In our view, Lawrie McFarlane (“University boards need government input,” column, March 6) does a good job of articulating the B.C. Liberal position on university autonomy.
Indeed, one gets the sense that he doesn’t think the current forms of micro-management and political oversight go far enough. He certainly enthusiastically supports the current model in which the majority of boards of governors members are political appointees — unlike the case in any other province except Alberta (which is reconsidering its position).
We think he has it all wrong.
What makes B.C.’s research universities unique and internationally competitive is precisely because they are not beholden to partisan politicians or business interests. Universities rise and fall on their ability to produce cutting-edge research and citizens with the capacity to think critically. Unfortunately, the current government’s model of board governance is eroding the autonomy and independence that is the lifeblood of B.C.’s research universities.
In B.C., the provincial government micro-manages universities in a way that is much more pronounced than elsewhere in Canada. And this micro-management is enforced by the appointment of politically friendly board members. The cabinet dictates bargaining positions for employee contract negotiations through the Public Service Employers’ Council.
Despite the fact that the provincial government pays less than 50 per cent of the cost of running universities (considerably less, in some cases), it makes sure that university priorities align with government policy priorities through “mandate letters.” (For example, requiring a percentage of expenditures to go toward programs generating immediate specific job outcomes).
These measures have created extra bureaucracy and reduced the ability of universities to respond dynamically to changing societal conditions its graduates face.
Universities exist, after all, in a competitive environment — both in terms of federal-government grants and private-sector investments in research, and in terms of student enrolments.
As noted, this is enforced by the appointment of politically friendly board appointees. Consider the University of British Columbia: In 2015, nine of the 11 provincially appointed UBC board members were B.C. Liberal Party donors. These nine individuals contributed a combined $137,395 to the party since 2005, and a 10th donated money through a personal corporation.
The provincial appointees were prominent in corporations that in turn contributed to the B.C. Liberal party, bringing contributions connected to these board members to a total of $387,274.
Politicized boards at UBC and the University of Northern British Columbia have engaged in controversial actions at their respective institutions.
Elsewhere in Canada, universities seek to appoint a well-respected and non-controversial individual to the largely ceremonial position of chancellor. UNBC recently appointed James Moore, who is extremely controversial within the university sector given that he was the federal minister in charge when grant agency budgets were cut and the voices of federal scientists were muzzled.
At UBC, considerable controversy surrounded not only the resignation of president Arvind Gupta, after only a year in his position, but also the heavy-handed actions of the board chairman in responding to the thoughts of one faculty member who dared to suggest that there was a gender and racial bias at the institution.
The UBC board of governors contorted and undermined every rule of good governance and transparency in its handling of the Gupta affair.
No one is advocating, as McFarlane claims, that “external voices” be “relegated to impotence.”
Rather, what the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. advocates is the construction of a non-partisan panel of eminent British Columbians to vet and make recommendations for provincial appointments to boards, as opposed to the current process in which most board appointments are made at the whim of the premier’s office.
Andrew Weaver, Green Party MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, is advocating a reduction in the size of boards so that the proportion of provincial appointees is slightly less than 50 per cent. But the total of “externals,” if we include the chancellor, is still more than 50 per cent and even higher if we include elected student representatives in this category.
While Weaver’s bill is a good start, we believe the time is ripe for a more wide-ranging discussion of board governance at B.C.’s public universities. That discussion must start with reforming the appointment process so that good governance and merit are the defining criteria for board appointments, instead of loyalty to the B.C. Liberal Party.
British Columbians and B.C.’s research universities will be much better off with these as the guiding criteria for university boards of governors.
Michael Conlon is executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.; Doug Baer is president.