I find myself, more than anything else, amused that everyone is focusing on Concordia University's Board of Governors in the wake of the sudden departure of its president, Judith Woodsworth.
When I was a student at the university from 2000 to 2005, I tried to attend as many of these board meetings as I could, to get an idea of how the university operates. It didn't take me long to figure out how things work there.
Like many other such bodies, the Board of Governors is largely a rubber-stamp organization. The big decisions are taken at the level of the executive committee, who presents them to the board as a fait accompli. Sometimes there is debate - particularly when someone outside the ruling clique has a problem with the decision - but the result of the eventual vote is rarely in doubt.
Strange definition of "community"
Concordia's Board of Governors is made up of 40 voting members. The largest group - and one which by itself forms a majority - is 23 people selected from among the "community at large". The others are a mix of faculty (6), staff (1), students (5) and alumni (3), each appointed by their respective associations, plus the president and chancellor.
A look at the list of those representing the "community at large", and you see the words "chairman", "president and chief executive officer" and "corporate director" a lot. They're all from the crowd you see at black-tie galas for hospital foundations (in fact, many members of the board are also on the boards of hospital foundations), not the ones setting up community gardens or organizing festivals or doing all the other stuff you think of when you think "community".
The biggest problem with this group is that it is de facto self-appointed. The board has a nominating committee, which recommends candidates to the board, which appoints them to a body called the Corporation of Concordia University (whose makeup is identical to the board), who then appoints them to the board. The "community at large" group forms a majority on each of these bodies.
The inherent problem with this setup has been obvious to the Concordia Student Union for more than a decade. But they control only four seats on the board. Occasionally, they might get support from the one graduate student, but their cause is always a losing one. Faculty, staff and the general public weren't on the side of the crazy anarchists.
Questions from unexpected places
The sudden departure of President Judith Woodsworth just before Christmas was the straw that broke the camel's back. Concordia's previous supposedly-permanent president, Claude Lajeunesse, also left well before his first mandate was to end, and also for reasons that were never made clear. Meanwhile, the university has lost a lot of other senior administrators over the past couple of years.
Now people are starting to take notice. Donald Boisvert, who was the university's dean of students while I was a student there, wrote a piece in The Gazette demanding an explanation from the board. Lucie Lequin, president of Concordia's faculty association, wrote a public letter to members (PDF) saying they should also demand to know why so much money is being spent forcing senior administrators to leave.
The situation has attracted the attention of the news media. Peggy Curran, The Gazette's universities reporter, is writing a piece every day or two about it. On Saturday, an article in the Globe and Mail. Chris Mota, the university's official spokesperson, has been working overtime the past couple of weeks doing interviews for TV and radio, trying to explain a statement that Woodsworth herself has reportedly admitted isn't true.
Meanwhile, that "community at large" group remains silent. The chair, Peter Kruyt, and the other members of the board have not been heard from. A complete blackout on public statements.
Time to shine some light
Clearly someone needs to step in and demand explanations. Unfortunately, the only body with the power to overrule the Board of Governors is the Quebec government, and they have shown a strong reluctance to do so in the past. We don't know yet whether this latest scandal will be enough for them to step in.
If they do, though, questions should be raised not only about the process for hiring and firing senior administrators, but about whether there is something inherently wrong with an organization that controls millions of dollars having a self-appointed board of directors. The government should investigate whether this is a good idea, or whether it is likely to lead to the formation of a clique, conflicts of interest, and the negative consequences that come with it.
Concordia, like all universities, is a publicly-funded institution. It needs to be responsible to the public.
A foreshadowing screed from my hippie days
I wrote the following article for a journalism class (a version was also published in the student paper The Link) in 2005, shortly before Dr. Frederick Lowy ended his term as Concordia University's president. In the past 25 years, he is the only Concordia president to have departed on friendly terms, completing a mandate and not needing to be replaced by an interim president/rector.
Near the entrance of the J. W. McConnell Library Building, three pillars feature plaques commemorating the financial contributions of students, alumni and government to the building's funding campaign. A fourth explains the building's name, citing the "exemplary generosity of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation." It makes no mention of who McConnell was or any non-financial reason why the building might be named after him.
Above the plaques, suspended from the ceiling, a gold and copper-coloured display laughingly referred to as art by the university's administration lists major individual donors to Concordia's Capital Campaign. The starting price for your name here: $5,000.
At Concordia, high-profile donors are honoured not just with ugly plaques, but prestigious academic awards, honorary degrees, buildings and programs in their name, and in many cases a seat on the most powerful body in the university's hierarchy.
