Skip navigation

University senate – is it still useful?

Faculty and administrators hold lively discussion at international conference on higher ed governance.


Senate may have become a lacklustre forum at some universities, but discussions about its role, and faculty’s role in senate, were anything but dull at an international workshop on higher education governance that took place at the University of British Columbia in October.

Presenters on two panels focusing on Canadian university governance expressed support for the bicameral model of university governance ranging from fervent to lukewarm. The bicameral model, used almost universally in Canada, gives responsibility and authority over management and administrative decisions of the university to the board of governors, and responsibility for academic decisions to senate.

Several presenters said the system is no longer working well and that we need to find solutions.

“Faculty senates are comatose in most universities,” declared William Bruneau, a past president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers and one of the conference organizers. “They deserve to be revived.”

Dr. Bruneau, a historian, said he used to enjoy the “battles royal” about curriculum and other academic matters that took place at an energized senate in the 1970s. “At the moment, those battles don’t happen at all.” Then, a committee of senate would decide on the location and function of new buildings. “Now,” he said, “donors decide where the building will go, what it will look like and what it will cost.”

UBC President Stephen Toope, who spoke at the end of the workshop, said he was “fundamentally committed to university senate. If we feel it’s not taking up the issues it should, then get in there and do the job.”

He said senate “is the place where we should have fundamental and difficult discussions, including about the budget.” For example, the board of governors “should have nothing to say on whether greater emphasis is given to the faculty of dentistry or pharmacy.”

The question-and-answer period teased out some of the reasons why many senates may have become ineffective. Theresa Shanahan, assistant professor in the faculty of education at York University, said scholars who sit on senate often don’t have time to really analyze what comes up for discussion, and factors looming in the background, like enrolment targets, “influence your decision-making and compromise it.” Randolph Wimmer, a professor from the University of Alberta, said faculty get little payoff for serving on senate or similar committees. “It’s easier to be promoted if you hive yourself off and work on research,” he noted.

Part of the problem, said Dr. Bruneau, is that trust in the institution of senate suffers when important decisions that clearly affect academic programs are made by the senior administration. He cited as an example the decision, by the previous UBC administration, to join an international university group, Universitas 21. Deliberations on that were never brought to senate, even though that partnership would, among other things, offer degrees in Asia. He said afterwards that a two-pronged reform of governance might prevent that kind of “mistake”: vigorous use of collective bargaining to create more effective boards and committees; and a revival of senate committees of finance and building.

Wayne Peters, vice-president of CAUT and a faculty member at the University of Prince Edward Island, also stressed the importance of collective bargaining. He said faculty have a role to play on senate, but added, “Collective bargaining should have the prime role for getting academics’ voice heard.” Collective bargaining isn’t a replacement for the bicameral model, he said, but “it is meant to establish procedures under which the academic decisions can be made.”

Ross Paul, former president of the University of Windsor, now retired, said one issue is that the roles of senate and the board of governors have become intertwined. For example, senate decides on standards for applications to university programs; but that decision affects enrolment, which affects the provincial grant.

Although the board of governors has no role in academic decision-making, said President Toope, it still has to understand the academic mission of the university. “I don’t want the whole relationship mediated through me,” he said. Thus, at every UBC board meeting, a major academic presentation is given by a faculty member. Also, small group lunches are held that bring together faculty and board members.

The Seventh International Workshop on Higher Education Reform was organized by UBC’s Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training and drew 90 speakers and participants from Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australasia. Over two days, the conference covered a wide variety of topics, from university governance in Indonesia to quality assurance in Mexico to academic freedom and institutional autonomy in Europe. The next conference is planned for the fall of 2011 at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey