By Lissa Cowan
In the fall of 2017, Ontario’s 12,000 college academic staff went on strike. One of their central issues was collegial governance.
“We were making progress on collegial governance as part of the College Task Force that was part of our arbitration award,” said JP Hornick, then-chair of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) CAAT-A bargaining team. “Then Ford cancelled the task force upon his election.”
The task force included academic staff, college representatives, students, and industry experts — stakeholders that could play a vital role in the success of the college system.
While Canada’s public colleges have a long road ahead to establishing collegial — or shared — governance structures, universities have a lengthy history of collegial governance.
The bicameral governance model in most Canadian universities separates administrative and financial responsibilities, overseen by boards or governing councils (hereafter referred to as Boards of Governors), from academic matters decided by senates or general faculty councils. Senates drive the institution’s academic mission, set out its programs of study, determine academic standards, and oversee academic planning and implementation.
As members on senate, academic staff have a vital role to play in academic decision-making and in setting educational policy so that post-secondary institutions adhere to their public responsibilities of teaching and learning. While academic staff should have the primary role in academic decision-making, their voices also need to be present and heard on Boards of Governors.
In an environment of rampant privatization and administrative bloat — alongside greater job precarity and larger class sizes — the need for academics to be at all decision-making tables is more important than ever. They can affirm the academic integrity of our institutions in service of the public good.
These and other issues were at stake when the Ontario government legislated the striking college workers back to work after five weeks. Similar challenges exist in colleges throughout the country.
Hornick stated that any culture of collegiality that was there in 2017 has disappeared, largely due to both the current provincial government, and the College Employer Council hiring a CEO, Graham Lloyd, whose primary dictate “seems to be to bring the faculty union under management control.”
“We have shifted into a business model of education that relies more on measurements that seem arbitrary and not on long-term thinking for the collective good,” Hornick said.
The promise of shared governance, however, often falls short in university settings as well.
In a public forum on university governance, Diane Piccitto, associate professor in the Department of English at Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) and president of the MSVU Faculty Association, contrasted her experience with how decisions were made in the senate and board at her university when she was a representative on both bodies in 2020-2021.
“The senate was a venue where I truly felt part of the decision-making process for academic matters.” While on the board, Piccitto found the reverse was true: “Even at the committee level, it felt that the decisions were all but a done deal and already taken by the board executive or by a few in the know.”
As a tenured professor, Piccitto uses her position, paired with her commitment as a queer woman and a scholar of revolutionary poet and painter William Blake, to help create a more just and inclusive university.
“Diversifying the representatives of bicameral governance is essential to affecting real change at universities, particularly ones regarding EDI [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] that depend on all levels of an institution working productively together,” she said.
At CAUT’s Council meeting in November 2022, Robin Whitaker and Marc Schroeder, co-chairs of the CAUT Governance Committee, cited several challenges with collegial governance from 30 academic staff associations across Canada. These include a greater number of acting administrative appointments and an increase in the hiring of private sector consultants, as well as a lack of consultation around major university decisions and the underrepresentation of academic staff on decision-making bodies.
Some ways to strengthen and foster good, shared governance, Schroeder said in a roundtable on collegial governance, is to try to “secure better structures through collective bargaining, through advocating for changes to legislation and advocating for changes to institutions’ bylaws.” But, he said, also “through fostering the widespread faculty capacity to participate in those structures.”
In 2015, the Nipissing University Faculty Association set out to address structural issues when they established a Special Governance Commission (SGC) with the administration. Their mandate included determining whether Nipissing’s joint governance structures, practices and procedures reflected best practices within Canadian post-secondary education.
David Tabachnick, a professor in the Political Science Program at Nipissing, faculty commissioner, and one of the SGC report’s authors, said shifting the culture of Nipissing to adopt the recommendations has taken time and patience.
He explained that once the board understood the equal role of the senate in governance and, following a strike in 2015 for better collegial governance, a Standing Joint Committee of the Board and Senate on Governance was formed with three faculty members, three non-faculty board members, and the Nipissing University Student Union president. After that, the adoption of more recommendations followed.
“A recommendation given to the board on the record and in good faith is tremendously important. It’s not that we always must agree; it’s that the process has to be respected,” said Tabachnick.
Julia M. Wright, English professor and George Munro Chair of Literature & Rhetoric at Dalhousie University, who has published on governance issues, noted that one key difference between the approach of Nipissing and Dalhousie where she teaches is that the “Nipissing report recommended a joint Board-Senate committee for governance oversight, protecting collegial governance through faculty involvement, while the Dalhousie consultant puts governance responsibility and oversight into the hands of the Board only.”
The Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (MUNFA) has also taken steps to make collegiality a key bargaining and then a strike issue. This has led to important collective agreement gains, including establishing a committee to review collegial governance at Memorial. This is no small feat considering that Memorial was at the bottom of Canadian universities in CAUT’s 2018 survey on the State of Shared Governance.
“This success did not come out of nowhere,” said Robin Whitaker. She noted that MUNFA has a history of organizing around governance issues, with campaigns like “Take Back Our University” as well as educating and supporting members on shared governance issues.
“Political organizing and education, and bargaining must be seen as two sides of the coin,” said Whitaker, referring to her union’s comprehensive strategy to gain ground.
JP Hornick also sees bargaining as integral to the success of public post-secondary education. She noted historical wins like CUPE education workers fighting cuts to education and the 2012 Chicago teachers strike whose rank-and-file campaign pushed back against corporate education reform.
“The greatest benefit is that our faculty represent every job category you can imagine,” said Hornick, now OPSEU president. “We have folks in trades, HR professionals, dental hygienists, philosophers, psychologists — and we would bring all of that expertise — if we had collegial governance structures to participate in.”