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Shared governance matters

Shared governance matters / FangXiaNuo

For decades now, academics have been engaged in a tug-of-war with administrators of universities and colleges over decision-making processes and in ensuring their voices and the voices of other stakeholders are heard. Success has been scarce, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

“If our post-secondary institutions are to fulfill their promise of providing high-quality education and research, then faculty — those with the expertise and training on academic matters — must be centrally involved in academic decisions,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson.

Concerns about governance are not new. In the 1960s, the Duff-Berdahl Commission, established by CAUT and the precursor to Universities Canada, was asked to examine the governance structures and practices in universities. The commission’s report reiterated the view that post-secondary institutions should be autonomous and strongly endorsed the principle of bicameral governance.

According to the commission, for shared governance to work properly, the academic senate has to have “substantial powers” delegated both from above and below. “On the one hand, the president should use the senate and its committee as a principal source of advice on academic policies. On the other, departments and faculties must transmit to the senate for review many of their decisions on internal affairs.”

Although the report had a considerable political impact, the situation didn’t improve much over the next decades. In 1990, CAUT established the Independent Study Group on University Governance, which concluded that the concept of shared governance as the ultimate tool to defend universities’ autonomy was still facing many challenges on campuses.

“It was consistently suggested during our hearings that the control of the university had fallen into the hands of an administrative group of senior officials (the president, the vice-president, the deans) and that this group, in fact, ran the university without any genuine accountability,” wrote Guy Bourgeault, Ken McGovern and Ernst Benjamin in their report.

The lack of real powers delegated to the senate was once again identified as one of the main impediments to collegial governance in a 2016 study from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. For the study, the research team surveyed 219 senators and 29 senate secretaries. A key finding was the “senate’s relationship — or lack of relationship — with the governing board and its sometimes uneasy role with the administration.”

“Almost a third of both groups reference role confusion, power imbalance, or other tensions between the senate and the board, or between the senate and the administration,” wrote Lea Pennock, Glen A. Jones, Jeff M. Leclerc and Sharon X. Li. “Many senate members expressed the view that the senate is largely peripheral to the real decision-making and goal-setting mechanism, citing a lack of true respect for the academic autonomy that should be afforded to the university senate independent of the governing board.”

Where do we go from there? Is shared governance only a good principle on paper? “It might be a utopia, but this is not a problem as long as we know that it is where we want to go,” says Christian Rouillard, Canada Research Chair on Governance and Public Management at the University of Ottawa. “But to succeed in advancing towards it, we need to mobilize faculty. There is a certain indifference among my colleagues and there is a need for pedagogy with professors not only about the issues but also how to use the tools we have to advance collegial governance.”

“The governance of most universities is regulated by provincial legislation, so it’s hard to lobby for a national fix. But I believe we can make things better by addressing the lack of faculty input and by making boards more transparent,” says Julia Wright, a professor of English at Dalhousie University and an expert researcher on university issues, including governance.

As an example of a good initiative to move forward, Wright points to a recommendation in the report of Nipissing University’s Special Governance Commission published in October 2016. The commission recommended the creation of a standing joint committee of the board and senate on governance with a mandate to review the governance structures and practices of the university to foster bicameral communication and collegiality.

“There’s a culture of discounting faculty input, but I’m not sure most of the board members have all the information they need to know how a university operates,” adds Wright. “They have a limited perspective. The senate and boards have to work together. A joint committee would be a way to address the lack of faculty in the decision-making process and a way to be more transparent.”

“Shared governance will never be perfect. It is an ideal,” admits Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée, assistant professor of education administration at the Université de Montréal. “What makes me worried is how much ground we lost over the last decade and the perpetual tension that is encouraged between the boards and the university community. The imbalance is bad for our institutions and for our society.”

Beaupré-Lavallée says academic staff must step up. “It’s true that senates and other academic governing bodies have lost power. That said, the lack of influence is also due to the fact that people gave up, that faculty decided not to get involved or not to show up. Academic staff are more powerful than they think. If they confer and organize, then they can use the power that is given to them. The truth about power is that to have it, you have to use it. That might be hard for some people to get their heads around, but you have to play the political game.”

With the objective of identifying trends across the country CAUT spearheaded a report on academic governance at 31 Canadian universities. “We wanted to have an overview of the situation and to give our members solid facts to hit the ground running and campaign for change,” explains Robinson.

He noted that “in some instances, faculty associations will have to lobby the provincial governments for legislative changes.” However, he said in other cases the bargaining table would be an effective and appropriate place to address governance issues. “Associations can, for instance, negotiate language to ensure that academic staff who serve on the board retain their rights as members of the association.”

“Shared governance is also necessary to protect academic freedom,” Robinson adds. “Allowing faculty the freedom to determine how best to deliver a course or pursue research means better outcomes for students and communities. To make the right decisions, the right people need to be involved and that means including all relevant stakeholders in decision-making.”

Beaupré-Lavallée says that over the last 10 years, there’s been a redefinition of the role of faculty in governance and a transfer of the balance of power into the hands of a limited group of administrators and university managers who imagine they hold the monopoly over the greater interests of the institution.

“A board must be representative of its community,” he argues. “There is that neo-liberal idea that internal administrators are not capable of making well-considered decisions about their institutions and it’s untrue. Internal and external administrators have the same fiduciary duties and boards can only benefit from receiving unfiltered internal information to be able to make better decisions.”

For her part, Wright says board members have a vested interest in increasing transparency and sharing information. “Boards now have a tendency to treat their decisions like trade secrets. They seem to forget they are dealing with academics that entered the profession because they’re curious. And the way to deal with curious people is by giving them information to show that decisions were made on the basis of evidence.”