By XUEYING CHEN ’16
This semester, Academic Council conducted a survey of its members to determine governance priorities after Professor Ann Velenchik suggested that the Council’s agenda committee propose possible changes to Council structure.
Academic Council is the legislative body of the College. Made up of various members of the administration, faculty and staff, the Council meets eight times during each academic year to discuss and decide on academic and administrative issues. Council members also sit on 12 standing committees, such as the Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy and the Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability.
Concerns about the structure of Academic Council grew more apparent as members discussed the continuation of the formal relationship Wellesley College shares with Peking University (PKU), since Council was not consulted from the beginning about the formation of the relationship. The recent discussion about PKU also saw the greatest faculty attendance for a meeting in recent history.
This year, there are 380 members eligible to vote in Council; one person declined membership and 50 faculty members are on leave this semester. One of the main concerns Velenchik had when she proposed that the Council discuss governance priorities was that attendance at Academic Council has been low in recent years.
“My goal was that we would come up with a structure that would make the content more interesting and encourage faculty participation and attendance,” Velenchik said.
Under Book I of the Articles of Government of Wellesley College, at least one third of the voting body must rule in favor of any new legislation in order for the College to pass it. The number of votes necessary for a quorum this semester is 110. This is based off a total of 329 voting members who did not decline membership and are not on leave.
With low attendance, Council risks going against its own governance laws if it passes legislation without ensuring the support of a third of the voting body. According to Velechik, there are usually not enough faculty members present to compose a quorum.
The survey administered by the agenda committee open to all Council members asked questions about the structure of Academic Council. A total of 128 voting members responded. The survey results showed that many Council members generally support the current structure.
About 70 percent of the voters favored direct democracy, which Council currently uses, as opposed to a smaller representative senate body. Nearly 70 percent of respondents also leaned toward having Council meet less, instead of having a representative senate replace Council. Most of the respondents also favored bringing only major issues to Academic Council and leaving housekeeping to the standing committees. More than 60 percent of respondents would prefer to have multiple constituencies involved as opposed to having only faculty govern.
While its appears that a majority of respondents want to uphold most aspects of the current structure, Velenchik is concerned that participation may drop in the spring.
“The fact that a lot of faculty members say that they want to keep Academic Council exactly as it is and show their true feelings about Academic Council by not attending says to me that the survey doesn’t tell us very much. But if in fact the majority of the faculty are happy to leave things as they are then we should leave things as they are,” Velenchik said. “I don’t know what that means for our belief in the validity of the things we vote on if in fact we don’t have a full quorum.”
The survey showed a slightly less clear majority on whether the agenda committee should continue to set the agenda or if an executive faculty committee should set it, and on whether the faculty or the President of the College should preside over sessions. Currently the president presides.
In the survey, 28 members gave open-ended responses. Of those, 13 members supported the current set up of Council and 10 members were opposed to creating a small governing body. Four members supported the creation of a smaller body or wanted to delegate executive tasks to smaller bodies. Six members voiced concerns about the balance of authority between faculty and administration.
“I think one of the main governance problems we have is too much ‘top-down’ decision making that begins with the administration rather than the faculty,” one member wrote in a survey response.
The agenda committee has yet to determine whether there will be more discussion about governance priorities for the semester’s last session of Academic Council, which will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 11.
“I can say that we, as a committee, are concerned with doing what we can to make Academic Council a forum for discussion of important College issues and for clarifying the role of Council in the governance of the College,” Professor Tracy Gleason, a chairperson of the agenda committee, stated.
Xueying is a sophomore studying English and Economics. She is a China-born Seattleite. Follow her on Twitter at @XueyingC.