Universities are cesspools of cronyism

Le Devoir has an op/ed today about university governance. In it, an executive at the university teachers’ association talks about how university governing boards aren’t representative of the teachers and students involved in the universities. Instead, they’re filled with rich, connected businesspeople who buy their way onto them through donations to the universities.

The problem isn’t so bad on paper. Universities reserve more than half the seats on their governing boards for members of the community. This can mean businesspeople, community leaders, people at other educational institutions, retired educational industry professionals, doctors, lawyers, etc.

The problem mainly lies in the fact that these seats are self-selecting. They’re the highest governing bodies at their institutions, answerable only to the government, and so the boards basically control themselves. Nominations as members of the community are dealt with by a nominating committee of the board.

This causes two related problems: the people who are nominated tend to be friends or business associates of people already on the boards, and dissenting views get actively or passively shut out.

When I was at Concordia, I wrote a piece about the corporate connections of the members of Concordia’s Board of Governors. A little bit of Google searching found a lot of associations between most of the members’ companies. One acted as a lawyer for another. One serves on the board of the company whose CEO is the wife of another member. And so on.

In some cases, these associations are perfectly reasonable, having been formed after the two were appointed to the board together. But the chronology doesn’t solve the problem that the fat cats are friends and do things together.

There’s also other problems: These connected rich people tend to be more likely to receive honourary degrees, have buildings and academic programs named after them, or receive other official praise from the universities they’re connected to, in exchange for their generous donations. (Technically, board memebrs can’t receive honourary degrees while they’re on the board, and paying for such degrees isn’t allowed either. So we see a lot of anonymous donations, or PR people stressing that donations aren’t made with strings attached. And degrees are handed out after people retire from the board.)

The government needs to step in and solve this problem with new rules. Representation from academics and students needs to be increased. More non-business types need to be brought in. Academic decisions need to be deferred to academic bodies. And tough conflict-of-interest rules need to be established.

Business leaders should be on boards of universities. They have experience running large organizations, and have a lot of expertise they’re willing to share. But the power this gives them is very big, and it needs to be kept in check.

4 thoughts on “Universities are cesspools of cronyism

  1. Dominic

    >>The government needs to step in and solve this problem with new rules
    >> Business leaders should be on boards of universities. They have experience running large organizations, and have a lot of expertise they’re willing to share. But the power this gives them is very big, and it needs to be kept in check.

    I’m not sure thats the answer at all. Under what obligation are these people giving their time, expertise and money? An honory degree is just a piece of paper that can be hung on the wall, in exchange for thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars? It seems like a fair deal.

    Sure, dissenting opinion is sometimes quieted, but what is the value of those opinions from a group of people you freely admit bring so much to the table? Is legislating charitable donations worth the expense? It this type of back-scratching really a priority? In what way are students being harmed? If these boards are commiting crimes, then there is no point to further legislation. If theyre not, then what harm are they doing at all? Your post is silent on this. Can you expand on it a bit?

    Would you be willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations so we can hear what a Janitor from NDG and a Art History Major has to say about who the new gym should be named after? I am not being facetious, just honestly interested in the value you see in legislating this…

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  2. Fagstein Post author

    Just so I’m clear: Most of these people are doing this for altruistic reasons, or at least they think they are.

    But you underestimate the value of an honourary degree, a named building or other tokens of academic respect for those so rich they’ve already bought everything else. They’re trying to build a legacy, and though they can’t buy the degrees directly (that would weaken their value in the eyes of the public) they realize that providing enough money in donations will reward them.

    There’s other more serious problems in this conflict of interest. People who donate money tend to profit from the deals as well, just like those who donate money to politicians. In extreme cases, entire programs and departments are created in the name of big donors. (At Concordia, even an entire faculty is named for a family who donated to them.)

    Dissenters aren’t all stupid just because they disagree with corporate CEOs. The boards tend to prefer spending money on shiny new buildings than on raises for teachers or on bursaries for students in need. They also like to clamp down on freedom of expression, favour engineering and commerce programs over arts and philosophy, raise tuition, and in general turn universities into profitable business enterprises.

    The views of students, professors and others aren’t necessarily better, but they deserve to be seriously considered nonetheless. On boards as well as the ultra-secretive executive committees that run them.

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  3. Dominic

    Well, I don’t agree with what you said, but even you must admit this is a pretty weak-case for legislation.

    I honestly do not see anything wrong with donating a million dollars specifically for a new building. Wages are the responsibility of the government, and the Teachers Union, not the private sector or charitable doners. And if someone is spending a million dollars to buy their legacy, again, I see no harm in this.. who is hurt?

    If a board cuts art and philosophy, within a short time frame the market will react. Students who are seeking degrees in this subject matter would not register for this school, instead opting for another. If enrollment increases, then the board has provided what the “market” needed.

    Again, since there is hardly any quasi-legal actions going on here, or even anything more than peoples feelings being hurt, I do not think you’ve made a good case for the government to come stomping in all over the place. This should be the last option in every single circumstance.

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  4. Fagstein Post author

    You seem to be coming from the view that universities should be run as businesses, and that academic honours should be sold to the highest bidder.

    With that viewpoint, I guess there isn’t a problem. But some of us think universities should be more than experiments in free-market capitalism.

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