Governance (3 March 2014)

Nick Falvo (here) and John Osborne (here) recently posted fascinating observations regarding university governance. Also see Nick’s accompanying powerpoint slides (here). Please pardon me while I use their excellent observations as a springboard, with identical postings to both my Senate and Board of Governors blogs.

Universities are communities, therefore governance matters. Yet as both Dean Osborne and Nick Falvo highlighted, there is often a disconnect between university leaders and the rest of the university community. Nick pointed out that board members usually only hear what senior administration tells them and that the rest of us have no way of communicating directly with board members. There is no feedback in the other direction either, from board members to the general university community. Official minutes of board meetings are so minimal that they often do little more than provide legal protection for board members. I have made a meager attempt to remedy this information deficit by blogging about the Board of Governors. I have also compiled a list of board members’ e-mail addresses, which were surprisingly easy to find from public sources, but have not yet had occasion to use these. Frankly, board members can live with occasionally being spammed, as the demise of the community garden showed.

John Osborne lamented the boring (“sedate”) nature of Carleton’s Senate. This year Senate has become a showcase for mediocrity by featuring long presentations on things like purchasing furniture by the director of the so-called discovery centre and an amazing example of how not to teach by the head of the university’s teaching and learning unit (hint: the provost’s office looks inept when they try to show off). John Osborne’s ideas about changing the time of meetings and composition of senate membership are interesting. However, I would not want meetings that start at 7:30 pm because this puts undue hardship on women, who still do the majority of childcare in our society. There are other things we can do to make meetings more exciting and productive. We can liven things up by submitting questions for question period. See what happened by broaching DFW rates in question period? (scroll down to the DFW section on the 28 Feb 2014 Senate blog). Question period is a vehicle that lets all members of senate decide what is relevant. What about a discussion of revising the Carleton University Act, which specifies the roles of the board, senate, and president? If both the board and senate were to approve such changes, then probably so would the province, given that this is a private bill.

I believe that faculty boards could elect contract instructors or staff to Senate. Nothing procedurally seems to preclude this. At least the Carleton University Act, Academic Governance of the University, and the Constitution of the Carleton University Faculty of Science appear to allow this. One problem, though, is that only tenure-track faculty and instructors seem to be allowed to vote on nominees for Senate seats, but I do not know why this is.

Dean Osborne highlighted the bottom-up governance structure of Carleton’s Senate and how that means unwanted programs will not be foisted on the university from the top-down. I beg to differ with him on this. Health science had no champions from within units at Carleton, although neuroscience was willing to play along by creating a mental health program (and for that, they undoubtedly will be rewarded). But our new health science programs are not arising from any existing units, which is why their new faculty searches are being run from the provost’s office, not from any existing units. I suspect that health science rose to the top of our strategic mandate document mainly because Senate was not allowed to play an active role in its drafting.

I am not saying that there are easy answers regarding governance. But given how much passion there is at departmental meetings, we should be able to translate this into effective and engaged higher-level democratic governance. Yes, this will be difficult, but not impossible. Some faculty senates in Canada have been sufficiently active to overthrow their university presidents. I would love to see hints of such activism at Carleton, albeit not necessarily with those specific results. Quoting Taiaiake Alfred (1999):

Active and fractious disagreement is a sign of health in a traditional system: it means that people are engaging their leaders and challenging them to prove the righteousness of their position. It means they are making them accountable…. In any culture deeply respectful of rationale thought, the only real political power consists of the ability to persuade.

As always, I truly welcome your feedback.

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