Peter Conlon

Peter Conlon has finally finished eating the elephant.

Earlier this week, an initiative led by Conlon to change the composition and membership of the University Senate was approved – ultimately reducing the Senate’s membership by 25 per cent.

It was an arduous task, given the elephant’s size and scope. Conlon and the Senate Bylaws and Membership Committee, which he chairs, have been working away at it, bit by bit, for nearly four years.

At 215 seats, U of G’s Senate had been one of the largest such university bodies in the country. Those seats are held by elected and ex-officio members representing students, faculty, staff, librarians, administrators and alumni. Needless to say, deciding who stays and who goes is a contentious issue.

This might partly explain why past attempts to trim Senate’s girth have been unsuccessful. Since the 1970s, there have been a few “restructuring” exercises, most recently in 1994.

The latest initiative came after the annual membership surveys showed the majority of senators felt the body was too large to function effectively and to allow engagement.

Given a history of failed attempts, where to start chomping on the beast?

Conlon decided a brand-new approach was in order.

“With the previous unsuccessful attempts, the actual goal was to reduce the size of Senate. But if you have that as your only goal from the start, you are doomed to fail,” says Conlon, the Ontario Veterinary College’s associate dean of students.

“If you don’t have a strategy – and underlying principles – it is a difficult thing to do, because how are you going to decide who remains and who doesn’t? If you have underlying principles, they can be used as a lens to see what a new Senate might look like, and if it ends up being smaller, then it’s smaller.”

As a first bite, Conlon’s committee came up with a set of principles to guide decision-making and recommendations. They then focused on the standing committees, beginning in 2007 with changes to committee size, responsibilities and membership.

In 2010, they turned their focus to Senate as a whole. They aimed to increase efficiency, effectiveness and engagement, and to make sure that every Senate seat met the overall mandate to oversee the University’s education policies and academic programming.

“We were open and clear about the process, we didn’t want to rush and we didn’t want to surprise anyone. We kept people informed as we went along, and I believe that is why we were successful. People understood the purpose, the rationale and the work behind it,” Conlon says.

Ultimately, the proposal reduced Senate from 215 to 162 seats. There are 15 fewer ex-officio members – mostly administrators – and alumni representatives went down to two from nine. There are 18 fewer faculty seats and 12 fewer student seats, but now 76 per cent of faculty and 84 per cent of students will have the opportunity to sit on standing committees, which will hopefully increase members’ engagement.

Conlon’s plate is a little less full now; Senate unanimously approved the changes Dec. 5. “That was the most rewarding thing,” he says. “No matter what we presented, it was up to Senate to determine its own future.

“It was clear that senators were voting not to protect their own territory or interests but as citizens of the University, and that they felt the proposal was good for the University.”