April 21, 2011

University Assembly Changes Charter

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A new University Assembly charter will increase the U.A.’s influence over University decisions, according to Prof. Emeritus Charles Walcott, neurobiology and behavior, chair of the U.A. executive committee. Approved by President David Skorton on April 13, the new charter will take effect June 1, Walcott said.

Edward Strong grad, vice chair of the executive committee, stressed the importance of a clause in the new charter that reads, “Responsible University officials shall consider designating the Assembly, or one of its constituent assemblies, as a stakeholder in each impact statement.”

“This means that rather than be reactionary to new University policies, the U.A. and its constituent assemblies are actively involved, in real time,” Strong said.

Other changes to the charter include giving the heads of the other assemblies on campus — the Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Employee Assembly and the Faculty Senate — seats on the UA and a restructuring of the U.A.’s committees.

“The University Assembly represents the interests of the whole University community… The problem was that there was no good communication with the other groups,” Walcott said. “[Now] the groups will have communication with the other groups.”

The new charter will improve the U.A.’s ability to represent all of its constituencies by improving communication, Walcott said.

“There will be the sound of trumpets in the night when the charter goes into effect. … None of the assemblies have any real power … but what we do have is the ability to influence things fairly dramatically,” Walcott said. “I think [the new charter] will increase [the U.A.’s influence] because we have broadened the areas the U.A. is interested in.”

Currently, the U.A.’s legislative authority is limited to very specific areas, such as on-campus transportation, Gannett Health Services, the Cornell Store and Cornell United Religious Works, Walcott said.

“Under the new system, we have an interest in anything that affects the whole University interest,” Walcott said. He cited information technologies and computer systems on campus as areas the U.A. will now be able to address.

In addition, the U.A. will streamline its committee structure. Currently, there are 13 standing committees associated with the U.A., many of which have been dormant for a long time, Strong said.

Under the new charter, there will only be three standing committees — the two new campus welfare and campus infrastructure committees and the preexisting codes and judicial committee. While most members of U.A. committees were not voting members of the U.A. under the old charter, the new charter will require all committees to have multiple voting members.

“The committees of the University Assembly tended to be kind of autonomous with no communication with the Assembly itself. We have restructured it so that the committees will have members of the University Assembly,” Walcott said.

Although the U.A. reduced the number of committees, it increased membership in each one, Walcott said. Each committee will have a greater range of interconnected issues it addresses, and ad hoc and subcommittees will be formed as needed, he said.

“Under [the committees] will be subcommittees for specific issues,” Walcott said. “They will continue to exist as long as the job needs to be done.”

Michael Walsh grad, chair of the U.A. sustainability committee, said that, under the old charter, committees often existed without a specific job. As such, committees would experience busy periods followed by long stretches of idleness. Under the new charter, when a specific issue arises, a new temporary subcommittee can be created to address it, thus preventing this problem, Walsh said.

“Our committee was just sitting around this year twiddling our thumbs,” he said.

Walsh said they were busy, however, when debate erupted over whether Cornell should allow gas companies to drill in the University’s Marcellus Shale property last year.

“It doesn’t make sense to have many narrowly defined committees when topics are so interconnected,” Strong said. “So we started from the ground and basically built a new committee system that we believe will give the structure to conduct the assembly’s business, maintain communication and involvement and be productive upon issues that are interrelated and very complex.

”Brenda Marston, chair of the U.A. childcare services subcommittee and library curator in the division of rare and manuscript collections, disagreed that the broader committees would be beneficial. The childcare services subcommittee is the only standing subcommittee on the U.A. under the old charter, and its members voted unanimously in September against the changes to committee structure. Under the new charter, its responsibilities will be taken up by the new campus welfare committee.

“I think there’s a strong risk there won’t be any sustained attention to the whole range of issues surrounding child care. [Currently, there is] a dedicated committee meeting once a month,” Marston said. “If they want to staff the committees with people who are interested in the University in general, they won’t have people as devoted to specific issues … My general impression is that … the University Assembly will be less effective moving in this direction.”

Walcott said the old charter was “out of date,” and the U.A. had been developing the new one for the past two years.

Strong said the old charter did not reflect changes to the University that occured since it was drafted 30 years ago.

“Obviously the University, its constituencies, the issues and operations of the University had changed considerably in 30 years … but the authority found in the charter of the U.A. had not. The U.A. was quite frankly crippled by an outdated charter that was never clear and succinct from the beginning,” Strong said. “Pretty much everyone with interaction to the U.A. knew the Assembly was not meeting its potential and that the charter was a major obstacle in this.”

Original Author: Joseph Niczky