There is no formal contract in these exchanges. No agreement is made forcing the university to reward financial donors, and these rewards have been given to many who haven't given the university a dime. But far too many names appear on the lists of those honoured and the lists of those who donate than can be explained by coincidence.
Is this a way of thanking people who have contributed to the community, a teaser to encourage more donations, or is there something about Concordia's major financial donors that causes them to be praised for reasons other than their material wealth?
In Quebec, where tuition in Canada is at its lowest, the pressure to seek alternative sources of funding is extremely high.
Frederick Lowy, Concordia's president, says post-secondary education in Quebec is drastically underfunded, and that more money is needed to keep Concordia competitive with other universities across Canada. In Maclean's magazine's annual rating of Canadian universities, Concordia is currently rated second-last out of 11 universities in its category. Most of its low points relate to a lack of adequate funding compared to other Canadian universities, where tuition is higher.
Every year, when the Maclean's rankings come out, Lowy brings them to the group most concerned about Concordia's overall financial picture: its Board of Governors.
The Board of Governors is Concordia's highest governing body. It meets about once a month during the academic year to make decisions on university governance. It approves budgets, hires senior administrators, and approve major policy changes, but the meetings themselves usually involve little more than receiving reports and rubber-stamping recommendations of committees.
The 40-member Board of Governors is composed of representatives appointed from different constituencies, including faculty, staff, alumni and students. The largest constituency, comprising just over half of the board, is known as the "community at-large". Since Concordia is a public university, it logically follows that members of the community should have a say in how it is run.
But unlike the other constituencies, the community-at-large members aren't appointed by the group they represent. Instead, the board appoints a nominating committee, composed mostly of community-at-large members, which receives nominations and recommends appointments back to the board. The board accepts the recommendations behind closed doors, and appoints the person to the Corporation of Concordia University. The Corporation then meets and appoints the person to the Board of Governors.
Once this process is complete, the person begins a three-year term, and their appointment is made public. Normally, a governor will serve up to three three-year terms on the Board of Governors, for a total of nine years.
Lowy says that in addition to academic and cultural backgrounds, the nominating committee looks for "people who can spark donations," either by donating themselves or gathering other donors.
So it's no coincidence that the community-at-large seats are filled with some of the richest people around: executives at large corporations. Almost all of the 23 community-at-large members are (or were) senior management of large companies, including the National Bank, Quebecor World, Ernst and Young, and the aptly-named Power Corporation.
These people are also among Canada's most prolific political donors, including some of the heaviest donors to the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties. They're called upon to lobby and negotiate with the provincial government to try to secure more funding for education.
Jean McGuire, a management professor in the John Molson School of Business, says this situation is very common for private and non-profit corporations alike. She says donors feel more comfortable if they know what's going on in the organization, and want to make sure their money is used wisely.
She says their motivation for giving to universities isn't to control them, but help them in their mission. This is why donations and increased involvement in a non-profit organization both come together.
Tim McSorley, the Quebec regional chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, doesn't quite see it that way. While he agrees that the corporate sector does have a place on the Board of Governors, he believes its weight is too much and is silencing the voices of others who could serve.
McSorley says the unusually wealthy corporate CEOs don't reflect the economic diversity of the community. "It's an academic institution," he says. "It should have a multitude of voices." He rejects the implication that corporate CEOs are better at managing large organizations and says there are people who know how who aren't part of the corporate sector.
CFS Quebec has long claimed that corporate CEOs on the Board of Governors have an inherent conflict of interest. They have a say in the organization that trains their future workforce. CFS-Q says this creates a danger that certain programs, like those in engineering and the sciences, will receive more attention if they're more profitable, while programs like philosophy or history would receive less.
Students have already raised concerns that the needs of fine arts students are being taken away to give more space to computer science and engineering.
As part of the CFS-Q executive, McSorley has been raising awareness about the dangers of private involvement in education, a solution he doesn't like any better than increased tuition. He says students are providing free labour for large corporations while paying for their own training.
Lowy says that despite the apparent problems on paper, he's not concerned about corporate influence. He says the board has no wish to control the curriculum. Instead, he says, it leaves that to the university's senate, which deals with academic programs and is comprised only of students, administration and faculty. The senate, he says, is free of such corporate influence.
But Concordia's corporate connections aren't just through its community-at-large board members. Lowy himself sits on the board of directors of two large companies.
One is Dundee Bancorp, a holding corporation for financial management companies. Lowy sits stone-faced as he describes the nature of the company, his public relations officer looking on nervously. The company's board of directors includes fellow governors Richard J. Renaud and Normand Beauchamp.
