Louise Briand is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO). She is also Vice-President, University Sector of the Fédération des professionnèles (FP-CSN). After serving six years as President of the UQO Faculty Union (SPUQO), she continues as Treasurer of the Union. Along with colleagues, she has been fighting to protect collegial governance and effective academic staff representation on the Board of Governors at her institution for the last decade.
What is the background of the UQO and the structure of its Board of Governors (BOG)?
UQO is part of the Université du Québec (UQ) network, which includes six constituent universities, three “superior schools” and one research institute. UQ was created 50 years ago, on a promise that these universities would be open to the community. UQ universities’ main objectives are higher education and research, but they are also expected to contribute to the social and economic development of the regions in which they are located.
These universities also represented a break from hierarchy with a pledge that collegiality would be a guiding value reflected in how governance structures and process unfolded. Each of the decision-making bodies of the universities include administrators, professors, part-time teachers and students. Some also include external community members. The BOG, for example, has 16 seats, which include the university president and two persons holding an administrative position, three professors, two students, one part-time teacher and seven external members. This last category includes a person representing the CÉGEP, five representing different socio-economic backgrounds, and one graduate.
It sounds democratic and inclusive, but what problems have you observed in the operation of your BOG?
Over the years, there’s been diversion from its original objectives. External members are co-opted by the senior administrators who do not recruit persons with critical minds. The external governors end up endorsing the decisions made by senior management. Since 2013, at UQO, there has been no case where an external governor has voted against a resolution tabled by any of the three members of management who sit on the BOG. Worse, decisions of the Academic Committee (equivalent to the Senate) — our highest academic body — with which the president disagreed, were reversed by the external members of the BOG. The collegiality of the entire structure is weakened by this proxy power.
Collegiality is also weakened because faculty members on the BOG are systematically denied the right to speak. We are arbitrarily excluded or expelled from meetings. There is a provision in the UQ Act that requires a member to leave any BOG meeting while a matter concerning negotiations relating to any collective agreement is being discussed or voted on. In early 2010, on two occasions, professors were excluded from meetings of the BOG because the agenda indicated "labour relations" but there were no negotiations underway. The union grieved. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union and concluded that "[A] provision of the Act that limits the rights of a member or class of members must be interpreted restrictively so as to limit the infringement of the principle of equality.”
Was the ruling helpful?
Exclusions and expulsions continued. Their strategy is now based on the notion of conflict of interest, which is also found in the UQ Act, and on the basis of a concept invented out of thin air, "conflict of roles". Picture this: In the middle of a discussion, someone says, "I think Professor X is in conflict of roles." Now, whether the professor really is in conflict is not relevant. A vote is taken and the expulsion happens. When the professor comes back in the room, it’s difficult to speak out. It has become a practice for professors serving on the BOG to get together before the meeting, and to strategize and figure out how to manage to not be expelled. It's very hard, but I believe that we're right and must keep fighting. We have filed many grievances and won almost all.
What has been the effect at your institution?
Decisions are made quickly, without discussion or debate. The BOG does not adequately fulfill its oversight mandate. Ultimately, it's the institution that loses. For the professors, it’s intimidating and exhausting due to the need to constantly have to fight for our rights to take part in the discussion.
Why do you think this is happening at universities across the country?
Universities were not meant to be managed like corporations. We are witnessing the rise of increasingly authoritarian managers. The universities’ administrators want to make decisions alone. There seems to be no shame anymore to expel or intimidate professors, or any member of the university community with a critical mind. I truly believe that all members of the BOG should be treated equally and with respect. I will keep fighting for collegial governance.