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Governance on the rocks

March 2017
Image of a sinkink ship
iStock.com / pungem

Do academic staff today have much of a say in university & college governance?

“Universities are becoming so large, so complex, and so dependent upon public funds that scholars no longer form or even influence their own policy, that a new and rapidly growing class of administrators is assuming control, and that a gulf of misunderstanding and misapprehension is widening between the academic staff and the admin­is­tra­tive personnel, with grave damage to the functioning of both.”

That was the conclusion of the report of the Duff-Berdahl Commission in 1966. Fifty years later, the report remains relevant today because concerns about the waning influence of academics over the governance of post-secondary institutions, whether in senates or boards of governors, are still not resolved.

Some recent examples serve to highlight continuing issues. Carleton University has been plagued with controversy over a decision to declare a faculty member on the board ineligible to seek a second term for refusing to sign the board’s code of conduct. The code requires all governors to publicly support all decisions taken by the board.

“At Carleton and in a growing number of universities, boards of governors are acting like private-sector entities, as if they weren’t accountable to the people,” says James Turk, former executive director of CAUT. “Asking elected governors to become ambassadors for their institution and banning them from talking about issues that elude a consensus goes against the very essence of a university’s mission. It’s as if the Prime Minister of Canada were to prohibit MPs from talking about debates in the House of Commons on the pretext that it would not be in the country’s interests. That’s not how democracy works, and it’s not how our public institutions should operate, either.”

Carleton is not alone. At Université de Montréal, rector Guy Breton has embarked on a major reform of governance by proposing amendments to the university’s charter, which dates back to 1967, that would centralize power in the hands of the board of governors and the executive committee. Among the proposals are that the board of governors be comprised of a majority of off-campus members, including the chair of the board.

This doesn’t sit well with the Syndicat général des professeurs et professeurs de l’Université de Montréal. The union has spoken out against the governance reforms at every opportunity, and its members have authorized the executive to take all necessary measures, including legal recourse, to contest the proposed changes. The association says that collegiality, the collective agreement, and the acquired rights of academic staff are at stake.

“If this reform goes through, it will be the end of collegiality and the end of faculty engagement in our institution throughout the university ranks, because the board plans to pocket all the power,” says union president Jean Portugais. “The rector says the charter is a tool for governance, but that’s not true. It’s the founding law of our university, and any such amendments to it are a violation of the current charter that stipulates in its preamble that academic staff must be involved in the management of Université de Montréal.”

This is Breton’s second attempt in as many years to reform governance at the university. “We’re living in an anti-union environment where the rector makes scathing remarks about our association,” says Portugais. “We get accused of every crime in the book while he professes to speak the faculty’s language. His approach is that of a manager who runs the university as if it were a company.”

His colleague, education administration expert Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée says he’s also noticed how the voices of faculty are being sidelined in governance, but he asserts that boards of governors aren’t the ones benefiting. “Some of the really symbolic positions of power are highly coveted, such as the chair’s seat. But in general, boards of governors are already run off their feet, and with members often serving without remuneration, there’s a strong temptation to grant wider powers to senior management.”

Turk says faculty responsibilities within the shared governance system is an age-old debate. “We’ve been trying to resolve the problems with collegial governance for the last hundred years, because as a concept, it’s only good on paper. Realistically, it’s the unionization of the academic world that has paved an alternative way to improving governance. Take a look around. Who — or what — is standing up for academic freedom? Our collective agreements, not university senates. The same goes for workload clauses and rules for obtaining tenure. In principle, all of these aspects are academic in nature, yet it has been up to academic staff associations to secure these kinds of commitments in their employment contracts, because the senates have not done their job.”

Brenda Austin-Smith, vice-president of CAUT and a member of the University of Manitoba senate since 2014, agrees but also thinks that faculty participation in governance matters. “I used to think the senate wasn’t much use, but my opinion has changed for the better. Without a doubt, the composition of the senate is weighted in favour of the ad-ministration, but I’ve come to view the senate as an important political forum. It’s especially useful when it comes to asking questions of the administration, obtaining documents, sitting in on presentations and showing a united front with students.”

She also points out that meetings of senate are important because all questions and answers — no matter how relevant they are — are recorded and publicly available. “It’s a place where we can make a political statement, and I wouldn’t want us to give it up. That said — and the same thing goes for our associations’ steering committees — the value of a senate as an academic reference will always vary depending on its elected members and their willingness to take action, speak out and vote against the administration’s agenda.”

CAUT executive director David Robinson says the key to improving governance in universities lies with collective bargaining and academic staff engagement in the demographic bodies of our institutions. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he says. “We need to be right there in the places where decisions are made and use our power and influence to defend the values of post-secondary edu­cation. And we need to protect the collegial role of our members by building provisions into our collective agreements that clearly set out where boards of governors and senates
fit into the picture.”

Austin-Smith agrees. “Faculty associations are stronger and more effective when faculty members see their association as an instrument that will support and help them in their academic careers, including from a legal standpoint if need be. This extends to senate involvement too. I feel it is important to see senates as bodies that work best when faculty members take advantage of their freedom of association and make decisions in the interests of academia on terms defined by academics.”

According to Beaupré-Lavallée, it’s possible to get senates back on track, but only if we clear up the role they’re sup-posed to play. “As far as I’m concerned, if we want to revitalize things we need to let go of our nostalgia for the glory days of the past and the idealistic vision of university governance,” he says. “Senates can no longer be content to point the way for institutions without assuming the responsibilities that go along with that collective decision-making authority.”

Portugais says academic staff associations across the country should view encroachments on governance like the current situation at Université de Montréal as a warning sign. “If we just let this go, there’s a risk that other universities will get caught up in its wake. This overwhelming trend toward centralization and commodification is a threat to academic freedom and collegiality. It’s akin to trying to cut a university’s head from its body.”