The 2010-2012 Governance Crisis at Concordia

Because university governance often involves (at least) three powerful bodies — the administration, the Board of Governors and the Senate — it is not surprising that all sorts of conflicts arise.

The uproar at Concordia University in early 2011 illustrates one such conflict.[1]  The school’s president, Judith Woodsworth, had resigned in December 2010, long before her term was scheduled to end. Only speculative explanations for her resignation have appeared publicly, but it seems that conflict with the board of governors was part of the issue.  The previous president, Claude Lajeunesse, had also resigned in 2007, less than halfway through his term.[2]

With approval of interim president Frederick Lowy, the university Senate and the board of governors, a special committee was appointed in March 2011 to look into overall governance at Concordia. That External Governance Review Committee (EGRC) was notable because two of its three members were Bernard Shapiro, Canada’s first ethics commissioner and a former president of McGill university and Glen Jones, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the leading expert on university governance in Canada.[3]

Their report, issued in June of 2011, not only guided subsequent changes in governance at Concordia but also serves as a blueprint for university governance more generally.[4]  They wrote (p.10): “The governance structure of the university is the contact point between the academic community and representatives of the community at large to which the university, as a public interest institution largely funded by society, is accountable. Governance processes can provide a space for vigorous discussions of the mission, the future direction and the present administration of the institution. Of course, this needs to take place within an environment of mutual respect.”

They went on to say (p.10) that the situation at Concordia was “… not a culture of mutual respect but, rather, a culture of contempt” in which “by projecting experienced difficulties on some other person or on some other group, one was relieved of any responsibility to question one’s own motives and behaviour.”

Based on eight general principles, the EGRC put forward a large number of recommendations for governance reform at Concordia — reducing the size and authority of the board and strengthening the powers of the President and the university Senate.[5]

The situation at Concordia has changed considerably in the ensuing years.  In July 2012, the long-serving and controversial chair of the board of governors, Peter Kruyt, was replaced by Norman Hébert;  in August, 2012, Alan Shepard was appointed as President, taking over from Frederick Lowy, a former president who had returned on an interim basis.

In an interview in October, 2012, Shepard reported that “virtually all” of the EGRC recommendations had been adopted.[6]  For example, the board of governors for 2013-2014 had been reduced to 25 members and only six 2013-2014 members had been on the board in 2010-2011.[7]

From a distance, it’s impossible to tell if these changes have improved governance at Concordia but some are optimistic.  For example, Maria Peluso, a new board member who had been critical of previous boards, said in a September 2013 interview with a Concordia student newspaper, that the board’s operation under Norman Hébert was a “marked improvement from the top-down governance style she had seen in recent years.”[8]

It took considerable courage, though perhaps born of desperation, for Concordia to invite outsiders like Shapiro, Jones and Coté to reshape its major governance institutions. We can all hope that that it works out for Concordia and that other universities can learn from their experience.

[1] My thanks to Nick Falvo for piquing my interest in the Concordia events. In 2011, he wrote two short blogs about it, one called Concordia’s “Culture of Contempt” and the other Concordia Decides That Less Is More.

[2] Lajeunesse stepped down in the fall of 2007 “by mutual agreement” with his Board of Governors.  Concern about the resulting instability was expressed in an open letter to Peter Kruyt, the chair of the Board of Governors, from the head of the faculty association. (Woodsworth resigned for “personal reasons” in December of 2010.  The report of the External Governance Review Committee, discussed below, asserts that the departures were “apparently as a result of irreconcilable differences between each of them and the Board.” (p.3)

[3] The third member was André Coté, a former Dean of Law at Laval University.

[5] The eight principles, which are eloquently put forward in the EGRC report, are: (1) bicameralism and shared governance; (2) clear roles and responsibilities; (3) transparency; (4) strong academic administration accountable to an effective governance system; (5) managing conflicts of interests; (6) board and senate renewal; (7) the necessary distinction between collective bargaining and university governance; and (8) mutual respect.

About Saul Schwartz

Professor School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6 Canada
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