Defining documents of the Senate

Introduction to the University Senate

This introduction is intended to provide new senators with practical information about operations and traditional procedures of the Senate, helping them to understand what sorts of things the Senate is able to accomplish, and so preparing them to contribute rapidly to its important work. The document that governs Senate procedures and should be read for precise information is the "By-laws, Statutes, and Rules." It is available in the Office of the Senate, 406 Low Library.

Senate Responsibilities

The Senate, which meets monthly in full session, is the policy-making body at Columbia that addresses itself to campus issues affecting more than one school. These include all general faculty and student affairs, most issues that fall under the responsibility of the central administration, and all areas under the jurisdiction of any Senate committee (see committee list below). Consequently, few issues of importance to the University and its educational mission are not addressed at one time or another.

There are, however, certain limitations upon Senate action. The Senate avoids involvement in the internal affairs of any particular school, so that matters such as curriculum, admissions, and financial aid are customarily not Senate business. The Senate cannot administer the University, and avoids impinging on strictly administrative matters. In particular, labor issues involving unions are not dealt with by the Senate, and while Senate policy recommendations may depend upon the allocation of funds, the actual allocation of resources is dealt with elsewhere. Finally, political issues have been excluded out of the belief that neither the Senate, the President, nor the Trustees can speak with one voice for the University on controversial issues where reasonable people disagree. The Senate sometimes accommodates interest in concerns outside its jurisdiction by allowing senators to set up a petition at the conclusion of a meeting so that senators as individuals may sign it or not, and in that way express their views. Occasionally senators have met in open forum after adjournment of a regular meeting to address matters arousing concern on campus.

Senate deliberations usually take some time, especially when complex problems are at issue. The Senate is limited in its ability to react to headlines, for much of its work is done in committees and due notice is expected on items to be voted on. It has nevertheless often served as a useful forum for the debate of controversial topics of intense interest to students and faculty. Such airing of conflicting views has frequently had a constructive effect without need for formal action.

Most matters discussed in the Senate, in fact, do not come to a formal vote. Debate and discussion are usually carried on in an informal and accommodating (rather than a formal and litigious) manner at monthly meetings. The President of the University is the presiding officer, and a parliamentarian is present to clarify and expedite procedural questions. Aside from its legislative purpose, the Senate in its monthly meeting serves as a forum in which any senator may direct a question to the President, or through him to an appropriate officer of the administration. Often as much as half of a meeting is devoted to dialogue of this kind.

Acts of the Senate under section 24 of Chapter II of the University Statutes become final on passage except in those cases where Trustee concurrence is required. These are specified in the By-Laws as matters involving a change in budgetary appropriations, acquisition or disposition of real property, and contractual obligations of the University. In addition, the President may advice the Senate that Trustee approval is needed on other matters, provided that he do so not later than the next regularly scheduled Senate meeting after that at which the proposed act was adopted.

The work of the Senate culminates in its monthly meeting, but it should be emphasized that most of its business is transacted by its 16 committees. Several committees even have duties largely independent of the full Senate: Faculty Affairs, for example, is empowered to hear grievances related to discrimination in faculty hiring and promotion, while another, Honors and Prizes, works jointly with the Trustees in the selection of honorary degree recipients. Some committees regularly produce resolutions for action by the full Senate, while others serve primarily as a venue for the exchange of information and opinion among students, faculty and administrators. Consultation by the central administration with Senate committees is an established procedure in University decision-making, and has recently been enhanced by an arrangement whereby the Administration supplies fundamental statistical and financial data to the Senate at the beginning of the fall semester along with projections of what issues will be of central concern during the coming year.

Six Senate committees in fact enjoy a special link with related Trustee committees. Each sends one or two representatives to meetings of the related Trustee committee. The representatives, who receive full documentation and have a voice but not a vote, are then able to report back to the committees and to the full Senate on actions taken and topics under discussion in Trustee committees. The arrangement is as follows: Physical Development sends two representatives to Buildings and Grounds; Alumni Relations sends two to Alumni Affairs; Budget Review sends it chairman to Budget; Community Relations sends two to Community Affairs; Education sends two to Educational Policy and the State of the University; and External Relations sends two to Legal Affairs. In addition, the President consults with the Senate Executive Committee on the selection of the President, the Provost, University Professors, and six of the 24 Trustees. If a special need arises, there is provision for the Executive Committee to have a meeting with an appropriate group of Trustees.

When a committee's deliberations suggest some specific action is required, it drafts a resolution for presentation to the full Senate. If the resolution is a substantive one, it is expected that the resolution will be accompanied by a report summing up the background information and arguments examined by the committee.

The resolution is first passed along to the Executive Committee, which meets one week prior to the Senate meeting in order to set the agenda. The Executive Committee determines whether the resolution is correct as to form, but it is also free to agree or disagree with the goals of the resolution or the methods proposed to attain them, and to state its position to the full Senate. The Executive Committee, if it has serious objections, may try informally to persuade a standing committee to amend its resolution, or to withdraw and reconsider it. It may also recommend tabling a measure to allow for consultation with other Senate committees. In some cases, it may even decide to introduce its own substitute resolution. The vote of the Senate as a whole is, of course, finally decisive.

A member of the Senate Secretariat is available to assist committee chairmen in the preparation of agendas, minutes and other materials needed for committee meetings. A staff member may also be called upon to investigate Senate precedents, and to perform other research related to the work of committees. Chairmen, customarily faculty members, are elected for two-year terms and are responsible for giving direction and leadership to committees.

Committee members can expect to receive notice at least two weeks in advance of an impending meeting, and to receive the agenda and other materials about one week in advance. Inability to attend a meeting should be reported promptly to the Senate office since much of the Senate's vital work is carried out in committee sessions.

Senate committees follow a policy on confidentiality that is intended to allow the freest discussion possible. The policy makes all committee deliberations confidential, and designates the chairman as the only member able to speak on behalf of the committee to the campus press or other outsiders.

Senators usually serve on two committees. Shortly after election, senators receive a committee preference sheet which is used by caucuses as the basis for determining committee assignments. Senators are given their first choice, if at all possible, and then assigned a second committee as needed. Committee meetings are usually scheduled monthly and last between one and two hours. Most meetings are held in the Senate conference room, 407 Low Library.


Student, nontenured, and tenured caucuses, each with a chairman, exist to perform certain organizational tasks, including the nomination of members to the Executive Committee and other standing committees. Senators are automatically members of the caucus of the group they represent. Occasionally the caucuses also meet for discussion of common interests.

--Senate Executive Committee