University Governance: Reflections from the Future U Conference

Last week, I spoke on a panel on university governance at a conference titled Future U:  Creating the Universities We Want, organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.  Also presenting on the panel were Professor Glen Jones and Professor Claire Polster.

My speaking notes can be downloaded at this link. Points I raised in my presentation include the following:

The BasicsTypically in Canada, a university has both a board of governors (BoG) and a senate.   The former (which was the focus of my presentation) has responsibility for both “administrative and fiscal matters,” while the latter has responsibility for “academic matters.”

Internal vs. External MembersApproximately one-third of a university’s BoG members usually consists of “internal” members (i.e. students, faculty and staff).  The other two-thirds of a BoG’s members typically come from outside the university community, and are sometimes referred to as “external” members.  External members are not democratically elected; rather, they are either appointed by government or by the board itself.  On this basis, I would argue that Canada’s House of Commons, all provincial/legislative assemblies in Canada, public school boards and most membership-based non-profits are more directly accountable to their constituencies than are university BoGs.

External Members.  One advantage of having external members on a BoG is that they often bring expertise on various topics, including finance, auditing, capital projects and communications.  However, a drawback of external members (in my opinion) is that they sometimes are quite distant from some of the day-to-day concerns of a university.  For example, it is quite common for the external members of a university’s BoG to consist of high-income individuals.  This may make it challenging for some of them to fully appreciate concerns such as student debt and working conditions of cleaning and maintenance staff.  They may also arrive to the BoG without a nuanced understanding of what has transpired on campus in the previous 20-30 years (notwithstanding the fact that, in many cases, they may have been a student at that university at one point).

Information Flow.  As Robert F. Clift has pointed out, a university’s president (i.e. the university’s most senior staff person) is very much in control of what information makes its way to a university’s BoG.  It is therefore important for BoG members to make a presence on campus, read campus newspapers, and talk to students, staff and faculty.

Access to Board Members.  Many BoGs in Canada feature very basic information about their members online.  However, in many cases, contact information is not available for BoG members at a university’s web site.  If contact information were available online for university BoG members, I think that would encourage members of the university community to contact BoG members from time to time; and I think this could lead to at least four possible outcomes.  First, this would make it harder for the university’s president to contain the flow of information to each BoG member.  Second, if contact information of BoG members were publicly available, BoG members would have to be ‘on their toes’ more often (answering e-mails, for example).  Third, if contact information for BoG members were publicly available, some campus groups might ‘spam’ BoG members with unsolicited e-mails from time to time (for example, when protesting a decision by the University’s president or the BoG itself).  Fourth, if members of the campus community had easy access to individual BoG members, cracks in the BoG’s official messaging (i.e. the ‘party line’) might be exposed from time to time.

Inner Boards.  If a BoG is not careful, an  ‘inner board’ (consisting of, say, four or five BoG members) can emerge, effectively relegating the rest of the BoG to the status of an advisory committee.  This appears to be what happened at Concordia a few years ago.

Meeting Minutes.  I think BoGs need to be careful about the kinds of minutes they keep.  In particular, I would argue that there is a drawback to keeping minimalist versions of meeting minutes.  For example, if a meeting lasts two hours and includes several important debates, it is possible for the recording secretary to produce just one or two pages of minutes from the meeting; such a minimalist version of the minutes might capture attendance, motions made and decisions taken.  But it is also possible for the recording secretary to produce much more detailed minutes that include an overview of what key points were raised during debate and by whom.  I think the latter approach lends to increased board transparency.   Any university BoG that is serious about board transparency has a rather clear path it could take:  it could simply direct its recording secretary to produce a detailed version of minutes of each meeting.

 
This post originally appeared on the Progressive Economics Forum blog.