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University senators say senate should play larger role

Canadian study shows just half of senate members think it is an effective decision-making body.


A new study examining the roles and responsibilities of academic senates revealed a significant gap between the governance role that senates play within a university and the role that university senators believe they should play.

“That,” said Lea Pennock, former university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan and a co-author of the study, “was one of the most interesting findings.” The study, a follow-up to one conducted in 2000, was based on a national survey of senate members and university secretaries, who coordinate and support the work of senates. The findings were presented to university leaders at a December workshop on strategic leadership of senate, organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

More than 90 percent of senators who responded to a survey used for the study agreed that the senate should regularly review the performance of the university in academic areas, but less than half of them said it does so. Given the important role of the senate in relation to academic standards and quality, these responses show that further research is needed, the study concluded. One possible reason for the discrepancy is that faculty councils do much of the work on curriculum changes and academic standards, and their work is brought to senate for approval, said Dr. Pennock. She said she would “hazard a guess” that the issue “is not that senate members think that academic standards aren’t being upheld, but that it’s not being done by the senate.” Most Canadian universities have a bicameral governance structure with boards of governors responsible for administrative and fiscal matters and senates responsible for academic affairs.

The survey also revealed that some members view the senate as little more than a rubber stamp. Asked whether the senate is an effective decision-making body, about half of respondents agreed and 23 percent disagreed. More than three-quarters of senators said they saw themselves as active members of the senate, but just 45 percent said they felt they were able to influence senate decisions. Two-thirds of respondents said the senate primarily approves decisions made elsewhere, and more than 80 percent said most of the work of the senate is done in committees.

Dr. Pennock noted that these longstanding concerns tend to vary among constituencies, with senior administrators more likely to view senate as an effective decision-making body and to see themselves as being able to influence senate decisions. Faculty members and students, on the other hand, were less likely to view it this way.

Even though some members see senate as a rubber stamp doesn’t mean they view the board or the administration as the sole decision-maker, said Dr. Pennock, but rather that the senate committees make the decisions and bring them to the larger body for ratification: “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Some institutions have streamlined the number and structure of senate committees to improve their effectiveness, she noted.

Another significant finding, she added, is that while 94 percent of respondents believed that the senate should review its own performance, only 26 percent felt that it does so. However, several institutions are putting in place measures to allow senators to conduct internal evaluations.

University senates vary widely in size, from fewer than 25 members to more than 200. Of the 38 universities participating in the study, 10 – mostly large research-intensive institutions – had senates with more than 100 members. Many newer universities formed from previously existing colleges or university colleges had senates with fewer than 50 members.

For the universities participating in the study, faculty members made up the largest group of senators, accounting for an average of 48 percent of total membership; students accounted for 16 percent, deans for 13 percent, and other senior administrators and department heads for five percent each. The remainder was comprised of vice-presidents, presidents, alumni, non-academic staff, government representatives and others. Senators’ average age was 48. The percentage of male senate members fell to 58 percent in 2012 from 73 percent in the previous study.

University secretaries identified several issues of concern, including the challenge of engaging senate members, tensions between the various senate constituencies, and conflicts arising from the responsibilities of the senate and those of the university administration and board. University legislation clearly delineates the responsibilities of the board and the responsibilities of the senate, but there is bound to be overlap. “It almost goes with the territory that there is going to be some role confusion,” said Dr. Pennock, “because you can’t set the budget without thinking about academic programs and vice versa.”

One way to improve the situation may be to get senate and board members together to discuss their complementary roles in advancing the mission of the university, she suggested.

This was one of the suggestions brought forward at the AUCC workshop in December, attended by 33 university leaders – presidents and vice-presidents, academic – from 24 member institutions.  A summary of the workshop, shared with university presidents, noted some new pressures on university senates imposed by the economy, the rapid pace of change in higher education, and increasing government involvement in matters that fall under the purview of senates.

The summary said that getting the different constituencies in senate to rise above their individual interests can be a challenge. It underlined the crucial role for senior university administrators in dealing with the challenges.

“Participants at the workshop said re-engaging senate is a work-in-progress and university heads need to seize the opportunity to set a good tone,” said Pari Johnston, AUCC director of member relations, in summing up the conclusions from the workshop. “What’s required is strategic attention by university leaders to ensure that senate plays its rightful role in institutional governance.”

Dr. Pennock and Jeff Leclerc, university secretary at the University of Manitoba, presented the study results at the AUCC workshop. The two other authors are Glen Jones, professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Sharon Li, a PhD candidate at OISE. The results will also be presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education during the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Victoria, in June.

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