A recent conference in British Columbia asked what universities ought to do with their Senates. Once the sites of fiery debate over academic issues, Senates are now mostly “comatose,” said one participant, and need to be “revived.”
I recently finished a two-year Senate term at my august institution, and, in my experience, there is some truth to the concerns. Senate meetings are so long, members often don’t want to make a fuss lest the meeting go even longer. Some senators may only be there because no one else was willing to do it, so they are just waiting out their term. Moreover, since most things go through a long process of approval and consultation before they get to Senate, senators often feel that it is not their place to object.
That said, I attended more than one Senate meeting in my two years that featured intense debate. One particularly memorable exchange focused on a controversial report over the role of the university in prioritizing certain kinds of research. Less fiery, but equally rich, was a long Senate debate over the introduction of a fall study break. The Senate at the University of Manitoba recently entertained a controversial motion about the power of deans, a motion clearly raised in the light of the Gabor Lukacs affair, and which inspired just the kind of debate over principle that supposedly no longer exists. Still further, it was not that long ago that the Trent University Senate rang with debates over their residential college system. In short, the reports of Senate comas are greatly exagerated.
It must also be noted that the quiet meetings of Senate itself can be misleading because such bodies usually have sub-committees who consider matters in separate meetings and then make recommendations to be considered on the floor of Senate itself. It is in these meetings that much of serious debate happens and when I was a member of the Academic Committee of Senate, vigorous debate was the norm at our meetings, though you would not always know it by the time the recommendations (complete with compromises and explanations) came to Senate proper. In other words, a quiet meeting may only be the final step in a very loud process.
In the end, I don’t think there is very much wrong with the Senate system as it is. If faculty don’t want to serve on Senate, they are going to have to suck it up. If Senators don’t want to engage in debate, they are going to have to remember to embody what we teach our students about critical thinking and citizenship. But apathy, laziness, and the sense that someone else can do it are not unique to university senates, and like most other human institutions, they revive when things get serious.