University Senate

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The University Senate is the main policy-making body of the university. It was created in response to the events of 1968. In fact, the Cox Report specifically criticizes the lack of a participatory governance body, such as a senate.


The University Senate was created in the wake of the events of 1968. The Executive Committee of the Faculty worked from 1968-1969 to restructure the University's governance and administrative structure. A number of proposals were received and reviewed, for which an all-encompassing Senate including faculty, students, administration, staff, and alumni was ultimately chosen and submitted for referendum and approval.[1][2] The Trustees established the Senate on May 13, 1969, and promulgated its by-laws.

The University Senate first convened on May 28, 1969.[3] Aside from the Executive Committee of the Faculty, it also succeeded to both the powers of the University Council and the Columbia University Student Council. Both bodies had been discredited in the prior decades. The University Council, a creation of President Seth Low to provide a structure of faculty consultation, had turned into an administration-heavy rubber-stamp body to approve and assent to the President's actions. Likewise, the Columbia University Student Council was “frequently dismissed by Low Library as … a handful of self-interested students, many of whom were not even at Columbia (as opposed to Barnard, Teachers College, and Union)” and “rarely had the respect of the student body during its 22-year history”.[4][5]

Statutory Powers

The Senate is governed by University Statutes II. Statutorily, it is led by the President and reports only to the Board of Trustees. Its enumerated mandate is:

Subject to the reserve power of the Trustees ... the University Senate shall be a policy-making body which may consider all matters of University-wide concern, all matters affecting more than one Faculty or school, and all matters pertaining to the implementation and execution of agreements with the other educational institutions that are now or may hereafter become affiliated with the University.
University Statutes II § 23

Specifically, the Senate's formal powers are technically without limit, subject only to the reserve powers of the Board of Trustees:

Unless Trustee concurrence is required, acts of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23 shall become final on passage. In all matters involving a change in budgetary appropriations, involving the acquisition or disposition of real property, affecting contractual obligations of the University, or as required by law, such concurrence shall be required. In all other matters, the action of the University Senate will be final unless the President shall advise the University Senate not later than its next regularly scheduled meeting that Trustee concurrence is necessary. Acts of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23 shall be concurred in or not concurred in by the Trustees by the second stated meeting of the Trustees following the submission of the University Senate’s action to the Trustees, except when the Trustees shall advise the University Senate of their need for a longer specified period of time to consider such actions. Whenever the Trustees do not concur in an act of the University Senate under Sections 22 and 23, they shall return the measure to the University Senate with an explanation of the reason for their action.
University Statutes II § 25

The language of actions becoming "shall become final on passage" subject to the concurrence of the Trustees is significant. Since the President is the head of the Senate, and all major administrators are also appointed Senators, presumably, all actions of the Senate meet his implied approval. In practice, Trustee concurrence is similar to Royal Assent; the Trustees have declined to concur with actions of the Senate for only a handful of times since its establishment.


The Senate is organized into standing committees and ad hoc task forces that meet in between its monthly plenary meetings. The following are its permanent standing committees.

  • Executive Committee
  • Student Affairs
  • Education
  • Libraries
  • Alumni Relations
  • Campus Planning and Physical Development
  • IT and Communications Technology
  • Housing Policy
  • External Relations and Research Policy
  • Budget Review
  • Faculty Affairs
  • Honors and Prizes
  • Research Officers
  • Structure and Operations
  • Commission on Status of Women
  • Elections Commission
  • Rules of University Conduct (inactive)

Of these, the Executive and Student Affairs Committee are especially significant. The Executive Committee sets the agendas of the monthly Senate plenary and conducts the major negotiations of the Senate. The Student Affairs Committee is a committee of the whole, comprising all students represented in the University Senate.

Relationship with the Student Councils

The relationship between the University Senate and the student councils has often been misunderstood. From a strictly hierarchical reporting line perspective, a student council is created and empowered by a dean of student affairs, who reports to a dean of the school or faculty, and then on to the Provost, the President, and the Trustees. The University Senate, on the other hand, is led by the President and its actions are final upon the concurrence of the Trustees. Statutorily, student councils have no jurisdiction whatsoever over affairs of the University Senate.