Lowy also sits on the board of Neurochem, a pharmaceutical company, with fellow board member Peter Kruyt.
He is quick to downplay the potential conflict of interest his membership on these boards represents, saying there are "no areas of conflict."
Lowy is also quick to dismiss the idea that he and the board members meet in secret. He says that while the executive members of the board meet often, his relationship to the community-at-large members is "collegial," not personal.
But Lowy isn't the only one with these extra-curricular connections. Most of the corporate CEOs on the board run companies, and many sit on the boards of other non-profit and for-profit corporations. Playing a quick game of six degrees of separation yields many connections between these members outside of the university.
Board member Jonathan Wener owns Canderel, a real estate company. Canderel employed the services of the Davies, Ward, Phillips and Vineberg law firm, as well as fellow board member Lillian Vineberg. The law firm, meanwhile, has another board member, Rita Lc de Santis, as one of its partners. Similar connections attach at least 15 members of the board's community-at-large contingent together.
Concordia's president doesn't pretend that dangers don't present themselves. But when it comes to the pressures of sacrificing integrity, he points to an entirely different problem: personal favours.
Lowy says the most common request involves parents who want their children's admission rejections or failures overturned. Lowy says it's difficult to say no to such requests, especially when they come from friends of the university, but that aside from providing an explanation of the university's point of view, he never gets involved in such matters.
The matters he and Concordia's academic administration do have a say in is the awarding of honorary degrees and the naming of buildings and facilities. Some believe these symbolic gestures are an acceptable way of thanking donors, while others are uncomfortable with the idea of universities selling their good name to the highest bidder.
Former governors Francesco Bellini, Dominic D'Alessandro, Leonard Ellen and Alan B. Gold have all received honorary degrees after donating millions to the university. The university's policies currently forbid giving honorary degrees to sitting members of the Board of Governors.
Honorary degrees are given to people who have contributed to the community. Lowy says they are given to Concordia graduates who have "done important things in life" or are "leaders in their field."
Though major donors are among Concordia's honorees, most degree recipients are not donors to the university.
McGuire dismisses the idea that degrees are given as a result of donations. The awarding of such degrees are decided by faculty councils, not senior administration. McGuire says the possibility of future donations has never been raised at these meetings.
Lowy says people would feel insulted if honorary degrees were purchased instead of being awarded based on merit.
"You can't really sell the degrees," Lowy says. "It's not a bad idea," he adds with a laugh.
Honorary degrees are awarded for service to the community. But the naming of buildings, rooms and programs are more directly related to the donations received to aid in their construction.
The Richard J. Renaud Science Complex, which opened on Concordia's Loyola campus in 2003, was named after Renaud, a current member of the board, largely due to his financial contributions. About a dozen facilities and programs are named after major donors for the same reason.
The largest known donation came from Molson Inc. in 2001. Eric Molson, Molson's chairman and Concordia's chancellor, announced that the brewery would be giving $10 million to Concordia's business school. In return, the Faculty of Commerce and Administration would rename itself to the John Molson School of Business, after the man who founded the brewery over 200 years ago.
When it comes to naming buildings after donors, McSorley is hesitant to immediately denounce the practice in general. He says naming a place isn't a problem in itself, but a symptom of the need for funding from the private sector.
McGuire doesn't think the deal benefits Molson. She says the company could just as easily have started a foundation named after itself. "Most of the people who are giving money already have prestige."
But McSorley has some reservations about Molson. "You have 30,000 people going to Concordia who know their commerce school is called the John Molson School of Business," he says. "When you think of how much beer students drink..."
Concordia's Board of Governors next meets on Thursday, Feb. 17, at 8 a.m. in room 2.260 of the EV building, 1515 Ste. Catherine St. W., corner Guy. Expect it to be a circus of people demanding the governors finally speak up about what's going on.
UPDATE (Jan. 10): Board chair Peter Kruyt has finally issued a public statement on the matter. It's filled with bullshit, so I've extracted key paragraphs (emphasis mine):
Notwithstanding our support of the principle of transparency, good governance requires, among other things, that the Board respect confidentiality agreements in conducting the business of the University. The statement that Concordia issued on December 22 was approved by both Concordia and Dr. Woodsworth, and both parties are accordingly limited in what each can say publicly. I also believe that individuals should have the right to privacy.
