Moving forward with Senate Seat

As outlined in last week’s article by The Gazelle, the University Senate, the highest NYU-wide deliberative body under the Board of Trustees, moved to ...

Apr 26, 2014

As outlined in last week’s article by The Gazelle, the University Senate, the highest NYU-wide deliberative body under the Board of Trustees, moved to create positions with voting rights on April 17 within the Senate for NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Shanghai, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and the recently organized non-tenure-track faculty. While the facts of our own controversy were outlined in The Gazelle’s article, we are still left to determine what exactly all of this means for our future. The problem is that according to the University Senate bylaws, we as a student government are theoretically obligated to fill the seat with a senator, as the position is defined in the bylaws. What I would like to do is to explore some of the ramifications of this obligation and caution the Student Government to proceed carefully in the ways in which we engage with New York’s governance system.
I would first like to point out the somewhat-ironic fact that the events that transpired — the improper message sending, the miscommunications and the backroom decision making — were exactly the sort of events that the General Assembly was thinking about when the message to delay the University Senate vote was sent. That is, guided by the advice of those who had experience in the system, the General Assembly sought to buy some time so that the political situation could be better understood. Instead, we were blindsided by a plan that had apparently been in the works for months — years depending on who you ask — and even as events were unfolding, it was unclear which parties stood where. All of this goes to underscore the fact that as it stands now, we as a student body have a very poor ability to understand NYU New York politics. Given that we will always have a time delay and an ocean to cross, it will take even longer for pertinent information to get to us, and the quality of this information will always need to be questioned, considering that we have to rely on various parties who each have their own agendas as well.
Having learned this lesson in NYU New York politics rather painfully, it is now left to determine the course of action that puts our student body in the best possible position. Determining this course of action will be difficult, and will make for a very interesting General Assembly on Sunday night. There are several issues at play, including NYUNY political opinion and NYUAD’s standing as a portal campus, but I believe that they can be best answered by looking within our community rather than relying on precedent from elsewhere.
One of the primary concerns that I personally have with this arrangement in which NYUAD must send a senator to the University Senate follows directly from the differing values that we hold as government structures. I find that almost all controversies within our community stem from processes being initiated without student input. That is, we as a student body, for various reasons have placed a high value on transparency in decision making. This is codified in the structure of our Student Government, but it is apparent in our reactions to other issues as well; we don’t like to be surprised. I believe that this results directly from our strong sense of ownership with regard to the state of our institution and our hands-on approach to problem solving. In any case, this need for involvement is actually what might make the adoption of the senate position so difficult, because the NYUNY governance system does not value transparency in the same way. That is not to say that NYUNY’s government is corrupt or hidden; what I am insisting is that they do not embrace the integration of institution-wide student opinion in the same way that we try to do here. The question that I believe needs to be answered is this: Given that we have a strong commitment to involving as many students as possible in as many decisions as possible, how can we ensure this is preserved in our participation on the Senate?
Of course, putting this question of transparency aside, we still have to ask the very real, if somewhat conceited, question as to whether we even belong in the University Senate at all. Although there are very significant and important matters that are discussed within this body, which we would benefit from being a part of, I have found myself entirely unconvinced that this seat ensures us access to these discussions. To be clear, there are several issues here: First, there is the content question as to whether the Senate makes enough relevant decisions to warrant our full participation, and then there is the question as to whether our representation is actually suitable or appropriate for the role we would like to play.
The content question can be answered more or less convincingly by insisting that any discussion that concerns NYUAD should have our participation. However, our role on the Student Senators’ Council, which sits as an autonomous part of the University Senate, does less to satisfy this concern. On the other hand, the second question ties back into my earlier point about determining what values we wish to represent and enforce within our participation in the Senate. First, does our position on the SSC, in which all the other schools — Stern, Tisch, etc. — send a senator mean that we are being considered as if we are just another school at NYU? I don’t mean to make a value statement about this, but I believe that we are owed an answer. Then, we have to ask whether we really need a full senator with administrative and representative power to make our voices heard. In the past, NYUAD students have participated on the SSC and University Senate as Alternate Senators with no voting power, and yet these students managed to represent NYUAD in the few relevant discussions well. I am personally concerned that sending a student to New York for a year, charged with the task of representing us to the entire university, may have a potentially negative result, both in terms of NYUAD becoming truly well-informed of the relevant issues in New York and in the communication of our concerns to New York. In short, this is a lot to put on one person, and I would prefer to see some checks placed to account for these concerns.
In any case, I hope that it has become clearer why we must tread so lightly in the next few days. If we buy into the system and fully subordinate ourselves to the Senate, we may incidentally lose some of our institutional integrity that we have worked so hard to preserve. On the other hand, rejecting this proposal means that we may be cut off from future important decisions, which is equally disadvantageous. I personally would like to find a middle ground, but depending on the enforcement from New York, we may be required to face this as an ultimatum. This is because the Senate bylaws require that our Constitution contain the exact text sent to us, and departure from this would allow Al Bloom to appoint our representative. This quandary demonstrates just how disappointing it is that we were not able to delay the Senate vote in the first place, but it also requires that we expedite the answering of these difficult questions. Regardless of how this turns out, I hope that we as students can make sure that we are true to our values and the work we have put into this institution. I cannot express the depth of my fear that we will relinquish some of our uniqueness in order to obtain a few political points.
Eric Johnson is a contributing writer. Email him at
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