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Resetting the relationship between faculty, administrators and their boards

For the benefit of the entire university community, we need to talk, we need to work together and we need to quell the self-righteous rhetoric.


There has been considerable analysis lately of the reasons behind the startling number of Canadian university presidents who have not completed their first terms. These include a historical study co-authored by University of Alberta President David Turpin in 2014, Julie Cafley’s 2015 PhD dissertation and Rosanna Tamburri’s cover story in the August-September 2016 issue of University Affairs. There is also no shortage of books on the challenges faced by Canadian university presidents, such as Ross Paul’s Leadership Under Fire (second edition, 2015) and Peter MacKinnon’s University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century (2014). All of these analyses shed light on the changing environment and demands on this critical position, and all make good suggestions for how universities can better support their presidents.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, for no president leads alone. Little attention is being paid to the next line of academic administration, the pool from which the next line of presidents will likely emerge – specifically the provosts, associate provosts and deans. In fact, no statistics are readily available on the number of provosts or associate provosts who have fallen by the wayside as presidencies have faltered. And critics haven’t had much to say about the broader relationship between the administration, the board of governors and faculty, nor its influence on these other senior administrative losses.

But we do need to pay attention. Faculty and their faculty associations (more on that distinction later) are expressing discontent with senior academic leaders with increasing intensity and frequency. There have been at least 10 non-confidence votes by faculty against presidents, provosts, board chairs, entire boards and executive teams at Canadian universities in the past three years. The trigger for these non-confidence votes differs from institution to institution, but the common denominator, not surprisingly, is money: where it comes from, how it is spent and who has input into these decisions.

What does a non-confidence vote at a university mean? Essentially it holds no real force. Nevertheless, the effect is like an ear-cuffing – usually not fatal, but certainly painful and humiliating (and not something every leader is willing to face head-on). More damaging to university relations is the self-righteous, them-versus-us rhetoric that surrounds such votes and maligns the integrity of the administrator or board member.

This raises two key questions. Why do faculty feel that this kind of action is their only or best recourse to be heard? And second, why do they have so little faith in their governance bodies? Instead of participating in their faculty councils and senates, faculty members often defer to their faculty association executive. The upshot is that, under the faculty association banner, they are sweating the small stuff and ignoring the big picture. In the process, they are in danger of undermining their most important advocates and allies in discussions with boards, government and the public: the president and provost.

Faculty associations seem to want a larger managerial role, ostensibly in defence of the true principles of the university. This much is suggested in a 2014 article by Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage (“Faculty associations at the crossroads”), and more recently by Mark Mac Lean and Michael Conlon (“Faculty awaken to the university governance crisis in B.C.”), both published in Academic Matters magazine. However, these analyses offer no accountability and no solutions beyond maintaining the status quo. At this juncture they have succeeded only in widening the credibility and trust gap between faculty and senior academic administrators. Meanwhile, shared governance in universities accords faculty members considerable influence if they choose to take it. Contrary to the claims by Drs. Mac Lean and Conlon, what limits that influence is faculty apathy, not nefarious plots by administrators against faculty members.

Academic administrators – specifically presidents and provosts – step into their positions out of the academic ranks with a mandate to rise above the specific needs and biases of a given discipline or family of disciplines. Their role is to gain a broad overview of the entire university and how its constituent parts work together to create the best, most effective and, yes, efficient universe or environment for meeting the needs of students and society. The job requires years of experience and a strong sense of purpose. Academic administrators do not take these positions to become budget gatekeepers; they take them because they care deeply about the societal and personal benefits of higher education. Believe it or not, they also care deeply about advancing knowledge and the careers of the professoriate.

To be clear, senior administrators and boards are hardly blameless for this strained relationship. Indeed, one probable answer to why faculty opt for non-confidence votes is that they have been so disillusioned with perceived or real administrative dictates, perfunctory or non-existent consultations, or poor communication, that they feel powerless in their senates or have lost interest in participating at all. Unfortunately, the sins of one generation of administrators are often visited on the next, whether deserved or not. And presidents and provosts are not always in sync in responding to the early signs of faculty discontent. This lack of consistency undermines efforts to address the root causes of faculty grievances.

This is a plea to faculty to stop shooting the messenger just because they don’t like or don’t understand the message, and to become involved in solving the difficult financial situations most universities face. This is also a plea to boards to gain a better understanding of how universities work, and to appreciate the strengths of their particular university. I urge them also to advocate for the social value of higher education to the public and to government.

