Ever wonder just what it is those mysterious University Senators do after they’re elected in May? Bwog does, too. To find out, we spoke with Jared Odessky, CC ’15, about why the Senate exists and what a handful of undergrads are doing on it.
Bwog: Can you tell me a little bit about the Senate as a body–what it is, how it’s structured?
Jared Odessky: Sure, and while doing that I’ll also explain how it’s separate from the student councils. The University Senate is a university-wide body that consists of students, faculty members, researchers, and administrators who work together to pass university-wide policy. While each school, for the most part, has its own council which deals with internal issues and works directly with the deans and student affairs administrators for those schools, the University Senate can only take on an issue if it affects more than one school and if it’s outside of the realm of the trustees. So issues that relate to labor, issues that relate to politics, issues that for the most part relate to general budgeting don’t fall within the Senate sphere, because that’s things the trustees deal with, and any issues that go under an individual school’s jurisdiction are not University Senate policy.
Bwog: What kind of issues does that leave? What’s a typical docket of Senate issues?
JO: Major issues that have been dominating over the past several years include the smoking ban, which has been under external relations as one issue that affects, obviously, multiple schools on the Morningside campus. Another example would be TAs; that affects both undergraduates who deal with TAs as well as graduate students that serve as TAs. Anything having to do with technology [and] the libraries, which are two areas that I’d like to focus on this year too.
Bwog: Can you tell me about the history of the Senate? Why does it exist? How long as it existed?
JO: The Senate was created on May 13th, 1969. Basically, after the 1968 riots, many, especially Columbia College, undergraduates saw the administration as this top-down institution that was imposing ideas and policies without any real outlet for input, both among students and faculty. So especially CC students and faculty came together in the ‘68 riots to push back against the adminstration. As a result, the University Senate was created by the trustees as an outlet to deal with those issues so that whenever there was hostility boiling up again, the University Senate could be the place where those issues could be debated and figured out.
Bwog: As an individual University Senator in this huge body, what’s your role?
JO: It’s certainly more difficult for a student senator, because we’re vastly outnumbered by faculty. The faculty number is in the 60s, the student number is in the 20s. Each student senator sits on the student affairs committee, which is where students from all the different schools work together to try to represent the student voice as a whole. That’s where the quality of life survey has been coming from, developing that feedback and presenting it to faculty and administrators and researchers. But for the most part, it’s a lot of coalition building and working with faculty and researchers and the administration to figure out what issues we can work together on.
Bwog: What are some of your individual goals for your tenure as a University Senator?
JO: One of the biggest issues that’s been emerging is space. The Senate, while not directly overseeing the expansion in Manhattanville, has a campus planning committee where we’re able to discuss with the trustees and the administration’s ears open what we would like to see happen to the vacated Morningside space as more of the graduate schools move to Manhattanville. So we’ve been working on the Morningside student space initiative, and I think collecting that data and showing the administration will really help in securing spaces that undergraduate students and our many graduate students need. I would also like to see technology tackled. I’d like to do a full technology report to assess where we stand in terms of technology compared to peer institutions as well as satisfaction regarding technology on campus. Some of that data we already have from the quality of life survey. But I think that working toward having an advisory board to CUIT would be awesome, especially because innovation, I think, is something CUIT’s been lacking in, and I think students have a lot of great ideas for how to innovate technology on campus. And I think that getting that input to CUIT directly would be a really great way to make sure that things are working properly.
Bwog: Anything else you’d like Bwog readers to know about the University Senate?
JO: The Senate only meets once a month, which I think is very different. It doesn’t react to headlines, is kind of the philosophy. Whereas the student councils react directly to maybe something in Bwog or Spec and see things that they should deal with immediately, the Senate counts itself as a deliberative body which is supposed to not react to direct news, but get a feel for the pulse on campus over long periods of time and deal with long-term issues. And the Senate is chaired by PrezBo.
Photos via Columbia’s University Senate