A short overview of university governance in Canada

Several recent controversies at Carleton — the building of the new parking garage over the O-Train tracks, the destruction of the campus community garden and the agreement to set up the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management — have spurred interest in how the university is being governed.

To inform that interest, I thought I’d summarize what the literature says about post-secondary governance in Canada.  Glen Jones, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies on Education, has written extensively on the topic and most of what I say here is based on what he has written.  He has a research website at www.glenjones.ca and his most recent piece appears here.

Canadian universities are created by university-specific provincial legislation that establishes them as private non-profit corporations.  In some other countries, universities are run directly by the government. In others, notably in the US, private for-profit universities are common. The status of Canadian universities as private non-profit corporations gives them a welcome degree of autonomy and freedom from direct government interference.

Provincial legislation usually creates two main bodies that are formally in charge of the university. At the top of the heap is a Board of Governors (BoG). According to a 1997 survey by Jones and his colleagues — the latest information available — about one-third of Board members are internal to the university (faculty, administrators and students) and two-thirds are external (generally corporate executives ).  At many universities, including Carleton, the Board of Governors is self-perpetuating, meaning that the existing Board can elect new members as existing members depart. Generally speaking, Boards of Governors devote their attention to seemingly non-academic matters.

Scholastic matters such as establishing academic policies, approving the creation or reform of existing academic units and regulating the quality of education are the purview of the senate. The senate is almost entirely composed of faculty, students and university administrators. Jones reports that his survey of Canadian senate members revealed a gap between what the members thought their senate should be doing and what is was actually doing.

What is the role of the university administration? Formally, according to Jones, the university president represents only one vote on the Board of Governors.  Senior administrators occupy about 25 percent of senate seats, with the remainder split among faculty and students.  But in the absence of constant vigilance by the Board of Governors and the Senate, the university administration is best placed to take direct action and seems willing to do so. This seems to be what happened when, without any decision by the Carleton Board of Governors,  the university closed down the campus community garden. See the comments on this matter by biology professor and BoG member Root Gorelick.

Running a contemporary university is far from an easy job. Declining government funding and, at best, flat enrolments means that new resources must be found.  Therefore, signing exclusivity contracts with beverage companies, like Coca-Cola, and electing wealthy land developers, such as those involved with the construction of Lansdowne Park, to university Boards of Governors is as much a survival strategy as an ideological choice.   One of the consequences, however, is a weakening of the collegial model of governance that has long set universities apart from other societal institutions.

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About Saul Schwartz

Professor School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6 Canada
This entry was posted in Post-secondary education, University governance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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