Defining documents of the Senate

An Introduction to the University Senate

This introduction is intended to provide new senators with practical information about Senate operations, to help them understand what the Senate can do and so preparing them to contribute rapidly to its work. Senate procedures are governed by the By-Laws, Statutes and Rules, the latest edition of which is dated April 2, 2010.

Senate responsibilities

The Senate, which meets monthly in full (plenary) 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. Consequently, few issues of importance to the University and its educational mission are not addressed at one time or another.

There are 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. 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.

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 plenary 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.

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 advise 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 plenary, but it should be emphasized that most of its business is transacted by its 17 committees.

Several committees 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 venues for the exchange of information and opinion among students, faculty and administrators.

Four Senate committees 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: Campus Planning and Physical Development sends two representatives to Physical Assets; Budget Review sends two representatives to Finance; Education sends two to Educational Policy; External Relations sends two to Public Affairs; and the Executive Committee sends two to the Trustees’ business meeting. 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 (Senate Consulted 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 it will be accompanied by a report summing up the background information and arguments examined by the committee.

The resolution is first passed to the Executive Committee, which meets one week prior to the Senate meeting 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.

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

Committee meetings are scheduled in advance for the year or semester, and full details can be found on the Senate calendar. Committee members can expect 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 session.

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

Senators serve on at least one committee. Shortly after election, senators are asked to submit a committee preference form 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 during the academic year 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.


Executive Committee
Alumni Relations
Budget Review
Campus Planning and Physical Development of the University
External Relations and Research Policy
Faculty Affairs, Academic Freedom, and Tenure
Honors and Prizes
Housing Policy
Information and Communications Technology
Libraries and Digital Resources
Research Officers
Rules of University Conduct
Senate Structure and Operations
Student Affairs Committee


Commission on the Status of Women
Commission on Elections
Commission on Diversity