The Senate is one of the university's two primary governing bodies, the Board of Trustees being the other. Like the board, the Senate is as old as the University; it was described in the university's Royal Charter of 1841, which willed that the "Principal and all the Professors of the said College shall forever constitute the College Senate," with powers to "exercise of Academical superintendence and discipline over the Students," and to confer degrees.

What was envisioned was a body of faculty with authority over the academic affairs of the university, in contrast to the Board, which would include no faculty except the Principal, and which would have a financial focus. With some changes, this is what the Senate remains today.

At first, the Senate included every faculty member; but in 1913, after the numbers of faculty had generally grown, the Senate was made a representative body, comprised of elected faculty members representing their respective faculties and schools.

In 1970, the composition of the Senate again changed significantly, this time to give approximately one quarter of the seats to student representatives (students had first been given four places two years earlier).

Today, the Senate's primary purpose is "to determine all matters of an academic character which affect the university as a whole, and to be concerned with all matters which affect the welfare of the University."

Specifically, the Senate grants degrees (including honorary degrees) and has the final say in all matters relating to examinations; it must approve all programs of study proposed by faculties and schools, and can establish (subject to ratification by the Board of Trustees) new faculties, schools, departments, chairs, centres, and institutes.

It sets policies in a wide range of academic areas including but not limited to Research, Scholarships and Student Aid, Fine Arts and Public Lectures, the Library, and Information Technology. The review of the University budget is the responsibility of a joint Board-Senate committee, the Queen's University Planning Committee (QUPC), chaired by the Provost and VP (Academic). The Senate receives regular reports on the budget process from the Provost.

It has responsibility for the overall well-being of students and has final responsibility for their academic and non-academic discipline, including the power to expel students, although initial responsibility for non-academic discipline of students is exercised by the Alma Mater Society and the Society of Graduate and Professional Students.

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