Who Controls the Purse Strings? Quebec Variations

Imagine a university Board of Governors with a member chosen by and from the part-time faculty who teach the lion’s share of university courses. Imagine a Board that includes a dean, elected by the deans. Imagine a Board in which all the members are selected by the university community. These might sound like radical breaks with common practice to many in Canadian universities, but we do not need to imagine. Such boards exist in Quebec.

As I’ve already noted on this blog, the Board of Governors is the usual designation for the top-level committee in a university that is responsible for financial matters (budgets, new buildings, appointments).  Senates cover academic matters (course and program approvals, policies related to teaching and research, and so on). Senates typically include a significant portion of members drawn from upper administration (deans of all faculties, for instance) and almost all of the rest are elected from faculty and students.  This senate model is broadly consistent across Canada, though it isn’t always called a “senate.”  Boards, however, are a different matter: in Quebec the composition of the bodies responsible for university finances is much more variable than in other provinces.

In a suggestive article on ties between the provincial government and members of the University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors, Dermod Travis points out that “McGill University, founded in 1821, somehow survives without a single government appointee to its 25-member board.” As I noted in my post on Boards, “In Quebec, boards may not include provincial appointments at all–Concordia and McGill, for instance.”  Elsewhere in Canada, provincial appointees are conventional, complicating the independence of universities from each other and from the vagaries of government agendas (a significant issue in Nova Scotia where the passing of Bill 100 gives boards the authority to invite provincial intervention on terms that appear to set aside normal mechanisms and protocols for university planning, curricula, research, and academic oversight). Moreover, while most boards for secular universities in English Canada consist of some combination of provincial appointees, board appointees, and representatives from full-time faculty, students, and alumni (and occasionally non-academic staff), Quebec universities open up the range of possibilities to include other significant sectors of the university community.

Here are four examples:

  • McGill University: the Board includes 12 at-large members (put forward by a nominating committee, drawn from Board membership) and 1-3 members each from alumni, faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students.
  • Concordia University: the Board has nine “internal Governors” from the university, put forward by various groups, and 15 “external Governors,” 13 nominated by a Board Committee and two nominated by Alumni; of the internal members, five are nominated by full-time faculty, one is nominated by part-time faculty, one is nominated by non-academic staff (staff working for upper administration are specifically ineligible, presumably to ensure independence), and two are nominated by student groups (see Art. 25 in pdf).
  • Université de Montréal: the Conseil de l’Université, responsible for financial matters and administrative appointments, has most of its members nominated or appointed after consultation with various groups on campus, but eight of its 24 members are appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor, on the recommendation of the Minister of Education
  • Université de Laval: Le Conseil d’administration is also responsible for such matters as finances and administrative appointments but has one of the wider range of representatives from various campus groups, including seven nominated by a nominating committee of the Conseil, students from various levels, three faculty elected by faculty and, perhaps most interestingly, a dean, elected by the deans (see section 71, p. 4, in pdf).

These are all well-regarded, successful universities. Reputational rankings tend to evoke spluttered variations on “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but high rankings can at least suggest that universities are functioning relatively smoothly: on the last Macleans list, McGill was 4th, Montreal was 11th, Laval was 15th, and Concordia was 26th among 49 universities; on a recent Times Higher Education World Rankings list, McGill was 39th and Montreal nearly in the top 100 (113th).

In other words, the sky will not fall on our heads if we create more inclusive boards and/or boards that are more independent of government (and hence political parties).  This isn’t just a matter of democratic principles of representation, but also of expertise.  Deans, for instance, are typically responsible for the financial operation of their faculties (within budgets set by the Board); having a dean in the room (as at Laval) brings significant hands-on expertise to the table when boards are making tough decisions about university finances. Students, part-time and full-time faculty, non-academic staff, academic administrators below the VP level–all have significant expertise about the day-to-day functioning of the university and the impacts of financial decisions.

Suggestions have been around for a while that aboriginal peoples should be represented on university boards (and, one might add, particularly when the Board administers lands that were never ceded by treaty), and steps forward have been taken in some provinces. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, which put education and the inclusion of aboriginal perspectives as well as peoples into our universities, makes this an even more timely point for us to consider.

We have tried-and-tested alternatives to the governing-board model that dominates English Canada, options that better draw on available expertise as well as function on more inclusive terms–boards more consistent with twenty-first century thinking are possible.


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