More important than the decision as to whether Emory will take any particular action, from becoming a “sanctuary campus” to the design of its student government, is the question of how it makes those decisions, a question of governance rather than administration. Unlike a for-profit business, universities have a strong tradition of shared governance. I am very concerned that the Emory community — faculty, students and administrators — have lost sight of important deliberative processes that already exist but have fallen into disuse. Returning to these tools is the best solution to pressing challenges Emory currently faces and will face in the future.
Earlier this year, a faculty petition addressed to University President Claire E. Sterk requested she designate the University a “sanctuary campus.” A petition may be an appropriate tool for demonstrating that there is enough support for an idea to merit attention; however, the faculty only submitted a petition to Sterk and then expected her to make a decision. That approach, as opposed to the faculty being directly involved in the decision-making process, ignores the faculty’s vast expertise in immigration-related fields and their shared responsibility to the university.
More recently, the University faces difficult questions regarding the future of student government. Since individual students will come and go, the most important decisions are not who happens to hold leadership roles at this very moment. Instead, we need institutions and systems of decision making, both those codified in formal documents like constitutions and bylaws and also informal traditions and norms. What we need is a system of shared governance that brings together faculty, administrators, students, staff and alumni, and through which the University can make decisions.
It would come as a shock to many that such a body already exists. Article V of the University Bylaws provides for a University Senate and states that “Any change in existing policies or the establishment of new policies relating to matters of general University interest may be reviewed by the Senate.” The section also states that “The decisions of the Senate shall, with the concurrence of the President of the University, be deemed final unless or until the Board of Trustees or its Executive Committee shall take further action.” In fact, the University Senate is the body that in 1969 created student government in its current form.
Even if the University president disagrees with the Senate, there is an established process allowing the Senate to present its recommendations directly to the Board of Trustees or its Executive Committee to make a final decision. The Senate includes elected student and faculty members from every school on campus, as well as staff, alumni and senior administrators. The Senate’s membership is appropriate for making important decisions about Emory’s values and its consequent actions.
In practice, the Senate does not regularly review the University’s policies. As such, effectively none of the University’s policies are binding for its own administrators, and policies are increasingly arbitrarily created, rescinded and amended through power that is delegated, re-delegated and re-sub-delegated down the food chain to inexperienced staff with little or no oversight. These policies are often myopic, exactly because they have not benefited from input from those across the University community.
Unfortunately, the Senate as it existed when I left Emory in 2015 was simply not functional, and the University’s senior administrators have seemingly had to take over decision-making in order for anything to get done. An amendment to the Student Government Association (SGA) Constitution passed during my time at Emory that proposed to solve some of the governance challenges by allowing SGA to amend its constitution at any time, subject to University Senate approval.
Without Senate approval, student government is subject to the threat of arbitrary takeover by various administrators as well as short-sighted decision making by SGA representatives in any given year. The Senate, however, had no interest in resuming its duties in being a deliberative body and, per the text of the referendum, the amendment self-terminated.
The Senate only meets approximately seven times per year, and its twelve committees often have practically no Senate members and work on unrelated niche projects. As a result, the Senate has no capacity to deliberate on real issues. To my knowledge, the president of the University has not officially concurred with or opposed a Senate decision since 1969. During my two terms in the Senate, faculty senators did not seem to know why they’re there. As covered by the Wheel in 2014 and in 2015, the majority of student members, particularly graduate students, couldn’t be bothered to show up at all.
This crisis of governance is not an issue of a few bad actors at a few moments. It is a crisis of failed governance and institutions, as well as a pervasive culture of incentives in higher education that prompts faculty to abdicate their responsibilities in governance and student discipline to a growing, professionalizing class of student affairs administrators. It is also the same culture that prompts many students, especially current and aspiring Goizueta students, to merely go through the motions of service to the University through elected and appointed positions, accomplishing little in the public interest but much in personal and professional returns.
It is imperative that Emory has robust processes for making informed, well-thought-out decisions, rather than abdicating that responsibility to a few administrators or student leaders. It is equally important that the University maintain a distinction in practice between governance and day-to-day administration. I encourage the faculty who signed the “sanctuary campus” petition, as well as students who are concerned about designing a system of student government that’s built to last, to make use of the Senate, and for students, faculty, staff and alumni alike to hold their elected representatives accountable.
I also call on the Board of Trustees to strengthen the capacity of the Senate to fulfill its functions, and on Sterk to attend to the Trustees’ direction in Article III, Section one of the University’s Bylaws that she is “charged particularly with responsibility for the internal order and discipline of the University and to this end shall hold all Deans and members of the faculty to the faithful and efficient discharge of their duties.”
James Crowe (12 OX, 14C) served two terms as a University Senator, sat on half of the Senate’s twelve committees and was Chief Justice of the former University-wide SGA from 2014-15.