Editor Matters: Whose University is it anyway?

The past few years have seen university governance jump from relative obscurity and into the headlines. How universities are run is suddenly big news. The issue of Academic Matters you have in your hands right now contains first-hand accounts of some of the campus stories that have found their way into the national media. From UBC to Carleton to Western, these are controversies that have provoked anger and discussion on campuses, in local communities, and even in the halls of political power.

At first pass, the appeal of these stories to journalists and the public is easy to understand. Big payouts to public sector managers (like university presidents), overreach by well-heeled members of the Board of Governors, sudden resignations of powerful leaders…these all tap into well-established narratives in the current zeitgeist, suspicious as it is about power and how it is exercised within public institutions.

But for the people paying the most attention to these controversies – students, faculty members, and administrators – governance fights are about more than the appropriate use of taxpayer money or personality clashes between senior leaders. University governance is fundamental, because fights over who runs universities are ultimately conflicts over what the modern university is, what it should look like, and how it should behave.

I’ve written before about the “inside-the-box” problem in higher education policy and administration, or the tendency for the discussion around universities to be dominated by a few voices with very similar views. Criticism has a hard time getting into the box, because those within it rigorously police its boundaries and exclude opposing views. The shared assumptions of the insiders become a kind of self-reinforcing doctrine. The assumptions become gospel; for those on the inside, they are no longer assumptions at all, but basic truths that are beyond question.

And so it is with university governance. Many senior university administrators – and the various consultants and policy entrepreneurs that support them – seem to have internalized the view that the only response to the growing size and complexity of modern universities is to govern them like private corporations. Efficiency and centralized authority come to replace debate and collegiality as core values. This tendency finds expression in the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), a doctrine that Alison Hearn and Vanessa Brown (writing in this issue) suggest is at the heart of the presidential pay scandal at Western University.

In the box where NPM and similar forms of top-down governance are dogma, the managerial technocrats in charge of universities are the only ones – simply by virtue of the positions they hold – who can make good decisions about the future of a university. Democracy in campus deliberations, where students and faculty have a fair say in decision making, is often viewed as inefficient. Power in the hands of campus stakeholders is seen as a threat. This is why administrators like Peter MacKinnon, author of University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century, are so quick to bemoan the existence of faculty unions and any similar check on administrative power (for more on this, check out Mark Mac Lean and Michael Conlon’s piece in this issue). Students and faculty expect their institutions to be open and collegial, while many administrators see these expectations as distractions or obstacles.

But as you’ll have seen in these pages, this inside-the-box attitude can backfire dramatically, erupting into scandal, acrimony, and reputational damage. It doesn’t have to be that way. While the preceding articles vividly describe serious failures in university governance, they also chart a course towards more democratic and accountable institutions. We can recognize that universities are different from private corporations in both form and objective, and deserve to be governed as such. We can fight for transparency and openness from Boards of Governors and senior administrators. We can use the tools at hand – from financial analysis to collective agreements to campus partnerships – to rebuild collegiality and democracy on our campuses. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is vital.

We want to hear from you. I write this in every column I pen for this magazine, so perhaps you think it is a tired cliché or an empty platitude. But when we say we want to hear from you, we really, really mean it. The editorial team and I read everything that our readers send, and your letters and website comments often make it into these pages. So send me an email at editor@academicmatters.ca. Connect with us on Twitter @academicmatters. We’re on Facebook. Our website – www.academicmatters.ca – has plenty of ways to get in touch and share your thoughts. So please, let us hear what you have to say.

As always, thanks for reading.