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Career Advice

Serving in university senate

A path to progress, or a parliament of chores?


Professors serve their communities in many ways – by sitting on committees, reviewing journals, and assessing grant proposals. But by joining senate, substantial, longer-term projects can be carried through to completion. As a former dean of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, Chris Ross became an ex officio member of senate and soon realized how important the body is to the institution. The reason? Senators can generate new ideas and bring insight to the table. “I think senate determines the kind of institution we have,” says Dr. Ross. “The kind of decisions senate makes determines the progression we have and the thrust of research.”

When University of British Columbia zoology professor Jim Berger was curriculum chair in senate, the faculty of medicine proposed to move towards problem-based learning. “There was huge resistance in the faculty,” he explains. It was a lot of work for the dean to promote it. So the faculty approached the senate curriculum committee for help. “The proposal came in with a timeline that looked like mission impossible. We recommended that they back off, and take another year (to make changes). Even with that extra year, they barely made it,” Dr. Berger says. After all was said and done, it ended up taking a total of five years to completely implement the new program. “People sometimes feel committees slow things down and are just another bump in the road.” But, says Dr. Berger, senate is able to ask if a proposed change is feasible within the desired time frame.

McGill education professor Anthony Paré believes that if faculty sensed that governance practice and procedure were important, and really did affect policy and daily life, they’d get involved. “As academics we believe in exchange and rhetorical richness,” he says. “We want disagreement – that’s how progress is made. We’re trained to argue!”

York University’s George Fallis, co-author of Academic Citizenship, an academic colleagues’ working paper commissioned by the Council of Ontario Universities, believes that participating in governance should go beyond just being on senate. He suggests that the quality of a participant’s involvement needs to be considered, and that one needs to ask “what it means to make substantive contribution, not just in terms of time but in creativity and impact.” If universities are able measure the quality of teaching, they should also be able to gauge the impact of service.

Johanne Pelletier, McGill University’s secretary general, agrees that “participation in governance should be part of an academic’s responsibility.” She advocates that new faculty should start small while working towards tenure. While senate participation might be too much, “there may be other ways they can contribute, by sitting on a faculty or departmental committees.”

But here’s a secret: the time spent on council or in senate may look more onerous than it really is. University of Saskatchewan council chair Jim Merriam says his involvement “hasn’t been as time consuming as I thought it would,” and adds “council’s not a huge commitment of time. We meet once a month. But a committee can meet once every week or two.”

Dr. Berger, who’s been on senate since 1992, believes the time he puts in is no different than with any other service work. Some committees meet regularly, some ad hoc; vacations sometimes need to be planned around appeals or quorums. “Like any administrative work, sometimes it’s flexible, sometimes it’s not,” he says. But overall, senators “aren’t necessarily busier.”

Besides, Dr. Berger believes in making the commitment because it allows him “to see the development of policies … and convince others that it’s worth doing.” Members of senate aren’t just humble altruists. “Senate determines the quality of my own academic life,” says Dr. Ross. “We can’t simply sit back and believe all this happens by happenstance. If we want to have influence, we have to be involved.”

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