We are determined to build on this solid foundation and have established ambitious yet attainable goals for ourselves through our Strategic Framework. Our commitment is to focus on Concordia’s strengths, striking a balance between our tradition as a welcoming and engaged university, and our mission of building on excellence in education, research, creative activity and community partnerships. We aim to rank among Canada’s top comprehensive universities within the next decade and to be a first choice university for students and faculty in Canada and internationally in defined fields, or “signature areas.”
It was in this context and following discussions with members of the Board during the month of December that Dr. Woodsworth made the decision to resign.
Though the idea was to say nothing here, this statement makes a few things clear:
- Despite what it says, it's pretty clear that Woodsworth did not leave willingly (and not just because that's what Woodsworth herself has said). You don't have "discussions with members of the board" and then suddenly decide to resign effective immediately just before Christmas while getting a hefty severance package. The board wanted her out, and fired her, offering the option to say she resigned while still taking her severance. That face-saving move is pointless now that everyone has a clear idea what actually happened.
- Knowing that, it's clear that this was either some sort of disagreement over policy or the board not feeling that Woodsworth was doing enough to meet its priorities. And rather than have a formal process for reviewing the president, some board members apparently took it upon themselves to convince her to resign.
Though supposedly meant to quell the controversy surrounding this issue, obviously this statement will not do anything of the sort. The one good thing it does is put to rest any suggestion that this has something to do with a minor scandal over expenses (it's all the media has to go on at this point because it happens to be before a court). But the thought that anyone is going to be satisfied by this statement is wishful thinking to the point of self-delusion.
Judith Woodsworth was thrown to the curb through a process that is sketchy at best (the Board of Governors has not met once since this whole thing began). And the board's ruling clique isn't about to investigate its own activities.
Concordia board chair Peter Kruyt (or, more likely, a secretary) welcomes comments about this issue at Chairman.Board@concordia.ca. But since he and his friends are not giving any interviews, don't expect to learn anything.
UPDATE (Jan. 12): About 200 professors have signed an open letter demanding answers and comparing the board to a "star chamber"
Alumni support resignation
UPDATE (Jan. 14): Concordia's three alumni associations have picked sides, and they back
the university the board whoever forced Woodsworth to resign. The university sent out an email to alumni (including myself) on their behalf with the following key paragraphs:
Appreciating that the President’s resignation has raised many questions about Concordia’s governance practices, we queried our Board of Governors representatives* and senior university officials on the matter.
Those discussions, which respected the confidentiality that governs deliberations by the Board of Governors, have allowed the executives of the three alumni associations to concur that Dr. Woodsworth’s decision to resign had the support of a significant majority of the internal and external members of the Board of Governors. In our view, the process was conducted fairly and objectively and the transition to a new Interim President and Vice-Chancellor is in the best interests of the university and the alumni.
I'm not sure what "respected the confidentiality" means. Either the executives got information out of their representatives on the board, which it seems to me would violate that confidentiality, or those representatives said "just trust us" and said nothing of consequence, or there were hints that they think didn't violate confidentiality but probably did.
As for their confidence that the decision to resign had "significant majority" support, I have no idea where that information would have come from. To be clear, there has not been a board meeting since her resignation.
*For the record, the alumni representatives on the board are:
- For the Concordia University Alumni Association, Francesco Ciampini, a lawyer
- For the Sir George Williams Alumni Association, Robert Barnes
- For the Loyola Alumni Association, John Lemieux, a lawyer and partner in his firm
Students support resignation
Meanwhile, undergraduate student representatives appointed by the Concordia Student Union have also supported Woodsworth's decision to resign, according to an email the CSU's Amine Dabchy sent to The Gazette. In fact, they demanded "significant changes" after being disappointed with Woodsworth's lack of leadership in a meeting on Dec. 1:
We stated unequivocally that the students had lost confidence in this administration and we called upon Peter Kruyt to take immediate action by demanding significant changes.
Not only that, Dabchy suggests that the departure of so many vice-presidents might not be so much a problem with the board being drunk with power as it might have been the fault of Woodsworth herself (at least for those resignations that happened under her watch).
Faculty supports Woodsworth
From that same Gazette article, we learn that the six faculty representatives wanted Woodsworth to complete her term. Why the faculty would be the protesters while the students, alumni and others stay silent is a really good question.
Board members exceed own term limits
UPDATE (Jan. 19): As noted by The Link, 13 of the 23 community-at-large members of the Board of Governors have exceeded recommended term limits of two times three years. This list includes chair Peter Kruyt, former chair Lillian Vineberg, as well as a majority of members of the nominating committee (that, of course, decides who sits on the board), and a large chunk of the members of other key committees that deal with real estate and senior salaries.