University Senates: Composition and Authority

Both the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) understand the university senate (or equivalent) to be a key part of university governance, ultimately responsible for governance decisions related to all aspects of the academic mission, centrally standards, policies, and structures in relation to research and teaching. From approving (or not) new courses, new programs, new research centres, as well as developing and reviewing university-wide policies and procedures, the senate plays a key day-to-day role in ensuring the integrity and quality of the academic mission.

The AAUP, in a Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities that dates back to the 1960s, defines the senate as not only a key oversight mechanism but also specifically the collective voice of university faculty. It describes decision-making bodies on academic matters: “The agencies may consist of meetings of all faculty members of a department, school, college, division, or university system, or may take the form of faculty-elected executive committees in departments and schools and a faculty-elected senate or council for larger divisions or the institution as a whole.” We might fault the AAUP policy for its emphasis on faculty and not other contributors to the academic mission (students, administrative and research staff, librarians), but I’ve bolded parts of the above for another principle at work here–a democratic principle.  Either everyone, or a “faculty-elected” body, makes the decisions, a practice that is at the core of collegial governance:  departments as a whole vote on department committees’ membership, for instance, and approve committee decisions that aren’t fully delegated to those committees.

The CAUT document defines a more diverse senate, but one in which faculty still hold the majority: “The majority of the senior academic body should be academic staff elected by their colleagues with additional representatives elected by students. The President and Vice-President (Academic) should be ex officio members with vote. Other administrators at the rank of Associate Dean and above should have voice but no vote. There should be one or two representatives elected by the Board of Governors.”  The CAUT model recommends only two voting members from the upper administration and two voting members from the Board of Governors. And, as in the AAUP document, senate is centrally an elected body.

Elected student and faculty senators represent, on democratic terms, the interests of those most directly involved in the academic mission.  In the AAUP document, “The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.  On these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty.”  The CAUT document does not even allow such an exception: “If post-secondary institutions are to fulfill their public responsibilities for the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge and for the education of students, academic staff must play the decisive role in making academic decisions and setting academic policy. . . . Academic decisions and setting of academic policy should be the responsibility of a senior academic body (typically called a Senate) committed to collegial governance.”

So, under these two documents, senates are, with defined exceptions, both democratic and the highest authority on academic matters.

British Columbia’s University Act uses a broadly proportional system to define senate composition: elected faculty representatives must be double the number of upper administrative members, and elected student representatives must be equal to the number of upper administrative members, along with an additional four members and representatives from each affiliated college.  Others are rather opaque:  the University of Saskatchewan Act doesn’t even have a fixed number for administration senators, including, for instance, “present and former chancellors,” all vice-presidents (a ballooning cohort in North American higher education), all deans and principals and so on, while fixing the number of faculty representatives at 28. (Interesting sidenote: under the University of Saskatchewan Act, the relevant minister and deputy minister are also on senate, closely integrating provincial and internal governance.)

But perhaps the widest disparity among Canadian university senates is on the question of their autonomy. My own university’s Senate has nearly none:  read through the provincial statutes and the Senate Constitution, and you’ll see the phrase “subject to the approval of the Board [of Governors]” a lot, including Senate decisions on “policies, procedures, guidelines and regulations on academic and research matters that affect the whole University community or a substantial part thereof” (I briefly noted this highly peculiar and worrying aspect of Dalhousie governance in a 2013 article, and–full disclosure–recently resigned from a Senate Sub-committee over grave concern about the Senate’s functionality as such).

The BC University Act specifies just three areas of senate authority that require board approval: broadly speaking, the creation or elimination of a department or faculty or other ongoing structures (e.g., prizes), reporting from faculties, and affiliations with other bodies.  Other universities have similar constraints in these three areas (e.g., Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Manitoba).  At Western University, the Senate is largely unfettered, and its limitations in relation to the Board go hand-in-hand with an unusually significant role in the matter of faculty and key upper-administrative appointments:

(g) establish and recommend to the Board policies and procedures to be followed in the selection, appointment, promotion and termination of appointment of the members of the Faculty, and the conditions under which tenure and sabbatical leave are granted;
(h) in collaboration with the Board create a committee to make recommendations respecting the appointment of the President and Vice-Chancellor as provided in clause 19(a) and shall be consulted before the termination of any appointment so made.

I’ve read a lot of these, from the US and Canada, and “collaboration” is a term rarely used. Indeed, these two clauses are rather unusual in substance as well: “g” is often addressed through Collective Agreements and the like, for instance, and we’ve recently seen some concerns about the transparency of presidential appointments in particular.

Overall, our senates tend to line up very well with both AAUP and CAUT statements on senate responsibilities and with the CAUT model of a majority of elected faculty on senate, but emphatically not in the number of voting senators from upper administration.  There is also significant variation on the relationship between the senate and the board–but that’s a subject for a later post.


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