Senate talks about itself

The open discussion at this week’s Senate meeting focused on how to improve that body, with suggestions ranging from having more meetings of Senate to reducing the size of the agenda to allow for more discussion, to curtailing the number of annual reports presented to Senate for information.
Photo: John Kelsey
Photo: John Kelsey

By Doug Sweet

There are headlines and there are headlines. Several years ago, The New Republic deemed “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative,” parked atop a 1986 Flora Lewis column in the New York Times, to be the most boring headline, perhaps of all time.

In some circles, “Whither Senate?” might run a close second.

But potentially dull headlines aside, the open discussion at this week’s Senate meeting on how to improve that body was anything but.

Immediately after Principal Suzanne Fortier kicked off the conversation by noting that, “this will be a very important discussion for me to listen to,” the speakers’ list filled up and the 45 minutes allotted to the discussion fairly flew by. Almost everyone, it seemed, had an idea about how to make Senate, the University’s governing body tasked with general control and supervision over the academic matters, more relevant, more interesting and more productive.

Suggestions ranged from having more meetings of Senate to reducing the size of the agenda to allow for more discussion, to curtailing the number of annual reports presented to Senate for information to (only slightly tongue-in-cheek, it seemed) putting strict limits on the number of Power Point slides any Senator is allowed to present in any given year.

“Our current model does not entice debate,” said Haley Dinel, a student Senator representing the Faculty of Religious Studies, who has also sat as an ex officio student Senator when she was a SSMU vice-president. “We need to get Senators reinvested into Senate.” Dinel noted that student Senators tend to be the most vocal and engaged in the 107-member body, and have sometimes been approached by other Senators to raise points they themselves would be reluctant to advance.

“There is no public forum for debate for what would be called non-academic issues,” she said. “I would propose that Senate is the ideal institution to have debates on any given issue.”

Finding time for debate was a preoccupation with a number of speakers, who cited long lists of report presentations as cutting into the time available for meaningful discussion.

Ollivier Dyens, McGill’s new Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), suggested that Senate should assume that its members have read the material circulated. “These are similar to issues we’re facing in the classroom,” Dyens said. “I would suggest a ‘blended learning’ approach. We could assume that Senators have read the material and we could proceed directly to debates.”

Veteran Senator Honora Shaughnessy, who currently represents Administrative and Support Staff, made a pitch for more Senate meetings than the current schedule of once a month during the academic year.

“I’ve been on Senate off and on for more than 20 years,” she said. “We pack the agenda with far too much. By 5:30, half the room has left. Steering (Committee) should certainly consider whether we need more Senate meetings.”

Others were more troubled by the lack of debate and a feeling that Senate is a rubber stamp.

“There need to be instances where questions that haven’t been decided yet come forward,” said Jonathan Mooney, Secretary-General of PGSS. “We don’t debate things, really. It’s rare that we have a disagreement and a vote that goes 60-40 on things.”

That is largely the result of a strong system of Senate committees that do much of the heavy lifting before matters come before Senate, a number of Senators pointed out.

“Senate should have a greater role in decision-making about academic matters,” said Catherine Lu, who represents the Faculty of Arts. “And that’s very different from consultation. … I think you’ll get to better, more informed decisions if we’re able to deliberate and participate with a focus.”

Added SSMU Vice-President (University Affairs) Joey Shea, “it’s difficult to find students to sit on committees and it’s sometimes hard to find which committee should deal with which issues.” It’s important to make committees more accessible, she said.

We should strike a committee to study the issues raised, said Dean of Science, Martin Grant.

And that’s what will happen.

“I think there have been a lot of good suggestions,” Fortier noted. “You come here because you want to participate in shaping the academic future of this University. This University has a very strong foundation of policies…. We’re in a fast-evolving world. We will always be confronted with tough issues. We need to make sure we continue to evolve. We’ve got a lot of good suggestions. We will have a small working group that come back to you with some recommendations.”

The leadership of that group, said two Senators at the end of the discussion, should come from the floor of the Senate and not from the senior administration.

Stay tuned.