A “piece of mind” on university governance revisited

“Your post was so highly elliptical that individuals involved will be pissed and onlookers will be puzzled,” wrote one friend. The latter part of his statement got my attention. A few other personal emails, Menzies’ comment below, and Wakefield’s column in the Ubyssey confirmed to me that my last post was –uncharacteristically– elliptical, which led different people to read it differently. Some even read in it the opposite of what I had meant. While my former Jesuit teachers would have been proud of this rhetorical powerplay, I have decided to give it another chance. This is unfortunate because larger issues of university governance seem to be heating up lately, such as those ably raised by Elly Walton’s in, Are universities as open as they should be?” and by Alex Usher who seems to have missed many points in “Time for a New Duff-Berdahl?“. I shall try to get to the issues they raise as soon as I can.

Back to my last post, I wanted first to point out that the debacles at the Universities of Oregon, Virginia and Texas were –as already mentioned by Chris Olds— the direct consequence of having Boards of Trustees consisting solely of government-appointed members. Even Canadian universities, such as Concordia, are not immune from the damage that certain non-academic control freaks can sometimes cause, once solidly entrenched on University Boards. I also wanted to stress that faculty have the means to fight back and win if and when they decide to act. Unfortunately, it is not always the case.

Not unrelated is the fact that the selection of the next President of UBC is the most important action that a Board of Governors takes. In reality, the Board appoints a presidential search committee, which manages the search, does the selection, and submits the name of the candidate for the Board’s approval. Extrapolating from the dozens of appointments of VPs, Deans and other senior managers that I have witnessed in my past 5 years on the Board, this last step is a mere formality. In other words, the most important piece in the Board’s contribution to the process is its role in defining the terms of reference for the search committee, and in appointing its membership. The latter includes a bunch of people from the Board and others, who normally must get elected by the various bodies representing the recognized stakeholders at both UBC campuses: Alumni, Students, Faculty and Staff.

In the post I tried to argue that the presence of Board members on the search committee is extremely important and indispensable. This is because governors –at least the long serving among them– are de-facto exposed to the whole range of university files, hot or not, controversial or not, secret or not, and there are lots of those.

Now past terms of reference –and NOT the University Act–used to dictate that all representatives of the Board on the search committee should be chosen from the contingent of government-appointed members. On the other hand, past terms of reference used to also dictate that the President of the Faculty Association as well as three other faculty members from UBC-Vancouver should also be on the search committee. All this occurred before the addition of the Okanagan campus, which drove the membership of the search committee to 21 people.

My main premise here is that the terms of reference for the upcoming search should reflect current realities, including those related to the imminent end of the terms of several appointed members of the Board, the newness of the terms of others, as well as what/who these individuals represent considering that we are in the middle of an election campaign.

In other words, I am advocating that capable and knowledgeable members of the Board be selected to serve on the search committee, EVEN IF they are merely elected. These governors have at least as much legitimacy as any other governor, who may or may not represent/reflect the policies of the government in place, albeit before or after the search process is completed.

Some claim that the appointed members are entitled because they are “independent”, i.e., not bound by the constituencies that elect representatives. How government appointed board members are any more “independent” when their service is tied to government’s whimsy is a bit of a mystery, of course. They may not receive and follow direct orders from the government that appoints them, but they surely must reflect at least the philosophical mindset and political values of that government. The existence of such an implicit litmus test may become more evident than ever, if and when a new government arrives on the provincial scene.

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