Underrepresented! Current senate model has limited our participation and our impact: Student senator

Devan C. Tasa, Contributor  Ω

There is a governing body at almost every university in B.C. that holds great power over the everyday academic life of students, yet few know of its existence.

This body approves the list of students who’ll receive scholarships and bursaries from the university. It determines the scale to which students are graded. It is responsible for dealing with any appeals students make against their professor’s decisions.

It approves the list of students that graduate every year.

It can create, modify and delete courses from the university calendar.

It can do the same thing with entire degree programs.

It is the senate.

It has power over anything academic.

Every senate has representatives from the university’s student body, faculty and administration. The student and faculty senators are elected by their peers while administration senators tend to have an automatic seat by virtue of their positions.

One would expect that since the senate has so much power over a student’s academic life, it would have a sizeable number of student representatives.

Before Thompson Rivers University became a university in 2005, one would be right.

For every senator representing the administration, there would be one representing students and two representing the faculty.

But TRU pioneered a new type of senate, one that was copied by Capilano University, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, University of the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island University when they were founded in 2008.

In this model, there are only four student senators, no matter how many senators represent the administration and faculty.

For TRU, that means the four student voices on the senate are but a whisper compared to the 16 administration and 18 faculty senators. For every senator representing the administration, there are only 0.25 students and 1.125 faculty members.

Of all of the new universities using the TRU senate model, TRU has the lowest ratio of administration to student senators. The highest is the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, which has 0.5 students for every administration senator, while most of the others have around 0.33 students.

According to the provincial government, the TRU senate model evolved out of the education councils TRU and the other new universities had when they were colleges. In colleges, the default composition of those councils is four administrators, four students, 10 faculty and two support staff.

The TRU governance model has proven to be very successful and recognizes the valuable contribution of the elected student members, says the government.

Two-term TRU student senator Dylan Robinson disagrees with that assessment.

“I think that that’s completely ridiculous and kind of hilarious that they’d say something like that,” he said. “It’s been successful from their standpoint because it has limited our participation and our impact in the governance process.”

Newly-elected TRU senator Chris Albinati agrees that by having only four student senators, the TRU senate model serves to limit student voices.

“In the way they have limited us, they’ve made us a symbolic representation,” he said.

TRU president Alan Shaver doesn’t think that student voices are limited at TRU.

He said that student senators are quite active, bringing attention to student issues at the university.
“From my point of view, they’re certainly not symbolic,” he said. “We really look to them for their opinion and for them to speak their mind.”

Shaver explained that the composition of universities come from provincial legislation.

“These are acts of the legislature,” he said. “They’re not something that the universities, not just ours, can change. They have to be changed by the legislature.

“My sense is, from talking to people, that changes such as these in B.C. are very rare,” he said.

As far as Shaver is aware, TRU has not lobbied the government for any changes to the legislation.

Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto was unavailable for comment before press time to discuss the legislation.

The TRU student senators say because there are only four of them, they have a hard time properly representing students.

“We can’t get anything done,” Robinson said.

One of the reasons why is because the votes of all of the other senators can easily overpower those of students.

“In any committee or senate body, votes count,” Albinati said. “Each vote, when you are voting on an amendment or when you’re voting on a motion, is one person one vote.”

In the older style of senate, the numbers of student senators are sufficient enough that they can ally with either faculty or administration senators to get enough votes to enact change.

Another reason why it’s hard for the student senators to effectively represent students is because there are not enough of them to properly cover the senate’s committees. TRU has 15 permanent standing committees.

“With just the four of us, we can’t cover all of that ground,” Robinson said. “So there are holes. The institution tries to plug that. They’ll pick a random student who has expressed interest, stick them on that committee and say ‘oh, well now there’s student representation there.’

“It’s a hodge-podge, ad-hoc, thrown together system where I don’t know who that student is and they don’t know who I am,” he said.

When the events of a committee are referred to during a senate meeting, Robinson says he finds that most of the time he doesn’t know what happened, which means he doesn’t know which student concerns have been raised and which ones have not.

The student senators believe that TRU should switch to the 1:1:2 model used by the older B.C. universities, in which there is one student senator per every one administration senator.

“If you really value someone’s input and participation in a process, you’re going to give that group the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the process,” said Robinson.

“You’re going to give them the tools and the power to be able to meaningfully participate.

“I think that if there were more of us, more representatives, we can actually do a better job of representing students,” he said.

The Thompson Rivers University Students’ Union’s position is that TRU’s senate needs to be reformed so that it follows the 1:1:2 model, said the union’s VP external Jordan Harris.

While exact numbers would depend on the number of administration senators, the students’ union suggests the TRU senate have 15 administration, 15 student and 30 faculty representatives.

“We just think that for students’ voice to be heard at the TRU governance political level we need to have that proper representation,” he said.

“Senate is the ideal place that we do want to have proper representation. There are only four [students] there and we do need more because that’s where the majority of decisions and discussions [happen].”

If students are concerned about the fact that there are only four students on the senate, Robinson suggests that they talk to TRUSU and other organizations that represent students.

“Come talk to me or any of the other student senators or the students sitting on the Board of Governors,” he said. “Talk to us. Let us know what your concerns are. We’re here to represent you.”

Shaver suggests that concerned students join one of the senate’s standing committees.

“I’d like to recommend that students look at these standing committees and get involved,” said Shaver. “I’d really welcome that.”

To get involved in a committee, students can look at the TRU senate website at http://www.tru.ca/senate/, determine if the committee has a vacancy in its student seat, then inform the TRU Students’ Union of their interest.

Albinati suggests that students look at what other universities are doing and then demand comparable treatment from TRU’s administration.

“The only thing that makes Thompson Rivers University a better university is when students criticize,” he said.

But in the end, it’s important to note that it was the provincial government that created and passed the legislation that dictates the composition of university senates.

If students want more representatives, it’s the provincial government that must be convinced that change is needed.