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Universities arose from college systems, so it is natural that universities utilize something known as collegial governance. Most universities extoll their collegial governance, something that Carleton University is particularly fond of advertising. This blog post sets out to answer one simple question: Is governance at Carleton genuinely collegial?

The antonym of ‘collegial governance’ is ‘corporate governance’ (see the wikipedia entry on governance in higher education). Therefore I am effectively asking whether or not governance at Carleton has become corporatized.

Carleton University’s president is far more literate than I will ever be. She is not just fluent but truly poetic in both of Canada’s official (colonial) languages. By contrast, I cannot write my way out of a box. But I can do something utterly pedestrian and look things up in a dictionary. Many dictionary definitions of ‘collegial’ are tautological, using the word ‘colleague’ in the definition. But here are several dictionary definitions of ‘collegial’ that are not tautological or from which I redacted the tautological parts:

  • marked by power or authority vested equally (Merriam-Webster)
  • shared power and authority (Free Dictionary)
  • characterized by equal sharing of authority (Merriam-Webster)
  • having authority or power shared among a number of people (Collins Dictionary)

Collegial governance is thus often described as ‘shared governance’.

Asking whether governance at Carleton is collegial boils down to asking whether all members of each of its two governing bodies, the Board of Governors and the Senate, have the same power and authority as their peers.

Carleton University’s Board of Governors has two ex officio members, the chancellor and vice-chancellor, who we will ignore for this exercise of determining whether governance is collegial. Of the remaining members, 20 are external governors and 10 are internal governors. Internal governors must be current students or current employees; external governors cannot be either. As with most governing bodies, the real work gets done in committees. The board has seven committees:

  • executive
  • nominating
  • audit
  • finance
  • building
  • governance
  • advancement

Each committee has a chair and vice-chair, although those two roles on both the executive committee and the nominating committee have traditionally been held by the chair of the board and the vice-chair of the board. Therefore, the Board of Governors has a total of a dozen chair and vice-chair positions. For as far back as my memory and record search go, these dozen powerful chair and vice-chair positions have only been held by external governors. The 20 external governors get all 12 important seats; internal governors have held none of these important seats. Such power imbalance is the antithesis of collegiality. Compounding this problem, the chair of the board has sole authority in making committee assignments.

Carleton’s Board of Governors could become collegial if there was a different way of choosing committee assignments and committee chairs and vice-chairs. Committee assignments could be partly self-selected and partly chosen by peers, letting all governors fill out two ballots: one in which they list their top two preferences for committees and another ballot in which they list their top two preferred governors, other than themselves, for each other committee. These two sets of ballots could easily be combined by some set ranking formula, making sure that each governor serves on two committees (exempting the executive committee). Committee chairs and vice-chairs could then be elected from each committee. But I should add two provisos. First, all of these decisions should be only be made between 1 July and the next meeting of the full board, at a time new governors are usually in place and old governors are gone. Second, because external governors out-number internal governors by two-to-one, some form of proportional voting or quota system should be implemented to select chairs and vice-chairs. Otherwise all chairs and vice-chairs would continue to be external governors. Alternatively, we could equalize the number of external versus internal governors, as has been suggested by several groups on campus (see §1 here).

Nothing in the board’s bylaws or procedures seems to preclude the changes recommended in the previous paragraph. Nothing in the board’s bylaws or procedures seems to preclude internal governors from being committee chairs or vice-chairs, yet internal governors have never held these seats as chair or vice-chair, which is a sign of inequities in power on the board, i.e. a lack of collegiality.

Similar power imbalances exist with Carleton University’s Senate. The chair of Senate and the chairs of its committees are not elected by members of Senate, but are selected by fiat. The university president serves as chair of Senate. The provost serves as chair of the all-important Senate Academic Programs Committee. The Clerk of Senate serves as the chair of the Senate Academic Governance Committee. The vice president of students and enrollments serves as the chair of the Senate Equity Committee. Collegial governance would mean that senators get to elect people to all of these chair positions, including the chair of Senate.

While I focused above on structural power in Carleton’s governance, corporate governance at Carleton is even more pervasive. For example, consider the following passage from the board’s recently passed Code of Conduct, which mandates that governors must:

Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported.

Equal sharing of power and authority would not give those in the majority the right to trample the rights of the minority. In order to “respect the principle of collegiality”, one must first eliminate what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”. There is nothing collegial about the hierarchical, authoritarian, corporate style of governance at Carleton University. Just because those in power repeat the word ‘collegial’ ad nauseam does not make things so. Carleton’s governance would definitely be in the running for an award for “mis-collegiality”. Carleton University truly has corporate governance, which we should graciously admit. Alternatively, we could make Carleton University’s governance genuinely collegial, what Kezar & Eckel (2004) referred to as “diffusing authority”. I vote for that latter option, the collegial option.

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