Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Efficient functioning of SUGC/Senate

Senate is the highest academic body in the Institute. However, the attendance in Senate meetings is very low. Most of the meetings are held without quorum, which leads to two problems - any affected party can go to court and challenge Senate decisions, any member of Senate can stop the meeting any time by asking to verify quorum. Every few years, there is a concern expressed regarding attendance, and a committee is formed to streamline the functioning of Senate. The hope is that if somehow the Senate can be more productive, it will cause more members to attend its meeting. Many of the suggestions are good but there is one major issue, which I think can go a long way in improving productivity but which is not there in any of these reports. (And, of course, I myself was a member of one such committee long time ago, and I didn't realize this at that time.)

Senate agenda sucks and it sucks big time. And individuals who are supposed to present the agenda come unprepared.

If there is a proposal for Senate to consider, there will be inadequate background, what is the problem we are trying to solve, what are the options, why this option is better, is there any data to support this. Worse, at times, I have detected inconsistencies in the document. In many occasions, when the proposal is coming from a Standing Committee of the Senate, just the decision of the committee is forwarded without any explanation. If we are proposing to change a rule, a typical legislative process would clearly articulate what clause is being removed and what clause is being inserted, with exact language of the clause. None of this would be in the proposal.

When this happens, there is confusion on the floor of the Senate. There is something written in the proposal. The committee chairperson presenting it says something else, and another committee member will give a third interpretation. And this leads to many people asking questions, making suggestions on how the language/proposal can be improved. If Standing Committees did their job well and sent agenda items which are properly drafted then lots of items can be taken care of in minutes.

And I can say this from experience of chairing at least a small committee, Senate Under Graduate Committee (SUGC) in 2006-07. (I do realize that what works for a 20-member SUGC, may not work for 200-member Senate, but I think my experience can give pointers to how to improve the quality of agenda.)

I was a member in 2005-06 and also in an earlier year and had seen how SUGC functioned. If I were to prepare a proposal for change, the typical process would be that it will be discussed in the first SUGC meeting after the proposal is submitted. People will discuss it and point out that there are some obvious faults, and ask me to improve the proposal. In the second SUGC meeting, it will be discussed again, and a decision will be taken to forward the proposal to all departments for feedback. In the third SUGC meeting, it will be decided that since only a few departments have sent their feedback, we should send them a reminder and wait till the next meeting. In the fourth SUGC meeting, if the feedback is generally positive then there will be some discussion and they will agree to forward this to Senate. Of course, sometimes the proposal will not get discussed because something more urgent (like terminations) will be there. Also, sometimes people will claim that department feedback can not be expected in vacation time, during exam time, and so on, and hence yet another month should be given. So typically, a proposal will take six months or more before it can be sent to Senate. Many members will get tired of pushing that proposal in this period and a quiet burial will be given to the same.

When I became SUGC Chairman, I changed the process completely. The day you submit a proposal, it will be sent to all SUGC members by email and they will be asked to send feedback within a week. The proposer will typically take a few days to fix the issues raised. I will request the proposer to have all the background information and justification being included as part of the proposal. Then I will ask the members if this is in shape that it can be sent to departments for feedback. Typically, the answer will be in affirmative, and an email will go to all DUGC Conveners (they are anyway members of SUGC) and Heads of the department. They will get 2 weeks to respond. Since we know that many departments would delay, in parallel, I would send an email to all faculty members asking them to ensure that their departments have a meeting at the appropriate level within this time, and in case it is not possible, they can send their feedback to me, and I will summarize that to the proposer. After 2-3 weeks, all feedback goes to proposer and s/he updates the proposal based on that. Now, we are ready to discuss this in the SUGC meeting.

In the SUGC meeting, the agenda papers would have the final draft of the proposal and the feedback received. At this stage, no proposal would ever take more than a few minutes to pass. So each proposal gets discussed only in one meeting and not in multiple meetings, and the total meeting time taken for this is about 1/10th of what was being done in the previous case. Since the proposal is drafted properly, Senate too would normally take only a few minutes to approve this, thereby saving a huge amount of time for everyone.

The day I took charge of SUGC, I announced that in my 52-week tenure, I want to submit 52 proposals to Senate, some as trivial as changing one course by another in the graduation requirements of a degree program, and some as complex as moving from course based structures to credit based structures (the entire UG manual was changed to reflect the credit based system). And still we had only one meeting in a month, and no SUGC meeting lasted more than 2 hours. (In the previous years, the number of such proposals sent to Senate would have been about 10-15.)

Regarding the routine student requests too (some can be taken care of by chairperson, but some are usually discussed in SUGC), instead of waiting for the next SUGC meeting, I would just send an email to all members. If even one member suggests that there is something that we need to discuss face-to-face, then the item will come for discussion in the next meeting. Otherwise, it is approved, and in the next meeting, the item is reported so that it is part of the records. The students too were happy since their requests were being taken care of quickly.

If I see the reasons for efficiency, basically, we were having virtual meetings through email, asking multiple stake holders to look at the proposals in parallel, and we were ensuring that the language of the proposal is very unambiguous when it does come up for discussion in SUGC. The exact process we used 10 years ago in a small committee may not be the best bet for Senate today, but the way to improve efficiency has to be to do these things, particularly, improving the quality of agenda papers.


  1. If my limited experience in the Senate is anything to go by: I strongly agree that using digital means for decision-making are essential for improving things. One of the things we've done in the Students' Senate over the past few years is to take decisions over the Senate mailing list for things which are unlikely to require much discussion (for example, approval of committee formations, approval of appointments of people to Gymkhana posts and so on), and all such decisions would be included in the Agenda of the subsequent Students' Senate meeting as a ratification item.

    Another thing is that the Senate agenda is largely prepared over a period of a month, but it's only provided to members and special invitees when it is final - why can't items be sent to Senators and special invitees as and when they are admitted by the Chairman, Senate?

    Lastly, I think that at an Institute level, there's some need to look into how feedback is obtained for proposals, specifically, but not limited to departmental feedback: as far as I know, there is some amount of ambiguity in terms of how a proposal reaches the Senate. Since most of my experience comes from student proposals, let's talk about that.

    At present, for a student proposal related to (say) undergraduate academics, the various ways it could reach the Senate are:

    1. The Students' Senate discusses it, and directs it's nominees to the SUGC to take it up in the SUGC (this method is analogous to when a DUGC Convener takes up a proposal in the SUGC).

    2. The Students' Senate discusses it, and directs its Chairperson to forward it to the Chairman, SUGC (somewhat analogous to a Head directly writing to the Chairman, SUGC)

    3. The Students' Senate discusses it and directs its Chairperson to sent it to the Chairman, Senate (again, analogous to a Head sending it to the Chairman, Senate)

    In my opinion, all proposals (including proposals by individual or groups of faculty members) should go through only one of these routes [my personal opinion is that it should be 3, I can elaborate more if you'd like]. Having a set method through which a proposal enters the Senate deliberation process can help control how and when it is revealed to the general public to solicit opinions, and could be tracked on an online forum, such as on the Secretary, Senate's website, for example.

    1. @Anurag, I dont see much difference between 1 and 2, that is, whether the request for agenda comes from student reps in SUGC or directly from Student Senate (or analogously from DUGC Convener or Head). In either case, the discussion will happen in SUGC and forwarded to Senate. I would prefer that most agenda to Senate come through standing committees of Senate. Only routine items (like list of potential selection committee members) or rare items should come through any other route like #3.

      I agree that agenda should be sent as early as possible, and any item that is going to be included in agenda can be sent by email as soon as it is agreed that it will be in agenda and not wait till the agenda has been compiled into one big document.