Honourary Degrees (27 Jan 2016)

This week, the Carleton University president, who is also chair of the university senate, had the senate vote to approve an honourary degree recipient without any opportunity for debate. This is not only a clear breach of shared collegial governance, but also a breach of parliamentary procedure. A point of order appealing this egregious lack of meaningful consultation was dismissed by the chair. I am therefore blogging about this matter to highlight the breakdown of due process that increasingly pervades Carleton University governance and am doing so before the procedurally flawed honourary degree is conferred on Friday 29 January 2016. As my colleague Patrizia Gentile assiduously remarked, “Due process is not an annoying step – it is imperative if we are going to proceed as a functioning institution.”

The call for a vote on the nominee for an honourary degree was sent to all senators via e-mail on Friday 22 January 2016 at 3:40 pm (i.e. start of the weekend), with a request to vote before 4:30 pm on Monday 25 January 2016. The e-mail calling for a vote was not marked confidential or closed. I am therefore posting a copy of that e-mail here, but redacting the name of the honourary degree recipient and the link to a very brief biography in order to save the nominee from embarrassment. This nominee had never been discussed at regular meetings of senate nor had been discussed at the special meeting of senate on 15 December 2015. On 22 January 2016, I immediately protested this lack of debate in an e-mail to the clerk of senate, university president (who is chair of senate), and chair of the honourary degrees committee, but heard no replies. Therefore on 26 January 2016, I e-mailed the secretary of senate with a point of order, appealing the non-decision by the chair of senate, requesting that all members of senate vote on whether a motion that did not allow for debate was a breach of the Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, which Carleton’s senate supposedly adheres to. The secretary of senate forwarded my point of order to the university president and clerk of senate, to which all senators received the president’s reply (link here), a reply that was also not designated as closed or confidential.

The president’s reply to all senators on Wednesday 27 January 2016 stated that there is no requirement for senate to debate motions prior to voting. The university president/chair of senate wrote (with emphasis in the original).

There is no rule in any of the documents governing Senate that states that there must be debate prior to a vote. Senate has previously approved matters arising by email. Motions are often passed at Senate without debate.

While there is usually no debate with procedural motions, this should not be the case for substantive matters. Sometimes senate voluntarily skips debate because there is nothing to discuss, but that is different from not being provided the opportunity to debate main motions. My protest was never about voting via e-mail. My protest was solely about lack of debate, which, while not quite as satisfactory, can occur via e-mail. The university president’s equating of my point of order with whether to award someone an honourary degree (vis-à-vis both motions supposedly having no required debate) is downright insulting because senate rules do, in fact, appear to require debate on the motion to approve someone for an honourary degree. The Annex to Senate Rules of Order – Motions in Order at a Senate Meeting, states in relevant part:

I. Main Motions

Most of these motions, [sic] will be concerned with the substantive work of Senate and hence are called main motions. Once a main motion has been introduced, it becomes the focus of attention; it must be dealt with in some way before another main motion is introduced.

There are also a number of procedural motions that can be introduced during the debate on a main motion.

The motion regarding the honourary degree nominee seemed to be a main motion and hence the above senate rule implies that there will be a debate. The university president and the clerk of senate also failed to abide by the ten-day notice of motion requirement, which is memorialized in the Senate Rules of Order, article 6.

In all fairness, I suspect the person nominated is a decent person for an honourary degree. But senate needs to meaningfully debate this. Such a debate could occur electronically, but this did not occur. I also must question why the committee who nominates honourary degree recipients was caught so flat-footed. What is urgent about this matter? Did the university president simply suggest this nominee at the last second? Should senate have to suffer for such tardiness? Why can the honourary degree not be conferred later?

In general, is Carleton University simply handing out many honourary degrees as political or fund-raising favours? The current university president has certainly overseen the awarding of many more honourary degrees per annum than her predecessors. Sometimes this is good, especially when the Carleton community gets to hear enlightening talks and speak one-on-one with luminaries. I still treasure meeting with and listening to Muhammad Yunus, for which I thank President Roseann Runte, Dean Jerry Tomberlin, and everyone else instrumental in bringing him to campus. Carleton also has given honourary degrees to people who have simply given the university large donations. There is much to be debated here. Too bad the university body that approves degrees, the university senate, never was granted the opportunity to collegially debate the person who is being awarded an honourary degree on the afternoon of 29 January 2016.

The current situation of not allowing debate at the highest levels of university governance seems utterly autocratic and embarrassing, especially when the opportunity for such debate appears to be codified.

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