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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

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Neglected University Senate Hopes For More Involvement in New Administration

Attendance at University Senate meetings has surged since the departure of former Stony Brook University President Shirley Strum Kenny, which could indicate a more effective senate.

In a crowded room of the Wang Center at Stony Brook University, faculty, staff and students sat waiting for the second meeting of the fall semester to begin. Only the very first row was empty, and throughout the small theater just 10 seats remained unfilled. People pulled back in their red, felt seats and adjusted their legs to make room for the latecomers. Some sat attentively through four different speakers, in wait for the university’s new president, Samuel L. Stanley.

“This was three times more people than usual,” said Dr. Michael Schwartz, president of the University Senate, after the Oct. 5 meeting. Schwartz sat on the stage floor with his legs in a contorted, yoga-like position. In fact, attendance in September and October increased by 40 percent from last spring.

The increased attendance could signal a change from years of poor participation and a troubled history for the University Senate, an organization that should represent all facets of Stony Brook University life. Within the university, each college, as well as each department, has a representative, as well as staff members, graduate and undergraduate students. The senate’s mission is to be a voice for the campus community, to provide a forum that has the power to make change through campus-wide rules if necessary and to improve campus life for the entire community. It also can approve or disapprove of any measure by the administration that affects the campus community.

But in recent years, “The senate has merely been a rubber stamp for the will of the administration,” Schwartz said. At the senate meeting on Sept. 14, for example, Deputy Provost Brent Lindquist presented the idea of a Stony Brook University campus in Songdo, South Korea to a room of about 70 faculty, staff and student members. After Lindquist’s presentation, undergraduate student member Julia Link said there was a failure to communicate the proposed international campus to the student body. Link added, “I don’t see any benefits besides enhancing the reputation of Stony Brook University. To Schwartz, it appeared Stony Brook officials had already decided to make the proposed South Korea campus a reality. It looked like the most important decisions had been made and now the University Senate was asked to get behind it,” he said.

After the senate meeting, the 21-year-old senior said Lindquist “was in a slick salesman mode, I asked how this would benefit New York State resident undergraduates.”

Lindquist responded, “This is an opportunity [to expand]. When an opportunity comes do you ignore it or explore it?”

Other members also expressed discontent. At the September meeting, Health and Sciences Senator at large Edward Feldman agreed that an international campus could benefit Stony Brook University, but expressed concern over the lack of communication between the university’s administration and faculty, staff and students.

Social and Behavioral Sciences Senator Norman Goodman said that faculty was excluded from the decision making, and added he believed their input was valuable.

Members of the University Senate have felt excluded from other major decisions that affect the campus community as well, including increases in enrollment. Former SBU president Shirley Strum Kenny was at the helm when the university experienced a surge in enrollment.

According to the Stony Brook Press, an on-campus publication, in June 2008 professors formed the Concerned Faculty of Stony Brook, which started a petition that voiced concerns over growing class sizes.

“I used to teach cultural history to about 50 students. It’s now over 100,” said Herman Lebovics, a professor of history and a member of the Concerned Faculty of Stony Brook. According to the petition, the student-to-teacher ratio increased nearly 50 percent from 23 to 1 to about 34 to 1, from 1998 to 2008.

The university disputes that number. According to Emily Thomas, director of Planning and Institutional Research at Stony Brook University, the faculty to student ratio has increased from 17 to 1 in 1998, to 18 to 1 in 2008. The ratio for this year has not been calculated yet.

According to Schwartz, the increased enrollment is a point of contention between the administration, the University Senate and students. He used the highly selective Yale University in Connecticut as an example of how the increasing enrollment issue should have been presented and discussed in the University Senate. Before Yale decided to increase enrollment, the administration planned for three years. Representatives from campus administration, faculty and staff, including housing, dining services, academia and campus life, formed committees to manage the changes at Yale. Now 75 percent of classes at the Ivy League university have fewer than 20 students, according to Yale University’s Web site. The student to teacher ratio is 7 to 1.

“At Stony Brook there was no planning or input from faculty, staff and students. [The administration] just admitted more students,” Schwartz said.

Some hope the ushering in of a new university president will open closed doors of communication between officials and the Stony Brook community. “When Shirley was president, she deferred questions to someone else,” Link said, referring to former President Kenny.

“I think under Kenny, we would not have been able to make changes,” Schwartz said. But he later added that Stanley has to do his part, and faculty, staff and students have to do their part, too.

Although Link said the information about the South Korea campus was important, according to Senate attendance records, no other undergraduate student senate member attended the monthly meeting.

“Attendance is poor,” said John Kriscenski, executive vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government and senate member. Schwartz agreed, “There are never 14 [undergraduate] members here.” According to the senate constitution, “The University Senate shall include undergraduate students to a number equal to ten percent (10%) of the total number of voting faculty members.” The University Senate has nearly 140 members.

But Schwartz offered a reason for the lack of participation from members. “The senate has never done anything for the students. I got elected to try to change that.” Schwartz was elected in February 2009.

Transforming the University Senate is proving easier said than done. In past years, there haven’t been enough candidates to run for senate positions. Many run unopposed, and many students don’t know the University Senate exists. There are 36 openings this academic year.

To increase participation in the voting process, the executive committee headed by Schwartz is proposing a number of reforms including moving election dates up. The Senate Executive Committee will begin accepting and recruiting candidates by late October. In addition, a tentative list of candidates will be completed by the end of the fall semester. And in open positions without at least two candidates, there will be a direct effort to recruit them.

Schwartz said he hopes the result will be a more active University Senate and that election reforms will encourage members of the senate to think about whether a running candidate deserves their vote.

Schwartz’ plans to reform the election process may invigorate faculty and staff, but it may have little effect on students. Many don’t know the difference between the University Student Government (USG), which acts as a liaison between students and faculty, staff and administration and the University Senate, the intermediary between the administration and Stony Brook faculty, staff and students.

When senior Varinder Singh was asked about the purpose of the University Senate he said, “Don’t they go to Albany?” Even seniors who have spent their college careers at Stony Brook don’t know the University Senate exists. Business major Ryan Richichi said he had no idea there was a University Senate, but initially thought, “Oh yeah their office is in the SAC.” In fact, the USG’s office is located in the Student Activities Center. The University Senate’s offices are located in the Psychology B building.

But Schwartz is somewhat optimistic. “We’ll be lucky if we figure out how we should have done it next year.” Schwartz leaned back in a stiff chair in his office, smiled, and said,'”We’ll get it right!”

Link is also hopeful. “If we [University Senate] grab Stanley while he’s new, the senate has the potential to be pretty powerful.”

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