In the original proposal for a University Senate, the Executive Committee of the faculty noted the problem of "student government", which the Senate sought to address by including student members:

The proposal does not provide for a special student assembly or other University-wide form of student government. This reflects the dominant student point of view which regards student government as distinct from University government as both useless and unreal. With adequate representation in the University Senate, the majority student view seems to hold that no separate University-wide student government is called for. The Executive Committee concurs in this judgment. (At the departmental and divisional levels, however, separate student bodies may make sense. This proposal is not intended to prevent any subdivision of the University from adopting any structures it chooses for student participation in the conduct of its own affairs.)
A Plan for Participation, pp. 5[2]

Students at Columbia and elsewhere regard such "student government" as a sham because it does not really have anything to govern. The establishment of a university-wide student assembly without a real role in University affairs creates serious risks. Left out of the mainstream of the policy-making process-and generally left without any access to reliable information about the affairs of the university-the tendency for student government at Columbia and elsewhere has been to arouse the interest of only a very small percentage of students. The result commonly is a student assembly unrepresentative of the student body as a whole. Unrepresentative and uninformed, it is far more likely to adopt extreme political positions.
A Plan for Participation, pp. 13[2]

Disagreements over Jurisdiction

There have been numerous disagreements over jurisdiction and formal authority between the University Senate and the student councils.

Academic Calendar

The Engineering Student Council and Columbia College Student Council attempted to use the University Senate as a vehicle to present and approve their "limited early start" modification to the academic calendar in spring 2010. Representatives of the councils were given an opportunity to present to the Senate, and were questioned by the faculty on the practicality of their proposals. The Senate elected to not pursue their proposal. The councils then passed "resolutions" demanding that the University implement the proposal.[6] The Senate ignored this "resolution", and then proceeded to implement its own compromise allowing students who have exams falling on December 23 to reschedule their exams.[7]

Division of Engineering Seats

In late spring 2010, the Engineering Graduate Student Council petitioned the Senate's Elections Commission to "divide" the two seats allocated to SEAS into both a graduate and an undergraduate seat. Despite protests that "they have no authority", the Senate's Elections Commission actually did have the authority to subdivide its constituencies as it saw fit, since the seats do not "belong" to any student council, but rather to the Senate. The ESC refused to include the question of whether the seats should be split in its elections process. The Senate then ran its own referendum. The seats were restructured by the beginning of the fall 2010 semester.[8][9]

2+2 Principle

The Student Affairs Committee has striven to clarify the boundaries between issues of jurisdiction between the student councils and the University Senate. A clear understanding of these and other issues is the only way to set the groundwork for a future of more productive and constructive relations. The Student Affairs Committee formulated the "2+2 Principle" in 2010. The principle states that Senate issues are "matters of policy which affect two or more schools in which decision is required by two or more administrative authorities."

A more detailed explanation of the principle follows:

  • Matters of policy: The University Senate deals only with matters of policy. It does not concern itself with programming. In other words, it does not plan parties.
  • Two or more schools: Taken directly from the Senate's by-laws and enacting language.
  • Two or more administrative authorities: In deference to and understanding of the many shared administrative resources and student interests among the four undergraduate schools, which are technically separate schools despite having one student community.

External links


  1. Restructuring Columbia, Columbia Spectator, 10 October 1968
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 A Plan for Participation: Proposal for a University Senate, with Faculty, Student, Administration, and Other Membership, Executive Committee of the Faculty, 20 March 1969
  3. Senate Convenes Inaugural Meeting, Columbia Spectator, 3 June 1969
  4. McCaughey, Robert. Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 428.
  5. "Columbia Senate Convening Today." New York Times 28 May 1969: 29.
  6. Councils vote in favor of early academic year, Columbia Spectator, 30 March 2010
  7. USenate writes proposal to allow Dec. 23 exams to be rescheduled, Columbia Spectator, 16 April 2010
  8. ESC: Study Days, Senate Takeovers, and Scary Dorm Storming, Bwog, 30 March 2010
  9. USenate: Undergrads vs. Grads?, Bwog, 17 April 2010