Yes, we need to attend to the required job skills and applied research objectives of today, but we cannot – we must not – sacrifice the future needs of society and the resilience of students to adapt to these changing needs. When governments, boards and the public put all their attention and funding on short-term skills development, when they contemplate limiting student choices, they are mortgaging Canada’s future. This is also a plea to senior administrators – presidents and provosts – to overcome their differences and speak as one voice. To faculty, administrators and board members, I say it’s time to press the reset button. We need to work together, but first we need to talk. Here’s what we need to talk about:


We need to come to an understanding that we are working within real financial constraints. No conspiracy theories. We need solutions for living within our means in the short term, while securing a long-term commitment from the public to appropriately fund each institution relative to its mission.

Academic freedom

We need consensus on what it is, what it is not, and why it’s important to get it right. Boards and the public have only a vague understanding of what academic freedom means beyond the notion that in a free, democratic society it is not an issue. Faculty associations need to stop invoking infringement of academic freedom and throwing up a wall every time an administrator proposes changes to course delivery. The bigger danger to academic freedom lies in a university’s inability to bring solutions to its stakeholders. (Witness the recent actions of state legislators in Wisconsin and California in the affairs of flagship state universities.) Faculty resistance to belt-tightening even as many other sectors suffer under a sluggish economy – particularly when played out in the media – diminishes the value of universities and the moral authority of university professors in society.

Clarifying roles and informed governance

The distinction between labour relations advocacy and university governance has become muddied in recent years. Faculty association representatives sit in senates and on senate committees, as do individual faculty representatives. Why? What is the difference between them in this context?

Faculty members, individually and collectively, have a huge role to play in these discussions. But, for this to be effective, faculty need to familiarize themselves with the bigger picture that makes up the higher education sector. They need to discontinue the cynical rhetoric that tars academic administrators as concerned with financial sustainability at the expense of intellectual sustainability. This is not a zero-sum game and if it is treated as such, the loss for all will be significant.

Administrators, for their part, often dismiss the idea of sharing budget information and decision-making more broadly with faculty by claiming, “They don’t understand.” Well, they never will if we don’t make a better effort to inform them. This can’t be left to a couple of town hall meetings. And administrators must accept that it won’t be of interest to everyone – indeed, most faculty members don’t want to be embroiled in these details of university management; they want to delegate that responsibility to academic administrators.

This brings us back to roles and responsibilities of faculty members as participants in the governance process; of academic administrators as responsible managers of resources and as guides for planning and policymaking; of boards as overseers of the public interest in higher education; and of faculty associations as advocates for the terms and conditions of employment. Reaching a common understanding of these roles would be a good first step.

We need to have these discussions not only within individual institutions, but also provincially and nationally. However, kick-starting the process won’t be easy. The higher education sector is fragmented into so many interest groups that a common discussion seems almost impossible. We have Universities Canada supporting university presidents (but not provosts) and liaising with the federal government; we have provincial councils of presidents and board chairs liaising with provincial governments; we have the Canadian Association of University Business Officers supporting business officers as well as university management in terms of bargaining; we have the Canadian Association of University Teachers supporting faculty associations; provincial and national student associations representing student interests; and national business and employer organizations, such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Conference Board of Canada, that have a voice in the sector, too. A number of these interest groups have already begun this discussion within their ranks. Some have even tried to bring all the groups together (e.g., the membership-based Conference Board’s Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit). But, none has had the clout to carry forward any significant recommendations for sectoral reform, mainly because they have no one place to go.

So how do we bring all these interest groups together to tackle the issues that should bind rather than divide us? Government-sponsored meetings at the provincial and national levels might have a chance. Perhaps they could host a series of multi-level roundtables with a clear mandate that bring together representatives from each group. These could work as long as governments buy into the value proposition of universities. And who should articulate this value proposition? Here is where the unified voices of presidents and provosts could take the lead.

But first we need to quell the rhetoric. What we need isn’t a negotiation, but a peer-to-peer effort to reach an understanding of the issues and to move quickly toward resolutions. There’s too much at stake to ignore the growing gulf between university faculty, administrators and boards any longer.

Kathryn Shailer is the former provost of Mount Royal University and is currently acting chief research officer and special advisor for graduate studies and internationalization at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

Kathryn Shailer
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