Proposal for ‘Faculty of Colleges’ rejected by Senate

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University proposals to create a ‘Faculty of Colleges’ have had to be shelved after opposition in the Senate, Durham University’s supreme governing body for academic matters.

On 1st May at Hild Bede College, a show of hands almost led to the motion being passed before calls for the proposals to be put to a written ballot were accepted. The first ballot in Senate for nine years saw 17 votes in favour, 28 against and 3 abstentions, meaning the Senate did not recommend the proposed statue changes to the University’s executive body, Council.

The proposed transition from the Colleges Division to a Faculty of Colleges would recognise the increased role of colleges in education and research at the University. The paper put to the Senate suggests that the organisational change would “frame the Colleges first and foremost as scholarly communities in which academic activities are undertaken in support of the University Strategy under the leadership of senior academics.”

The general principle of acknowledging further the Colleges’ informal academic role has been developed throughout a long period of consultation with staff and student representatives, and the notion was approved by the University Executive Committee, Senate and Council in their respective February and March 2012 meetings.

Professor Graham Towl, Deputy Warden of the University, who had been heavily involved in the development of the Faculty of Colleges change, said in a statement: “Our colleges are scholarly communities with scholarly leadership form our Heads of Colleges, all of whom are senior members of our academic staff at Durham University.

“We are keen to both recognise the excellent work of our College communities and also further enable such scholarly work to flourish in the future.”

When the paper outlining the reality of the statute change was circulated prior to the May meeting, concerns were raised that the precise nature Faculty of Colleges concept blurred the lines between the colleges and academic departments.

Professor Ranald Michie, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, circulated a paper via email to fellow Senate members prior to the meeting expressing concern. His note of opposition suggested that with the title ‘Faculty’ there would be ambiguity over where degree-awarding powers would lie (currently they are devolved to the three academic Faculties).

Furthermore, he suggested the Faculty of Colleges statute change could potentially harm the unique formal and informal academic communities that the current form of Departments and Colleges provides, which allows students to meet a wide range of peers and academics to focus on high quality research.

The paper said: “Colleges have a very important contribution to make to the ongoing success of Durham University a successful academic institution. So do the existing Faculties and the departments and individual institutes that they contain.

“We should not confuse the distinctive contribution that each make by giving them the same name as the proposed Statute change does.”

Prior to the meeting, Professor Michie requested, as is his right as a Senate member, that preparations were made for a written ballot on the proposed statute changes. Reports from the 1st May meeting suggest that when the Faculty of Colleges proposals arose, the Chair of Senate (Vice Chancellor Professor Chris Higgins) wanted to accept the positive show of hands as the approval of Senate.

However, Professor Michie reasserted the right to hold a written ballot, giving a short speech expressing his concerns, before voting slips were distributed. Subsequently, the result of show of hands was reversed by the ballot’s rejection of the proposals.

The holding of a written ballot at Senate was the first since 29th September 2003, in which members voted on aspects of the University’s Strategic Improvement Programme. Usually, motions are decided by a public show of hands.

Alongside the reversal of the result, Palatinate has been informed by numerous witnesses that the ballot itself was handled poorly. Several Senate members expressed uncertainty over the wording of the ballot, whether they were debating the general principle of the colleges’ academic role or the Faculty of Colleges name, and which side was for and which against.

Professor Towl added: “The reorganisation and development of the College’s Division to reflect the development of the individual Colleges as scholarly communities was strongly endorsed and approved formally by both Senate and Council.

“Some staff at Senate had concerns about the use of the term ‘Faculty of Colleges’ and discussion and debate on such matters is important in a university community. However, this will not in any way deflect the growth and development of the very special College system which contributes so much to the Durham education and student experience.”

Following the meeting, the Faculty of Colleges statute changes were not put to the Council at the meeting on 15th May and therefore will not be going ahead. Instead, a proposal will be made to the 19th June meeting of Senate for the current ‘Colleges Divisions’ to drop the word ‘Division’, but not to become a Faculty.

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