Universities, Governance, and Conflict

It’s been a turbulent time recently in British Columbia’s post-secondary education system. In August, Arvind Gupta, the president of the University of British Columbia (UBC), suddenly resigned less than one year into his appointment. A UBC faculty member was criticized for a blog post she wrote about the resignation; that criticism resulted in an investigation which determined that UBC had failed to protect her academic freedom. After the report from the investigation was released, the chair of UBC’s Board of Governors stepped down from his position. But then an inadvertent leak of documents by UBC reignited the controversy, and Gupta spoke out to say that he chose to resign because he felt he did not have the support of the board.

Meanwhile, in December, the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) announced that its new chancellor – the ceremonial head of the university – would be James Moore, a former federal Member of Parliament and federal cabinet minister. Moore’s appointment was opposed by the UNBC faculty association, UNBC’s two student associations, and two thousand signatories to a petition, including several members of UNBC’s Senate. They complained that Moore had been a key part of a government that had muzzled scientific research and ignored climate change, and that some of Moore’s own actions went against the values and principles in UNBC’s mission statement. Despite the assurances of the chair of the UNBC Board of Governors that the board was “listening” to these concerns, Moore’s appointment was finalized in January.

These events have generally been framed by the media as a “they said”/”they said” scenario, with two different narratives struggling to become the one that’s accepted as the truth. Presenting the conflicting points of view is important in understanding why these disputes have arisen. But the “they said”/”they said” perspective omits the contextual picture: specifically, whether there are factors in the post-secondary system that might have contributed to creating conflict. And there are two larger factors that should get more attention in examining these disputes.

First, a brief explanation of how university governance works in general. At most Canadian universities, there are two groups responsible for running the university: the Senate, which deals with academic issues, and the Board of Governors, which deals with administrative, fiscal and operational issues. The voting members of the Senate are representatives elected by faculty members, students, staff and alumni, as well as administrators from the university’s different academic areas. The voting members of the Board of Governors are appointed by government or are elected by faculty members, staff, and students; boards also include alumni representatives, who can be elected by alumni or who can be appointed by government on the recommendation of the university or the alumni association. So, unlike the presidents of most private-sector organizations in Canada, the president of a university is involved with not one but two decision-making bodies – and, unlike most private-sector organizations, both of those bodies have formal employee representation in membership and in decision-making.

BC’s University Act states that Boards of Governors at most BC universities, including UNBC, have 15 members. These are the university president, the chancellor, two elected faculty members, two elected students, one elected staff member, and eight government-appointed members, including two alumni. Typically, the president and the chancellor are non-voting members. UBC’s Board of Governors has 21 members, of which 11 are appointed by the government.

As this analysis indicates, it’s not unusual among Canadian universities for the majority of board members to not be involved in the university’s day-to-day life. Having external representation on university boards of governors is essential for objective oversight of the university’s operations, and for promoting accountability to the communities that universities serve. But the analysis also notes that government appointees to boards of governors tend to be from a “very small well” of corporate executives, lawyers, and members of other boards. This may raise questions about whether these types of appointments truly represent the interests of the general public, and whether private-sector corporate experience is relevant to overseeing a publicly-funded organization with a specialized governance structure. Another analysis notes that government appointees are the majority of voting members on several BC universities’ boards of governors, including UBC’s board.

But another factor affecting university governance is the direction that governments give to university boards of governors. The BC Ministry of Advanced Education recently made changes to its process for giving direction to publicly-funded universities, as part of a government-wide initiative addressing public sector governance. In past years, the Ministry issued a “letter of expectations” to BC universities and colleges, which was signed by the Minister of Advanced Education and then by the chair of each institution’s board of governors. (Here is an example of one of those letters.)

Annual letters like these are standard practice in many Canadian provinces. But as of the 2014/15 fiscal year, the BC government’s “letter of expectations” has been replaced by a “mandate letter” – which must be signed by all board members, “to affirm their commitment to take the Taxpayer Accountability Principles into account in carrying out their institution mandate”. The Taxpayer Accountability Principles apply to all public sector boards; in the government’s own words, “[t]hrough the implementation of taxpayer accountability principles, leadership teams in government organizations can support a change to a cost-conscious government that strengthens cost management capabilities and fosters a principled culture of efficiency and accountability at all levels.”

This change is troubling for several reasons. First, a university is not a “government organization”. It receives funding from the government, but it is not structured like a Crown corporation or health authority, and it does not have the same relationship to government as do other public sector organizations. Those differences exist for a critical reason – to maintain universities’ autonomy and independence – and the principle of independence is acknowledged in law. As a former president of Simon Fraser University has said, “University autonomy…..is embedded in legislation that in turn sets limits to what government, and even the executive or the Board appointed by the government, can do with respect to universities”. So an implicit assumption that universities should operate in the same manner as other public sector organizations may be problematic.

Second, the University Act states that “[t]he members of the board of a university must act in the best interests of the university” (sec. 19.1). However, requiring board members to individually affirm that they will take the Taxpayer Accountability Principles “into account” when carrying out their work could place board members in a potentially very difficult situation, if acting in the best interests in the university might conflict with the Taxpayer Accountability Principles. (The Principles also implicitly assume that all British Columbia taxpayers have the same cost-conscious view of how public sector organizations should operate, whereas some polling has indicated that BC residents would be willing to pay more taxes if that resulted in specific outcomes.)

Accountability, transparency, respect and honesty should be basic operating principles in any organization, but an emphasis on “cost consciousness” could be seen as moving universities toward an operational model that more closely resembles that of a corporate organization. Of course, universities should be using their funding as appropriately and as efficiently as possible, and should be accountable for how that funding is allocated. But “cost consciousness” may not be the appropriate primary consideration for an organization whose outcomes can be difficult to measure financially.

The events at UBC and at UNBC have raised questions within both of those universities’ communities about the governance process at those particular institutions. But it may be that a wider review of  governance in BC’s universities would also be worthwhile. Universities are structured to support academic freedom and to promote informed and autonomous decision-making – and that, in turn, benefits all of society by encouraging critical thinking, innovation, and exploration. If  damaging high-profile conflicts are arising at BC universities because of differences of opinion around such critical issues as direction and leadership, the larger system around those conflicts also needs to be part of the discussion.


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