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Desperately seeking Senate

Christina White sat outside a Senate meeting for three and a half hours.

“Wow, you’re going to observe the Senate meeting. Are you nervous?” asked the security officer at the Charles Perkins Centre as she escorted me up to Level 6. I quickly realised that people without swipe cards don’t often seek out our elusive Senate in the flesh.

Despite the fact that parts of these meetings are open, it was difficult enough to find out basic information. “Monday 4 August 2014. Time: 3.30pm. Venue: various” the Senate’s website helpfully tells the average student.

As I walked towards the meeting room, people in suits stared at me in complete bewilderment and shock. I would guess most of these Fellows haven’t seen a student, let alone spoken to one, since the days of Barton.

The Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson introduced herself, Peter FitzSimons walked past, and the Secretary to the Senate told me that the meeting would begin in confidence.

So I sat outside for three and a half hours.

Soon the Secretary came out and asked my full name for the minutes. This seemed ironic because I hadn’t even been allowed into the room yet. I imagined the minutes read: “Spence answered question. Christina White still sitting outside.”

The Fellows took a break about two hours in. Some looked frazzled, quickly clumping into a few chattering groups. One turned to me and said “I hope you’re covering your ears, Christina.”

After the break, the Secretary pointed me to a buffet. I approached at the same time as a suited mystery man who had been sitting on the other side of our foyer-room this whole time. The mystery man said “Hello,” and introduced himself as Mark, the Chief Financial Officer of the University. Mark was lovely and selected a salami sandwich from the platter. I asked how the finances were. “Fine”, he said. “We like it when things are dull”. Then we both returned to our respective corners of banishment.

I sat down wondering why even the CFO isn’t allowed into the Senate meeting. As I finished my fruit salad (cheers Senate!), Mark was invited in and I was left alone in exile.

Ten minutes later, the Secretary invited me in. The open session of the meeting was about to begin.

I entered, clearly a novelty. Everyone stared at me and a few Fellows quietly cheered. I sat down and a split second later, someone snatched the agenda from the table in front of me, lest I know even the subject of what was spoken about.

They briefly discussed the report of the Academic Board, and the session ended not ten minutes later.

Hutchinson told me they agreed to hold a meeting (later rebranded “mass gathering”) and invited me to have drinks with them all outside.

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence came over, and called Honi Soits latest article on convocation a “diatribe”. Insisting he wanted to chat, he grabbed four whiteboard markers and said “We’re going to write on this wall”. Drawing diagrams and lists, Spence explained the University’s financial structure in a one-on-one lesson. I was stunned at how human he seemed- he’s normally shielded behind an entire PR team. Usually when we try and contact Spence, a media advisor jumps out in front of him to take the bullet.

After Spence and Hutchinson left, I drank wine with Kate McClymont. She is the coolest person ever. It was all worth it.

A few days later the Chancellor met with me and explained the closed session. “In regards to Convocation, I asked the meeting whether they want this to be a closed session or an open session and asked for a show of hands,” she said. “There was a bit of a debate, and people said they’d like to be able to speak quite openly.” She paraphrased the Fellows’ collective view as, “I want to be able to express myself and I don’t feel I could necessarily express myself as openly if it was open.”

I’ve searched for minutes and asked questions, but all the Fellows are barred from speaking about matters discussed in confidence. The lack of transparency comes down to the Senate’s quasi-corporate, quasi-democratic character.

Twelve of the 22 Fellows are democratically elected by academic staff, non-academic staff, students and alumni. As our representatives, they should be speaking openly and frankly in such a way their electors wouldn’t scowl at. However, the Chancellor maintained that confidence is necessary to facilitate “an open frank discussion, robust debate.”

All the Fellows are bound by a duty to act in the best interests of the University. The current MO of the Senate prioritises complete secrecy above all else. The Chancellor said she sees her role as “apolitical”, but that’s still a political decision. Confidentially won’t always be in the best interests of the broader University community.

While the release of sensitive business information could clearly hurt the University, issues of consultation are blatantly not confidential. The petition was covered in national media and University spokespersons have repeatedly promised that management are being as open and consultative with students as possible. Why should we have any faith in their press releases if they won’t even guarantee they’re listing to our concerns?

The next Senate meeting is on the September 8. If anyone wants to come keep me company let me know.