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Lawrie McFarlane: Why faculty shouldn't serve on university boards

The provincial government has passed legislation to allow faculty members who are members of union executives to sit on university boards of governors.

The provincial government has passed legislation to allow faculty members who are members of union executives to sit on university boards of governors. There is one constraining factor: They will not be allowed to vote on compensation issues such salary and benefits. But otherwise, they have free rein.

This is an unwise step. Faculty members already have enormous influence on campus.

Universities employ a bicameral system of governance, in which decision-making is split between the senate and the board.

The role of the senate is to conduct academic governance, including such matters as curriculum development, student admissions and so on.

At the University of Victoria, the senate comprises 76 members, virtually all of them faculty members, deans, students and other campus staff.

If you add tenure, which protects professors from external interference, the academic affairs of any university in B.C. are entirely in the hands of those who teach and study there. That is as it should be.

The board of governors has a different duty. It is responsible for the business affairs of the institution, including management of the budget, administration and setting future direction.

It is here the problem arises. To assume faculty members are personally indifferent to matters such as budget allocation between departments, the need to find economies and shaping their university’s mandate is unrealistic.

Remember, these members are elected by their peers. They are, in effect, representatives of the various interest groups within the ivory tower.

Let me give two examples from my time in the Saskatchewan government.

I spent several years on the board of the University of Regina. The provincial government at that time believed the institution had lost sight of its mandate, which was essentially to act as a liberal-arts college. Economies were demanded.

Two camps rapidly formed. Most board members generally favoured eliminating a couple of the smaller, underperforming departments. They preferred to be strong in core areas, rather than weak in all.

Faculty were opposed. They took the position that if cuts were required, they should be imposed evenly across all fields of study.

You can understand this. Any scholar who supported closing a program would have been reviled throughout the campus. That’s one reason they shouldn’t be on university boards — you might be asking them to support decisions that would see them ostracized, both socially and professionally.

There is also the matter of interdepartmental rivalries. There was a dramatic illustration of how acrimonious these can become at the University of Saskatchewan.

The board had followed a policy of building up professional schools, such as medicine, law and agriculture. That was, indeed, the university’s mandate.

But this infuriated the arts and humanities staff, who felt left out. Since they had the numbers, they called a strike just weeks before final exams. The government was forced to legislate them back to work so fourth-year students could graduate.

You have to live and work in a university to understand just how powerful these internal animosities can be. Yet they have no place on a board of governors, which is supposed to be dispassionate and capable of longer-term planning.

You might ask, how much impact will two faculty members have on a 15-member board. The government has also pointed out that other universities across the country allow faculty union executives to sit on boards of governorss.

Yet boards of governors do not exist to represent the employees — there are unions who do that. Neither is it their job to be an echo chamber for staff groups jockeying for position on campus.

Henry Kissinger once said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

But the future direction of our post-secondary institutions is no small matter. Leave academic politics in the staff room and keep boards free to take a broader view.