effective is a governing body if students aren’t fully aware of its endeavors?

The intent of the University Senate was to facilitate and include student and faculty perspectives in policy decisions after the unrest of 1968. In order to diffuse heightened sentiments about the construction of a segregated gymnasium in Morningside Park, the University Senate assembled as a meeting ground for students and the institutional establishment. In many recent agendas, the University Senate has made strides in progressive campus and academic concerns, most notably the vote in support of an African Diaspora and African American Studies department just last week. But in light of the controversial campus activism in the past decade, from fossil fuel divestment to freedom of speech, I have two concerns about the operations of the University Senate: its level of transparency, and its imbalanced representation of students, faculty, and administrators.

As a sophomore undergraduate student, the most exposure I have had to the University Senate was during election season when representatives asked for votes. If this lack of knowledge is the norm for a majority of students, how open and effective is the University Senate? The main form of communication with the constituency of Columbia should not be asking for our votes. We should be notified about decisions that will impact us. The inconsistent involvement of students makes it feel as if we are not truly being considered in the decision-making process. If the senate is an environment where Columbia students can express the concerns of their constituency, then the constituents should at least be notified about policy developments.

Tova Ricardo is a sophomore in Columbia College, studying English and sociology. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ricardo is an original Golden State Warriors fan and honors the history of social activism in her communities. In the Office of Multicultural Affairs, she is a second-year board member on Queer and Trans Student Advisory Board. She is the co-event planner and historian for the Barnard Writing Collective and was a member of the 2017-2018 Columbia/Barnard Poetry Slam Team. Ricardo is an avid reader of Langston Hughes, can be found studying in the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and loves taking walks through uptown New York City.

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By TOVA RICARDO
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If you have ever walked into Dodge Fitness Center only to curse the University Senate for the lack of available squat racks, then congratulations: You have given the University Senate more thought than 98% of the student body.

This admittedly exaggerated response reflects an understandable but flawed view of the University Senate, one that is informed by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are, in the main, organizations that deliver goods. These goods—the results of the policy-making process—might be a tangible good like a squat rack or an intangible good like diversity. And so it goes that this view of Congress is transposed onto the University Senate.

Yet just as the federal government leaves a great deal of authority to the states, so too does the University Senate leave most authority to Columbia’s various schools, departments, meme pages, etc. It is these organizations, not the University Senate, that are most responsible for responding to student and faculty input, and that structure the quality and rhythm of university life accordingly. In other words, the senate only exists to receive input on and respond to University-wide issues. And it just so happens that University-wide issues only exist in small specific pockets that have not been filled in by some other body, be it administration, faculty, or student-led. If we’re going, then, to answer whether the University Senate is fulfilling its mandate, it is useful to start with something that is actually codified as part of it: the decree that restricts their resolution-making mission to “...matters affecting more than one faculty or school.”

With that by-law in mind, it stands to reason that if you’re dissatisfied with the University Senate because of some issue on campus, that dissatisfaction is probably misplaced. And the same sometimes goes for other elected officials, from Congressmen to county clerks. Unlike blame-shifting and fame-grifting politicians, though, University senators neither downplay nor play up their roles in campus life, leading to a great deal of confusion regarding their jurisdiction. Part of their relative silence is surely due to the nature of the office and its holders: These are upstanding students and academics performing a duty for Columbia, not a gaggle of grandstanding pols.

But moreover, the senators are actually bound to confidentiality in most cases. Senate plenaries, the general meetings of the entire body, are open to the public. The committees, however, do the bulk of the work and their records are kept sealed for 50 years. The senate’s stated rationale for this by-law is that it wishes for the committees to have “the freest discussion possible” on the issues they address. In lieu of detailed proceedings, committees such as Student Affairs issue summaries whose contents range from specific and laudable undertakings like establishing the School of Professional Studies Student Council, to vague gestures toward “sustainable development”—a very important goal, so as to ensure that those records are not underwater when they are released 50 years from now.

Should you find yourself scratching your head while asking, “This is what they’re keeping from us?” then you are not alone. The senatorial issues that affect students in particular tend to be small but important things, like the examples given. It is precisely the senate’s limited mandate, however, that ought to buy it some confidentiality: The more powerful an organization is, the more transparency we should demand from it. Yet the senate should not be so opaque as to cause confusion about its jurisdiction.

