December 1, 2010

Mount Allison Students' Administrative Council (SAC) Newsletter (Honorary Degree Process and Student Health Insurance)


If you haven't seen it yet Mount Allison's Students' Administrative Council (SAC) their first Quarterly Newsletter, the Union Quarterly. In in, SAC President Samuel Gregg-Wallace outlined some of the key issues and initiatives for the SAC this year.

These include: The awarding of the first ever SAC Excellence in Teaching Award to Geography Professor Dr. Michael Fox. He also mentions his role as the President of the New Brunswick Student Alliance wherein his priorities are "establishing a multi-year funding agreement with universities to ensure stable tuition prices, eliminating interest on student loans, and expand the Timely Completion Benefit."

The four page newsletter includes sections on the process of awarding honorary degrees. SAC Vice President Vice President Nathan Walker writes about the controversy and what the SAC has done improve the degree granting process.


Following the controversy surrounding the awarding of an honorary degree to Heather Reisman at May’s Convocation ceremony, the SAC recognized the need for a close reevaluation of the role honorary degrees play at our university and the procedure by which they are awarded. In this particular instance, Ms. Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music, was honored with a degree in recognition of her corporate success. At issue with some of the university’s faculty and students were her ties to the Heseg Foundation, which provides financial support for Israel’s “lone soldiers” – members of the Israeli Defense Forces who have no family ties to the country but wish to settle there.
While the SAC did not take a stance on the awarding of Ms. Reisman’s degree, the need for a discussion of the current honorary degrees policy was apparent. Subsequently, the SAC Executive Committee, Academic Affairs Committee, and the Students’ Administrative Council as a whole have undertaken a review of the principles and procedures surrounding these degrees and made a series of recommendations to Dr. Robert Campbell, University President and Chair of Senate. 
After careful consideration, we felt that the current criteria and rationale for the awarding of honorary degrees are appropriate, provided they are followed. These criteria are best summarized by assertion that “when granting an honorary degree, we are projecting our values and vision to our community.” However, the current procedures seemed to lack transparency and do not facilitate informed, engaged decision making by members of senate, and therefore need to be addressed. To this end, the SAC President, Vice-President Academic, and Student Senators submitted a number of proposed procedural changes to the members of Senate, including a request that information on proposed honorary degree recipients be distributed to Senators with enough time to conduct research and contemplate the university values each candidate reflects. Additionally, we requested a list of candidates previously approved by senate but on whom a degree had not yet been conferred, to ensure that the candidate continued to embody the university’s ideals.
At the recent November 18th Senate meeting, Dr. Campbell announced that these proposed changes, in addition to others put forward in our letter, would be implemented in the upcoming deliberation of honorary degree candidates in December. We are gratified to be working towards an improved process and look forward to further engagement with the university community in the near future. For more information about honorary degrees or the SAC’s letter to Senate, please contact Nathan Walker, Vice-President Academic at sacacademic@mta.ca

This article still leaves many questions unanswered, particularly because, to date almost none of the details have been made public and all discussions, it seems, have been behind closed doors. It is unclear exactly how having a list of preapproved honorary degree candidates provided to the SAC can "ensure that the candidate continued to embody the university’s ideals." Is it supposed to imply that the SAC will have a say in who receives degrees. Will the SAC also be provided with names of future possible degree recipients. Will student opinion be taken into account besides the one student (out of eleven members) on the Honorary Degrees Committee? How is that student chosen? The webpage about Honorary Degrees is unclear about how the Committee functions and whether a majority vote is needed in order to provide the Senate with a select list of acceptable recipients. This makes it very unclear if the new recommendations will increase transparency as the SAC hopes.

However, in a situation like this it is quite possibly it is in the best interest of the University that the procedures and deliberations of the Committee and Senate are not made public and that transparency is not always necessary or appropriate. The ultimate recipients are important for the future of the University in terms of providing it with increased national recognition (Peter Mansbridge, 1999) and other positive benefits, and I believe that we ought to put enough faith in our representatives (or in case of students, representative) that they will make appropriate decisions on our behalf. However I, and undoubtedly those who opposed awarding Heather Reisman a degree hope that in fact the implementation of the new recommendations will allow for more informed decisions in the future.

Another piece of note is by Vice President Campus Life, noting that, what do you know, yes, a large majority of student 66.5% and 64.5%, respectively) do want mandatory, opt-out extended health and dental insurance. The plan is to have health and dental insurance for all students by September 2011.

Here is the newsletter (archived from the SAC website.

Mount Allison University Students' Administrative Council's Union Quarterly

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