Tag Archives: university-governance

Benevolent dictators, with rules

The Quebec government is planning a new law that would impose minimum requirements on university boards of directors/governors/regents/Imperial Senate. They include ridiculous things like gender quotas, and things that seem to make sense like requiring community consultation before big decisions.

One of the provisions requires that at least two thirds of the boards’ members must come from outside the university and be chosen from the “community”

That sounds great, in theory. Universities are government-funded, so they should belong to the people.

But in practice, there’s a major problem with these boards that the law doesn’t fail to address: How they are appointed.

Currently, board members are chosen out of applications from the community by a committee set up by the board, who then make recommendations to the board which are then approved by the board.

In other words, these boards are self-appointing. They literally dictate their successors like some sort of monarchy.

Fortunately, the boards of universities (which, in theory, can be overruled by the Quebec government) are benevolent dictators, take their responsibilities seriously and work to better the universities out of a sense of civic responsibility.

But these boards also have a very strange sense of what “community” really means. They’re predominantly business elites, CEOs of large corporations and their friends/wives/tennis partners. You won’t find many plumbers, community activists or artists here unless they bought their way onto the board with huge donations to the university. Though there’s never a formal quid pro quo, the reality is that your chances of being appointed to a university’s board are much greater when you’ve given a substantial amount of money in donations.

This is what the Quebec government has to deal with, this idea of informal shareholders who buy a stake in a university in exchange for a bit of control over it. But the government won’t do that because they rely on these donations to offset the huge cuts the government made to education over the past two decades.

All this makes the new law seem a bit silly, don’t you think?

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.