Columbia is much smaller than the sum of its parts. The 1968ers have indeed had some success, but it is occurring in silos, not under Low Library Rotunda. That being said, senators: Just maybe, if you would, shave a few decades off of the document release timespan. I’d like to read about the specifics of your green initiatives before I retire.

If you have ever walked into Dodge Fitness Center only to curse the University Senate for the lack of available squat racks, then congratulations: You have given the University Senate more thought than 98% of the student body.

This admittedly exaggerated response reflects an understandable but flawed view of the University Senate, one that is informed by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are, in the main, organizations that deliver goods. These goods—the results of the policy-making process—might be a tangible good like a squat rack or an intangible good like diversity. And so it goes that this view of Congress is transposed onto the University Senate.

Jeremy Mack is a first-year English major at the School of General Studies. He is a proud graduate of Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y.—the town in which he was born and raised. He prefers to keep to himself, but, truth be told, he is more of an indoor cat than a lone wolf. His hobbies and pastimes are the usual boring pap that everyone does, but since his bio must be at least one hundred words, he will list some of them here: cycling, flossing after meals, watching television, reading books (picture and chapter), and listening to music.

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By JEREMY MACK

According to the Official Guide to the University Senate, Columbia created the University Senate in order to allow elected representatives, students, and faculty to “lead policy change at the highest level of the University through their committee service.” You’re probably wondering what that means. Does Columbia actually allow students and faculty to make meaningful change in the University? What does “meaningful” even mean here?

Well, are you reading this from the second floor of Lerner? Because after 18 years of discarded and conflicting proposals, undergraduate senators helped to push Columbia to build the lounge on the second floor, which made the conference rooms move to the third floor and the computer room to a dark corner on the fourth floor. Because of this last plenary, the Institute for Race and African American Studies could go from not being able to hire independent faculty to being able to hire independent faculty, if the trustees approve the senate resolution. The senate is powerful, and if you’re involved in campus politics, you know it’s powerful.

And yet, this isn’t a question about how powerful the senate is today or how much more effective it is compared to the individual student governments. This is a question about the mandate set by 1968.

If we were to presume that the senate helps prevent a situation like 1968 from happening again, we need to evaluate what would have happened if then-University President Grayson Kirk could have relied on a University Senate if it existed in 1968, and if it, instead of the Ad Hoc Faculty Group, convened in Philosophy Hall during the length of the protests. The catalyst for the protests was the imminent trial of Mark Rudd and the IDA Six, who were protesting Columbia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Multiple faculty groups, from the Ad Hoc Faculty Group to the Trilling-Galanter-Hovde Committee, proposed that the disciplining of students who occupied Columbia in defense of the IDA Six be handled by a tripartite commission of students, faculty, and administrators. And, based on its current constitution, the senate can do just that: One of its enumerated powers is to govern “rules governing demonstrations.” In fact, over a hundred faculty—including senators—put pressure on the administration to give leniency to student protesters against Republican events last October, and it worked.

However, disciplinary issues were only an immediate cause of the revolution. The senate could discuss the Institute for Defense Analyses or the Morningside Gym, as one might guess the faculty did in Philosophy Hall, but according to the senate guide, “Trustee concurrence is required in matters involving a change in budgetary appropriations, acquisition or disposition of real property, and contractual obligations of the University.” Even if you argue in this bicameral structure that the senate is a co-equal branch to the Trustees rather than a lower house, if the senate wanted to (as the Ad Hoc Faculty Group did) halt excavation of the gym, the Trustees could say no, like they did back then, and I’m sure further cutting ties with the IDA was out of the question.

I’m not saying that the senate means nothing—that wouldn’t be true. However, representation means nothing without power, and until the senate is the final arbiter in every policy matter, including unanimous approval of departments, its mandate cannot be fulfilled.

According to the Official Guide to the University Senate, Columbia created the University Senate in order to allow elected representatives, students, and faculty to “lead policy change at the highest level of the University through their committee service.” You’re probably wondering what that means. Does Columbia actually allow students and faculty to make meaningful change in the University? What does “meaningful” even mean here?

