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In my opinion

Towards a truly collegial way to run a university

A response to Peter MacKinnon’s excerpt on university governance and collective bargaining.


The excerpt in University Affairs from Peter MacKinnon’s book University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective presented an idealized vision of university governance that I think most of us basically agree with: legislation has established the structures of Canadian public universities, and universities should be run as the framers of this legislation intended. Boards of governors are indeed “empowered to supervise and decide on university finances, business and property” while senates “have plenary authority for establishing and supervising academic programs and activities.” This sounds like a perfectly reasonable, peaceful and collegial way to run a university – if indeed it were actually the way things were run.

The line between “finances, business and property” and “academic programs and activities” isn’t as clear as Professor MacKinnon makes out. And, there is a fundamental breach of the separation of authority in the fact that senior administrators usually hold ex officio leadership posts on boards of governors and university senates that can give them effective control over both entities.

But what do the legislative acts actually say about the powers of university senates? Is it really the case that senates have no business commenting on financial or employment matters? Actually, no.

The enabling Act for my university says that senate may:

make recommendations to the board with respect to academic planning, campus planning, a building program, budget policies, procedures in respect of appointments, promotions, salaries, tenure and dismissals, and any other matters considered by the senate to be of interest to the university.

However, in practice our senior administration (which controls the chairs of senate and its executive committee ex officio) has consistently ruled attempts by senators to discuss financial issues as out of order. Our senate has a budget advisory committee (again, chaired by senior administration) but it typically meets once a year only a week or two before the budget is published. It is presented with a draft budget, but where is the time to read through it and reflect on its implications? This is usually of no moment, of course, because – apart from rubber-stamp approval – recommendations from senate or its committees are routinely swept aside on issues that actually matter.

I think it can be argued that the framers of our enabling legislation envisioned meaningful consultation, where senate’s recommendations would be a valued part of the process of running the university. But that is not how university presidents appear to operate in the 21st century.

I have been a senator at my university for close to 15 years. The fact that the administration controls the senate agenda gives them a high degree of control over what information senators receive and when they receive it. It has been evident on many occasions that proposals are “done deals” before they ever reach the floor of senate. No matter what senators may say, no matter whether criticisms are offered constructively or otherwise, it is rare for any measure that comes before senate with the backing of senior administration to be modified, let alone blocked, when it comes to a vote.

And this also reflects a fact of life in the modern university. Administrative appointees on senate have the time blocked out in their calendars to attend senate meetings. It is part of their job to be there to vote for administrative proposals. But faculty have teaching schedules that coincide with senate meetings, growing stacks of bureaucratic forms to fill out, grant proposals to write, papers and tests to mark, students to advise … as a result, their attendance at senate is less reliable. In our senate, the administration has a de facto majority on its side at almost every meeting.

So what does this have to do with unions and collective bargaining? I am not an advocate for unionization, and I have some sympathy with Professor MacKinnon’s argument that collective bargaining is a poor form of collegiality. On the other hand, using a very selective reading of the enabling legislation to restrict senate’s right to participate in the university is hardly a collegial way to administer.

Unionization arose in Canadian universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the old-boy model for running a university was challenged by the new generation of academics who refused to accept arbitrary, unfair and often self-serving decisions about hiring, firing, salaries, workloads, office space, etc., that were common back then. Rightly or wrongly, the academics of that day turned to collective bargaining as a way of standing up to capricious management practices. And today, in the 21st century, we remain in pretty much the same situation.

Frankly, I would prefer not to have a union, but I would also prefer not to have the kind of governance that seems to require a faculty union. Could we not have university governance that is actually collegial, university presidents who are truly “first among equals” rather than top-down managers, where debate in senate can improve proposals without turning into angry arguments, and where consultation is taken seriously as a part of the decision-making process, not simply added on at the end as window dressing? Would that not be a better way to run a university in the 21st century?

Dr. Hultin is a professor of chemistry at the University of Manitoba.

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  1. Mark Mercer / March 3, 2015 at 18:52

    Two reforms that would help make university governance more collegial are making ex officio members of senate non-voting members and having the professors hire the academic administrators. As things stand at many Canadian universities (my university, certainly), senate is little more than a conduit for administrative initiatives and values, and the academic administrators are the people who chose the new academic administrators (on grounds of fit with the administration’s views). And the board answers to no one. The lack of collegial governance at Canadian universities has led CAUT to call for unions to step in to perform the duties of the senate.

  2. Andrew Gow / March 3, 2015 at 22:45

    Alas, all true.

  3. Andrew Gow / March 3, 2015 at 22:54

    No, we can’t have “university governance that is actually collegial, university presidents who are truly “first among equals” rather than top-down managers”. Those days are over because universities are under siege by conservatives who really want to “starve the beast” and make public institutions useless — to pave the way for privatization and outsourcing. Big-shot university presidents are vexing to a community of scholars dedicated not to hierarchy but to merit and ideas and teaching because they treat the professoriate as subordinates, and chastise us for speaking out of turn or ‘whining’. But big-shot presidents are also our only possible defence against ministers of education and premiers who are fundamentally hostile to the idea of a public university, to scholarship, to critical thinking (esp. when it’s about them, as it sometimes is). Neo-con bullies don’t respect consensus-seekers or collegial managers, they respect Big Shots. So we have big-shot presidents by unpleasant necessity, and they are, unfortunately, here to stay. I’m just glad I can retire soon.

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