University Senate: The history and the 2020 candidates

A guide to the University Senate and the upcoming elections.

What is the Senate?

The Senate sits at the top of the University of Sydney’s decision-making hierarchy. The 15 people who sit on it (called “Fellows”) are responsible for appointing the Vice-Chancellor, who is responsible for much of the University’s day-to-day operations and long-term vision. The Senate will be entrusted with choosing a replacement for current VC Michael Spence when he leaves at the end of the year. Additionally, the body is responsible for approving the University’s annual budget and overall strategic vision.

There are 15 Senate fellows. These include the Chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, who is also the chair, the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, and the Chair of the Academic Board, Tony Masters. In addition, two people are appointed by the NSW Minister of Education, another five by the Senate itself, while non-academic and academic staff elect one and two representatives, respectively. Many of these members are drawn from the corporate sphere, with a long list of potential conflicts declared online.

Why is it controversial?

The Senate itself has generated a considerable amount of controversy over the last few years. The voting in of a reduction of the Senate’s members – from 22 to 15, with only 5 of these being elected and the rest appointed by the Senate or the Education Minister – in 2015 led to heavy criticism from groups such as the EAG and the NTEU, as well as a staff-elected senate fellow, who called the decision “a further centralisation of decision-making power”. A report commissioned by the Senate earlier that year, which was obtained by Honi in 2016, had recommended that the body slash its membership and adopt a more corporatised form of governance.

Recently, the Senate’s influence on the USU has also been criticised, specifically in response to the alleged swaying of the USU Executive Election by the organisation’s Senate-appointed directors.

What’s happening now?

This year, postgraduate and undergraduate students will have the opportunity to elect one fellow each to the Board. They will have a vote on key decisions of the Senate and would be expected to represent students’ interests in major policy discussions it undertakes.

If you haven’t heard about them before, you’re not alone. Senate elections are generally less prominent, and less heavily contested than those for the Students’ Representative Council or the University of Sydney Union Board. That is in large part that’s because they only occur every two years. It’s also because only one candidate in each election will be elected, discouraging heavy contesting where most candidates know they’ll probably lose. As the Senate race occurs in between the SRC elections and RepsElect, factionalised candidates often don’t contest the Senate race.

The online format of Senate elections has often lent itself to controversy. In contrast to the very public campaigning of USU and SRC elections, candidates can be successful without being interviewed by Honi, campaigning in coloured T-shirts, providing a comprehensive policy statement or launching a social media campaign. 

Instead, in both the 2014 and 2016 elections, the elected undergraduate fellow was accused of standing over or near students as they voted through the online portal. In 2016, campaigners for the ultimately successful candidate were accused of racially profiling and targeting international students to vote in the elections. 

This has meant that often the students are… surprising. In 2014, in the middle of a strong student campaign against Tony Abbott’s proposed deregulation of university fees, the ultimately successful candidate said he was “not really sure” on the issue. Current Undergraduate Student Fellow, Francis Tamer, had not had experience with student politics prior to the election. Instead, he was best known for his vocal support of the “No” vote during the marriage equality plebiscite and had featured prominently in right-wing media supporting the view. The fact that he had won the election with a handy 1800 votes (whilst his campaign page had a mere 220 likes), therefore came as a surprise at a University whose student population largely voted “Yes”. He was the second consecutive conservative to win the election with the backing of the Catholic Society. If current Catholic Society Secretary, Alessandro Sobral, wins it’ll be a third.

University management has also not stayed away from the fray. In 2016, Honi reported that in collaboration with the USU, they contacted at least two students and potentially more. Honi also reported that Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson and the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence had morning tea with the Liberal candidate Dean Shachar, but could not say whether any support or promises had been given.

Who’s running this year?

Eight candidates are contesting the undergraduate student Senate position, far fewer than the 24 who threw their hat in the ring last time. They include, in ballot order: Kewei (Benedict) Xu, Cole Scott-Curwood (Engineers for SRC), Alessandro Sobral, Alexander Naple, Alysha Baig, Anne Zhou, Courtney Leanne Daley (NLS) and Gabi Stricker-Phelps (Liberal associated). 

Xu is an international student and a relatively unknown figure with seemingly little experience in student representation. St. Paul’s College resident and 2021 councillor-elect, Scott-Curwood is styling himself as a progressive candidate, pointing to recent involvement with the SRC environment collective. Yet, when Scott-Curwood penned an article for Honi earlier this year in support of the Senate’s new sustainability strategy, it was discovered that a current Senate fellow was directly editing the document to make the body look more favourable. 

Sobral, as previously mentioned, is the Secretary of the Catholic Society, though makes no reference to this in his candidate statement, perhaps deliberately, and is running as the “everyday student.” When pressed by an Honi editor at Courtyard as to why he was running, Sobral waxed lyrical about the “student voice,” though was unable to provide a solid definition of what that was. As to the most important issue on campus at the moment, he gestured to the University’s controversial usage of ProctorU.

Alex Naple, despite arguably being the most experienced candidate running for Senate, given his 1980-81 USU Presidency is a bit of a mystery to the contemporary student body. Thankfully, a look through the Honi archives reveals a highly contentious campus figure. Read for yourself here (page 3). 

Alysha Baig is also relatively unknown figure and never responded to Honi’s attempts to contact them. Baig does mention that she worked for the United Nations Human Rights Council, however it’s unsure in what capacity. Anne Zhao is an international student and current headkicker and de-facto leader of the Penta (Panda) faction. Zhao has also listed involvement as a student representative with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Courtney Leanne Daley, part of student Labor Left faction National Labor Students (NLS), is also styling herself as a progressive environmentalist, and will seemingly be competing for the left-wing vote along with Curwood. Daley is currently the SRC Sexual Harassment Officer and is pledging to review the University’s sexual misconduct and alcohol policies.

2019 SRC Women’s Officer Gabi Stricker-Phelps is also in the running. Whilst not a member of the Liberal Party herself, she ran on the Mod-Lib Shake Up SRC ticket in 2018 and was supported by them in her controversial bid for Women’s Officer over the candidates elected by the Women’s Collective. She is being supported by the campus Mods once again, running somewhat of an unconventional campaign. She has joined forces with postgraduate senate candidate Lachlan Finch, who was last year’s Liberal USU Vice-President and her current partner. Whilst the two are separate elections, this is a smart play from the two of them, who, in talking to voters who are ineligible for one election can point them to vote for the other.

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