Well, are you reading this from the second floor of Lerner? Because after 18 years of discarded and conflicting proposals, undergraduate senators helped to push Columbia to build the lounge on the second floor, which made the conference rooms move to the third floor and the computer room to a dark corner on the fourth floor. Because of this last plenary, the Institute for Race and African American Studies could go from not being able to hire independent faculty to being able to hire independent faculty, if the trustees approve the senate resolution. The senate is powerful, and if you’re involved in campus politics, you know it’s powerful.

Ufon Umanah is the investigations editor for The Blue and White, an undergraduate magazine of Columbia University. He’s involved in too many political groups, but that just means he knows a lot about what’s going on here. You can follow him @ufonumanah on Twitter, or read his blog, The Jotting Jay, for other interesting content.

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By UFON UMANAH


In eighth grade, the early days of my illustrious career as a purveyor of piping hot takes, I published an article in the Conestoga Valley Middle School newspaper dumping my salt all over what I believed to be our hopelessly ineffectual and inadequate organ of student government: the student council.

With the insufferable pretension of a thirteen-year-old know-it-all, I complained that all student council did was decide the theme of the next school dance or pep rally when they ought to be addressing the Real Serious Issues of school policy—like the unjust and unreasonable restrictions on recess, and the antics in the congested hallways.

At least I wasn't alone in my grievances. The students of 1968 had the same complaints about student council that I had, and the University Senate was created in 1969, as a result, to give student representatives a voice in shaping the policy of the University.

The mandate of the University Senate was democratization, shifting the balance of power and pulling the margins toward the center. However, the unequal representation in the University Senate serves to uphold the undemocratic structure of Columbia University as a whole, in terms of who has power, and who doesn't, and whose voices carry the most influence. And if we assess its success by its fulfillment of the democratic mandate that caused its creation, then the University Senate has still not done enough to provide representation to the Columbia community.

Students make up the largest group of Columbia affiliates represented in the senate. Although the University Senate gives students the chance to elect representatives to advocate for their interests in the shaping of university policy, student senators still make up only a fifth of the senate seats. Additionally, although non-tenured professors are the majority at Columbia, as at most schools, tenured professors occupy almost three times as many seats. This stacking of the senate serves allows the administration to avoid giving students significant say over policy despite presenting the appearance of representative democracy.

And other groups in the Columbia community still have no say at all. No Columbia service workers—such as dining and facilities workers—are represented in the senate. And there is no representation for residents of the majority black and brown communities—Harlem, Manhattanville, Washington Heights—in which Columbia is located, despite the fact that Columbia decisions directly affect them.

If we premise our arguments on a vision of the University as defined by a steadfast and permanent institutional memory, this makes sense. Tenured professors, administrators, and trustees should, by this reasoning, have the most influence in decision-making because their goal is to preserve institutional memory. They symbolize permanence whereas adjuncts, students, and staff are just passing through. But students are the heart and lifeblood of the University––we play a large part in defining its campus culture and will become the next generation of scholars. This perennial institution could not run without the crucial work of its adjuncts, graduate workers, and staff. The local community, despite being directly affected by the decisions of an enormously powerful institution in which it has been given no say, adds to the Columbia experience, for the University experience does not exist in isolation of its environs.

A truly democratic governing body means integrating the voices of everyone affected by Columbia’s decisions into the decision-making process. It means proportional representation for the entirety of the Columbia community. That’s the structure of the University Senate to which we ought to aspire.


In eighth grade, the early days of my illustrious career as a purveyor of piping hot takes, I published an article in the Conestoga Valley Middle School newspaper dumping my salt all over what I believed to be our hopelessly ineffectual and inadequate organ of student government: the student council.

Tiffany Dimm is a sophomore at Columbia College majoring in English. She grew up in the cornfields of Lancaster, Pa., where the Amish had long beards and didn’t drive cars before it was cool. She’s involved with Student-Worker Solidarity and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice. One time she ate an entire box of mochi ice cream in one sitting, which she considers among her most defining accomplishments. A Buzzfeed quiz once told her that her French food personality is macaron. If you’re looking for her, she has probably run off to the nearest woods to chase butterflies and frolic in nature.

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By TIFFANY DIMM

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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