Opaque Senate

Tim Asimakis questions why we know so little about the Senate.

Photography by Merryjack via Flickr.

Having done my time in coloured nylon on Eastern Avenue, I consider myself reasonably informed when it comes to the mélange of institutions that dictate student life. I know the make up of the USU’s Board of Directors, understand the factions that control the SRC, and can name the editors of our student publications. But I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the University Senate. It’s hard not to be.

Senate is the University’s governing body. It’s 22 fellows, only two of whom are elected students, are charged with a multitude of duties including overseeing the Vice-Chancellor’s performance, approving the strategic direction of the University and determining the university budget.

But for such an important institution, Senate is rarely subjected to much scrutiny. Few questions are asked, and the few answers they yield must be hard-won. To find anything of use, one must sift through a website riddled with misinformation. (In case any site admins are reading – student fellows serve for two years, not one.)

Hidden amongst the mistakes are the unfulfilled promises of real information. A handy FAQ explains Senate’s commitment to publishing the minutes for each of its meetings. Sadly, the last available minutes are dated February. Likewise, if you were hoping to glance at the agenda for this month’s meeting, you’ll have to make do with talking points from March. The site’s disingenuously titled ‘news’ page consists of six dot points that dribbled onto the net in April.

Even when information actually is provided, it is mostly useless. The outdated minutes are filled with nondescript references to unnamed recommendations. The greatest clarity is usually reserved for the apologies of absent Senate Fellows.

But if that weren’t inadequate enough, all of this (non)information only covers the non-confidential, open sessions of Senate. Senate meetings run for hours; the non-confidential parts last about ten minutes. Everything else is hidden in camera: the public can’t attend and no records are made available

When asked about the most important decisions affecting students that Senate has made during his term, Undergraduate Senate Fellow Patrick Massarani wasn’t allowed to name them.

It is clear that Senate matters. It is clearer still that we have very little idea how it is governing our University. The harder question is what to do about it.

With Senate procedures regulated by The University of Sydney Act and only two students inside the institution’s structure, making its operations more transparent appears challenging to say the least.

But as students receiving the education that Senate controls, we have a voice with which to demand that Senate at the very least fulfills its existing transparency aims. It is shameful that Senate can get away with its laughable attempts at open communication simply because no one calls them out.

This semester we elect new student Fellows. In comparison to other student elections, candidates for Senate are often somewhat anonymous. That is not a standard we should accept. Rather, we should subject our prospective representatives to the same level of scrutiny we reserve for other student leaders. We should elect a candidate committed to transparency. We should elect a candidate willing to intelligibly summarise Senate decisions, with an emphasis on what they mean for students, in open, accessible reports. We should elect a candidate who, where necessary, can actually explain the need for secrecy, or one who may even be willing to provide information that is relevant to the student interest, irrespective of its confidential status.

What we cannot do is allow inertia to drive us along our depressing trajectory towards a collective apathy where we ignore our Senate more and more and it returns the favour.