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President’s message / Collegial governance: Beyond the abstraction

President’s message / Collegial governance: Beyond the abstraction

By Peter McInnis

For decades, the issue of collegial governance has remained an issue of concern for academic staff. Almost 60 years ago, the Duff-Berdahl Commission, a joint inquiry by CAUT and the precursor organization to Universities Canada, emphasized the centrality of joint governance for rapidly expanding post-secondary institutions.

The same can be said of our contemporary situation as we traverse demographic shifts, new technologies, and barriers to accessible learning.

For some, collegial governance is an abstract concept that suggests forms of broadly cooperative actions between faculty and administrators to address both the academic priorities and strategic goals of Canadian universities and colleges — a good thing to have, if opaque by definition and uncertain in its implementation.

A more precise understanding of collegial governance is that it has long represented a vital component to the constructive advancement of post-secondary education. The CAUT Policy Statement on Governance provides a succinct definition. “Academic staff must play the decisive role in making academic decisions and setting academic policy in order for post-secondary institutions to fulfill their public responsibilities for the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge and for the education of students. Academic staff associations have a role to play in strengthening systems of shared governance at their institutions, and in protecting and fostering the voice of the academic staff within them.”

In short, our universities and colleges will not fulfill their societal obligations without robust collegial governance. Efforts to diminish or bypass faculty participation in academic decisions undermines institutional mission statements, but also foregoes the participation and critical contributions of those who best understand this working environment.

The two components of collegial governance may be parsed. Collegiality should not be confused with civility or imposed definitions of acceptable comportment or congeniality. Governance is the full participation of faculty in strategic plans, budgeting, and substantive consultation on senior administrative appointments or reappointments.

Contract negotiations, and some recent strike actions, have emphasized that collegial governance has become highly contentious. The widespread use of corporate recruitment firms for senior administrative appointments has exacerbated concerns for public accountability and transparency.

The CAUT Report on Board of Governors Structures at Thirty-One Canadian Universities revealed wide variations in board compositions and a pernicious trend to make the mechanisms of governance less accountable to faculty, staff and students.

Faculty board representatives have been confronted with spurious accusations of “conflict of interest” for merely participating in routine proceedings; others have been excluded from business with sweeping invocation of secretive in camera process; still others have been told to sign non-disclosure agreements and refrain from the fiduciary obligations to inform colleagues of meeting proceedings. To add insult to injury, senior administrations have taken to social media to issue threats of disciplinary action to faculty “breaching” demands for silence.

To be clear, our universities, colleges and institutes are public institutions that exist to serve community interests. They are not, nor ever should be, captured by exclusionary and overly hierarchical processes that seek to take important decisions away from the broader constituency. The principles of collegial governance must not be absconded by the few to the detriment of the many.

The use of the term “stakeholders” to suggest a broad and often undifferentiated assortment of participants presents a false notion of inclusive or transparent process when in practice it obfuscates undemocratic procedures. Stakeholders becomes a conflation with shareholders and suggests a comparatively restrictive or misdirected presentation of post-secondary education as a largely corporate enterprise.

Nor is collegial governance an encroachment on management rights but rather the assertion of wisely accepted past practice in post-secondary education.

To cite the forthcoming CAUT Governance Toolkit: “As central members of an institution’s community of scholarly practice, academic staff have a key role to play not only through their immediate academic labour — for example through their teaching and research work — but also in a collegial capacity. At the same time as being a member of their institution’s scholarly community, each member of the academic staff is an employee of their institution. The tension inherent in the dual nature of the academic staff role necessitates a working environment, including but not limited to formal terms and conditions of employment, that protects and fosters the collegial dimension of the role.”

Collegial governance remains a constructive approach to mutually address the varied challenges confronting post-secondary education in Canada. Let’s put it to work


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