Boards of Governors

  • “When ignorance or ill will threatens the institution or any part of it, the governing board must be available for support. In grave crises it will be expected to serve as a champion. Although the action to be taken by it will usually be on behalf of the president, the faculty, or the student body, the board should make clear that the protection it offers to an individual or a group is, in fact, a fundamental defense of the vested interests of society in the educational institution.” Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities (1966) by three US bodies: the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
  • “The Board was mainly concerned with the size of the deficit or surplus and did not intervene in operational matters. As with many university boards, it operated on the basis of information provided by the administration and did not have a detailed knowledge or understanding of the university.” Cynthia Hardy, Politics of Collegiality: Retrenchment Strategies in Canadian Universities (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1996), p. 155

    Above, we have two very different visions of a university board of governors. In both documents, it’s clear that boards are the highest financial authority at a university, and that is indeed how they are defined in the legislation governing Canadian institutions as well as American documents. Boards typically are responsible for approving budgets, land purchases and construction projects, appointments, and any significant academic decisions with financial repercussions (say, the creation of a new Faculty). But the 1966 Statement views the university as a public good that the board recognizes as such, while the 1996 study notes what much campus chitchat laments: most board members tend to be at a remove from the daily work of university research, teaching, and governance.

    Boards of governors have been in the news lately. It was a “select elite of Western’s board of governors” that approved the “double-dip” for the university president, a University of Alberta board member who publicly supported the ruling provincial party in the days before an election, and now the University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors is in the news. Two of these cases involve the key relationship between presidents and boards; while search committees for presidents can have diverse memberships, presidents typically negotiate their remuneration in confidence with the board and are directly accountable to the board throughout their terms.  While outright firings at that level are unusual, resignations or even non-renewals can be accompanied by rumours of a rocky relationship between the president and the board.

    Boards of governors are appointed according to legislation that varies widely across the country, but generally in secular institutions outside of Quebec a number are appointed by the provincial government and all, or almost all, of the remainder are selected from alumni, students, and faculty.  (In Quebec, boards may not include provincial appointments at all–Concordia and McGill, for instance.) Selection of faculty and student members in particular sometimes involve an election process, but there is wide variation on this as well. Universities founded by religious groups typically maintain an affiliation with a religious institution that includes a set of appointments to the board.

    Here are some examples (these tallies exclude the Chancellor and the President, normally ex officio, and any other ex officio members):

    • Dalhousie University: eleven government appointees, three board appointees, four alumni, three students, and two faculty, so only five of twenty-three regularly spend their weekdays on campus (22%).
    • Western University: six appointed by the city and provincial governments, four elected by the board, four alumni, two elected by Senate, two elected by faculty, three elected by students, and two elected by staff, so nine of twenty-three regularly spend their weekdays on campus (39%).
    • University of Alberta: the provincial government appoints the board, with two alumni, one senator, two faculty, two students, one graduate student, one staff, and “9 members representative of the general public,” so seven of eighteen regularly spend their weekdays on campus (39%).
    • University of British Columbia:  three elected faculty members, eleven appointed by the provincial government (of whom two are nominated by alumni), three students, two non-faculty staff, so eight of nineteen regularly spend their weekdays on campus (42%).

This doesn’t tell the whole story, of course:  boards have sub-committees, some more powerful than others, and there can be policies or practices that exclude some members from some discussions (e.g., faculty appointees might be excluded from discussions about faculty contracts). They generally meet in private, and while some decisions might be reported publicly there is otherwise little information about their meetings:  what questions were raised, which priorities were debated, whether the board and the president (or a vice-president) disagree on key points, and so on.  And campus participation in the board does not seem to be a predictor of functionality.

As the above sampling suggests, moreover, boards are generally much closer to governments than to universities. It’s common to lament in the US that boards are populated by likely donors to the university rather than a broader sweep of community leaders and others committed to education and research, and that is a complaint sometimes heard in Canada, too. But provincial responsibility for most higher education in Canada changes the landscape here and makes provincial governments significant players in English Canada in shaping university boards.

Because board appointments can outlast the governments that made them, I wouldn’t suggest that boards are the instruments of ruling provincial parties. The significant role that provincial governments play in appointing large proportions of university boards, however, may contribute to the usual selection of appointees from a very small well:  large businesses significant in the region; big law firms; executives in other public bodies.  Medical professionals occasionally pop up, but I have yet to see a high-school employee on a board listing, for instance, despite the significant interest high schools have in universities (for both the education of teachers and the education of most students after high school), and vice versa.

Take Nova Scotia universities, for instance. Five board members at four Halifax universities have recently been drawn from two law firms in the city. The Halifax International Airport Authority has had recent appointees to two university boards. Nova Scotia Power is another employer of Nova Scotia higher-education board appointees; two large store chains are also well represented. Occasionally one finds the same name on different higher-education boards (say, a college and a university). This is not small-province politics. The Vancouver area has about 2.5 times the population of Nova Scotia yet, at UBC, both the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board, at time of writing, work for different branches of the same large corporation.

There may be benefits to such narrow selections; there may be disadvantages. Because of the privacy that shrouds board discussions, we don’t have the information to judge the effectiveness of current practice.  We know more about how the Star Chamber worked.

Even details on board membership are often not a matter of public record. Some universities, like UBC and Dalhousie, offer detailed biographies of their board members; others just provide a list of names (a particularly opaque choice for appointees with common names). In Nova Scotia, government appointees are a matter of public record–but these too list names and not employment or other board appointments. And yet these boards are the final authorities on budgets that include not only significant public funds (through provincial grants, federal research funding, and so on) but also rising tuition fees.

As we talk about making Canadian universities more accountable–to students, staff, and faculty, as well as the general public–we can expect more light to shine on boards of governors, and one of the outcomes of recent media attention to board decisions may well be a wider discussion of how they are run and constituted.

Postscript (five days later…):  the UBC discussion continues, and is already bearing suggestive fruit.  Dermod Travis, writing for the Georgia Straight, has traced some of the connections between government and board appointees.  Public oversight of public institutions with significant public funding is not the issue here.  The question is whether we can improve that oversight mechanism to strengthen public oversight for the public good.


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