After a month of scrutiny over governance transparency, McGill’s Senate will have at least one more live-streamed session in January after a vote last week.
What began as a question from Arts Senator and Anthropology Professor John Galaty about expanding the accessibility of Senate resulted in a debate over live streaming a portion of January’s Senate meeting, which will discuss the findings of Dean of Law Daniel Jutras’ investigation into the events of November 10.
Galaty’s question asked whether the administration would “consider making Senate meetings more accessible through either a reconfiguration of the room…or through some method of media transmission for those potential observers who cannot access” the Senate meeting, which is held in Leacock 232.
It was decided to debate expanding general non-member access to Senate at a later date.
Galaty said his question was inspired by the “sense of distance between the University and the administration expressed in recent months,” as well as the “enthusiasm” he had perceived around the live stream of the November 16 Senate meeting.
In response, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum announced that, after consulting recently with McGill University Services, the Montreal Fire Department, and the Quebec Fire and Construction codes, the physical capacity of the Senate room would be expanded from the current 135-person capacity to 165 people.
The expansion will apply only to Senate meetings, not to other meetings or classes held in Leacock 232.
Munroe-Blum asked that live streaming be reserved for “exceptional cases,” otherwise retaining Senate’s regular rules and procedures.
However, student senators were overwhelmingly in support of live streaming Senate meetings. SSMU President Maggie Knight described the openness of SSMU Legislative Council sessions – which do allow recording – as “beneficial, not detrimental,” and a means for improving the accountability of representatives.
Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) President Roland Nassim said, “What happened in November is a clear message to this administration that students want to be involved in this process.”
Nassim added that recording could also improve the quality of discussion during meetings, as members would arrive better prepared.
Macdonald Campus Students’ Society Senator Alex Pritz noted that Macdonald Campus students could not be realistically expected to commute downtown and back to attend Senate meetings.
Munroe-Blum spoke to a “long-standing rule” prohibiting the recording of Senate, describing her experience as Vice-President (Research and International Relations) at the University of Toronto nine years ago, where such a rule was not in place.
“Routinely people who were observers, and some members of the governing body, would record people as they spoke as a means of intimidation,” she said.
“It was very, very difficult to get people to even participate at all in those proceedings,” she continued.
Munroe-Blum said she was appreciative of McGill’s rules prohibiting the recording of Senate proceedings, “having lived personally through a place that was ground into a paralytic state of intimidation for members of the governing body.”
Faculty Senate representatives were divided over the issue.
Science Senator and Chair of the Chemistry Department Bruce Lennox, referencing social media in particular, said the “potential for confusion and interference is far too great.”
Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity) Lydia White said she was in favour of live streaming meetings in general, adding, “We have to acknowledge that we live in a world where people do tweet, and I hope we do have the sense to not be overly influenced by those messages.”
According to McGill Secretary-General Stephen Strople, the live stream from November’s Senate meeting had received 836 hits.
Administrative and Support Staff representative Gregg Blachford said that, while there could be some negative aspects to it, senators also“have to think of negative aspects of not doing it.”
“The message that would go out that we’re opening this up would be breath of fresh air…that we want to open and visible,” he said. “When we did have it open [in November] I didn’t think that people were playing to the camera, and I think it would obtain that equilibrium overtime.”
Management Senator Hamid Etemad, however, said public broadcasting of Senate could endanger McGill’s pursuit of research grants and other funding, as some of their strategies would be visible to competing universities.
“At the end of the day we are very much a competitive institution, and every once in a while a little bit of secrecy should be taken into account,” he said.
A separate committee will be formed to report to Senate on possibly expanding the recording of Senate, once more information has been ascertained.
Renaming James Square
Student Senator Usman Bin Shahid asked a question at the meeting regarding the informal renaming of “James Square,” which was renamed “Community Square” after the events of November 10. Bin Shahid asked whether the administration is “willing to consult with members of the McGill community to rename James Square after the events of November 10?”
Strople responded that the name “commemorates McGill’s historical ties and traditions” to the Governor General’s office, who is the official “Visitor” to the University.
Strople said that, while the name “James Square” has been officially recognized by the Board of Governors, the naming ceremony will not take place until 2012 because Governor General Peter Johnston was unable to attend the 2011 date for the ceremony.
“If there is an interest in proposing an alternate name, there is a process [to do so],” said Strople.“Any member of McGill community may propose a name, so there’s a full and open opportunity for anyone in community to come forward and propose a name.”
Re-evaluating McGill’s governance structure
A question from SSMU VP University Affairs Emily Clare asked how the University could provide more effective methods for staff and students to engage in University governance.
“We feel our only engagement in discourse is reactive,” said Clare.
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson replied that, “Among peer institutions, McGill is at the very inclusive end of student membership and participation in governance.”
Mendelson then provided numerical examples of other universities with smaller student membership and participation ratios in comparable governing bodies, including the universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Michigan, and North Carolina – Chapel Hill.
Mendelson also noted that one-year terms for student representative terms is a significant problem, but that Senate would work in the future to better orient student representatives to Senate procedures and long-term issues.
PGSS Senator Lily Han responded that senators “have to keep in mind issues such as differential power dynamics, and not just about numbers being there.”
“Sometimes it can be tokenistic,” she continued. “As someone who’s part of those statistics, sometimes a student is there, but is not part of actual the decision-making process.”