Every so often during term time.
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There’s been a Senate meeting this week… but the days when Senate papers were pored over with interest are long gone. Openness and scrutiny have given way to agenda items that are ‘RESTRICTED’, ‘RESERVED’, ‘COMMERCIAL IN CONFIDENCE’, ‘STRICTLY IN CONFIDENCE’ or some combination of these. Senate members have (mostly) fallen under the spell of being the select few ‘in the know’ and happily play along with this cloak-and-dagger game, while journalists – the few permitted to attend, that is – are basically barred from reporting on any of the really interesting stuff. Senate reports now read more like ‘wicked whispers’-style gossip columns, where reporters try their best to drop hints about what might have been said or done, without actually naming anyone or anything.
All we know, for example, about November’s Senate debate on the ‘Senior Team Structure at Lancaster University (Strictly Confidential and Restricted)’ is that they concerned the ‘future structure of the senior leadership team afforded by the forthcoming departure of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.’ Oh really… do tell us more! No. All we can report is that the Senate ‘agreed that it was fully supportive of the proposals’ and that one comment ‘concerning a proposed role-title was noted and would be considered further by the Vice-Chancellor as part of finalising the proposals for Council.’ Curiouser and curiouser… well, probably not, to be honest, but it’s much more exciting when you label it ‘STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL’, isn’t it?
Cognitive dissonance kicks in once you notice that all the old Senate minutes are still available online (to current staff and students) and we’re thus able to offer more scrutiny of Lancaster two decades ago than we are of Lancaster now. Reading the 2001 Senate minutes is like peeking into another world where, for example, the decision on whether to elect or appoint our Pro-Vice-Chancellors was decided on a show of hands, with the discussion and vote fully minuted (it was 24 to 22 in favour of appointment, in case you were wondering). If that meeting had taken place in 2019 then the minutes would have recorded the Senate’s support for some proposal or other, which the Vice-Chancellor would of course consider further.
Maybe the culture of secrecy helps more senators speak frankly, safe in the knowledge that their criticisms will never form part of the public record? Perhaps senators can be more effective ‘critical friends’ if their criticisms are heard behind closed doors? If you’re sympathetic to this argument then subtext would like to say four things to you: ‘U’, ‘A’, ‘9’ and ‘2’.