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Academic staff associations and collegial governance

Academic staff associations and collegial governance

By Larry Savage and Stephanie Ross

The first wave of faculty unionization in Canadian universities in the 1970s was perceived by many senior administrators and faculty members alike as an existential threat to collegial governance. A common argument at the time was that certifying as a union would inevitably lead to the loss of shared decision-making structures and processes.

You could have one or the other, but not both.

Unions, we were led to believe, would foment conflict and undermine constructive working relationships between faculty and administrators. They would wield outsized power and influence in the selection of department chairs and the granting of tenure and promotion and sabbatical, and would interfere in the development of academic policy.

As it turned out, these fears proved unfounded. Certified academic staff associations did not kill collegial governance. Rather, unions found ways to sit very comfortably alongside existing shared governance structures at universities and colleges, and through their collective agreements rendered them more transparent and fairer in the process.

Today, universities and colleges are among the most densely unionized workplaces in Canada. Paradoxically, academic staff associations are now one of the few sources of power left to defend robust and meaningful collegial governance as senior administrators attempt to centralize authority and circumvent shared decision-making in the name of “flexibility” and “innovation.”

Corporate-style management

Senior administrators at Canadian universities and colleges are increasingly drawn from the private sector. They have management rather than academic backgrounds, bringing with them elements of corporate culture that do not mesh well with collegial decision-making.

Even among those administrators drawn from the collegium, where collegial governance is, in theory at least, an uncontroversial norm, we see strong resistance in practice. This is particularly true when academic staff and their commitments to certain academic priorities oppose administration-led restructuring efforts. In these cases, containing or marginalizing academic staff and union involvement in decision-making processes becomes an important goal for university administrators charged with pushing through initiatives.

The reality is that senior administrators sometimes grow impatient. They actively try to undermine collegial governance rather than address the concerns of faculty members who are using the system to push back.

The evidence of this dynamic is all around us. For example, we are seeing more and more proposals from senior administrators to eliminate meaningful academic staff involvement in workload planning and assignments, in the development of course offerings and delivery modes, and in workload adjustments. During the pandemic we witnessed increased efforts by senior administrators to work around senates under the guise of “crisis management,” practices that have continued as institutions return to “normal” functioning.

Universities and colleges have also moved away from “open” and towards secretive “closed” searches for senior administrators, to the benefit of headhunting firms and the detriment of transparency and collegial governance.

It doesn’t help that boards are increasingly dominated by corporate interests. Such board members often have no experience with collegial governance processes and have very different ideas about the purpose of universities and colleges, typically emphasizing their “economic mission” and role in private sector economic development and training.

External pressures

Even if boards were more representative and senior administrators were more committed to shared decision-making, many of the problems universities and colleges face can’t be resolved internally because the true sources of these problems originate with government.

Chronic underfunding is just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of examples from across the country of government interference in university and college governance, whether through restricted funding, appointments, strategic mandates, bargaining mandates, enrolment corridors, or differentiation exercises.

In effect, Canadian universities and colleges have been subject to a process of neoliberalization. More precisely, market-based needs, practices, criteria and forms of delivery have become dominant, if not legislated, and have displaced other goals, like the development of an informed and active citizenry.

Neoliberal indicators in the post-secondary education sector are all around us, whether it’s the shift to “revenue-generating” programs and activities, cost recovery between departments, or the new “client-centred” culture that attempts to cater to students as consumers as opposed to learners.

Academic staff association advocacy

There is no doubt collegial governance is under incredible stress because of administrative overreach and government interference. But the preservation of meaningful collegial governance increasingly rests on strong academic staff associations.

More than ever, effective academic staff association advocacy is needed to contest and reverse efforts to undermine collegial governance and shared decision-making structures. To relegate our unions to bargaining wages and working conditions every few years is to miss an important opportunity to defend collegial institutional governance that gives the academic community its proper voice.

Academic staff associations that dismiss forums like senates as administrative rubber stamps or the fiefdoms of university or college presidents are making a strategic error. Rather than cede these spaces to senior administrators, academic staff associations can and should organize to revive the democratic or collegial potential of senates.

Most workplaces don’t feature collegial self-governance or any form of workplace democracy. Thus, academic staff throw away a unique source of power when they ignore forums like senates.

Admittedly, even when academic staff do realize the unique power of senate, they are nonetheless confronted with spaces where senior administration often acts as a coherent bloc intent on driving a particular agenda. Academic staff associations need to help organize and mobilize members to counterbalance this dynamic by building links that allow academic staff to clearly see how their common interests intersect with the academic mission of our institutions. Our unions are well placed to play this role because they are one of the only organizations that unite academic staff across departmental and faculty divides, helping to develop a collective orientation as teachers and researchers.

While senior administrators happily coordinate their interventions in spaces like senates, they inevitably (and self-righteously) cry foul when academic staff associations do the same, insisting that unions and collegial governance do not mix. However, it is important to recognize that collegial governance is not in competition with collective bargaining. To counterpose them creates a false and self-imposed division between “union” issues on one hand and “academic” issues on the other, the former being dealt with at the bargaining table and the latter in senates or faculty councils.

The reality is that academic decisions are almost always workplace issues. They affect the kinds of work that academic staff are expected to carry out. For example, academic policies that dictate rules around the adoption of course materials or the granting of student accommodations fundamentally affect workloads, choices and academic freedom. In other words, academic issues are workplace issues.

Besides the important task of defending the economic interests of academic staff, it is important for certified associations to use collective bargaining to mandate consultation, negotiation, representation, transparency and shared decision-making on a whole host of issues, including the development and approval of strategic plans and the selection of senior academic administrators. In this way, unions can help extend collegial governance. Unions can also use legally binding grievance procedures to contest administrative overreach and violations of collegial governance. Finally, academic staff associations can safeguard collegial governance by actively organizing and mobilizing members to fill key service obligations that would otherwise be carried out by senior administrators.

In short, certified academic staff associations can best safeguard collegial governance by fully participating in it, by challenging attempts by senior administrators to undermine it, and by doing a better job at explaining to their own members, and to the public, why collegial governance is worth preserving.


Larry Savage is Professor in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University and Chair of the CAUT Collective Bargaining and Organizing Committee. Stephanie Ross is Associate Professor in the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.

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