So, thanks to UBC, everyone wants to talk about Boards of Governors these days. How they’re not transparent enough, how they’re not representative enough, etc. What should we make of these claims?
On the transparency thing, I think the radicals have at least half a point, regarding some universities at least. Practice varies from one institution to the next, but it’s not hard to find some boards where harmful secret practices exist. Some parts of board meetings must be in camera – anything to do with hiring or performance monitoring of Presidents (sorry guys, Presidents have the same privacy rights re: employment as everyone else). But frankly most of it can be, and often is, open to the public. Certainly when it comes to institutional finances and financial planning, nearly everything should be open (certain parts of discussions regarding investment management probably need to remain schtum, but that’s about it).
The other issue is more problematic. It seems everyone and their dog want to make Boards more “representative” (see one example here, from Carleton). This is desperately wrong-headed, and stems from a misunderstanding of the function of Boards of Governors, and indeed of governance generally.
Boards are not representative bodies. Board members are trustees, not politicians. They act in the best long-term financial interests of the institution, and hold the leadership of the institution – specifically the President – to account for how the institution is run. In publicly-funded systems, they also have one incredibly important role: namely, to make sure that money spent aligns with the institution’s long-term interests.
The reason this matters so much is that someone has to oversee the financial functions. Universities spend millions – in some cases billions – of dollars each year, much of it public money. Where upstanding members of the community are present and keeping an eye on the shop, there is little need for government to play an activist role; where the governing board is made up of insiders, government quite reasonably worries about foxes guarding hen houses, and takes a more direct role. If you look across Europe, for instance, there’s a pretty direct correlation between the degree of external representation on boards and institutional financial autonomy.
Now, someone pushing for more representation might reasonably reply by saying: “we’re not interested in weakening external financial oversight; what we want is more discussion about what actually constitutes the long-term interests of the institution”. And, you know, fair enough: there aren’t a lot of places to discuss this kind of thing. This is why strategic planning processes are important (and why faculty shouldn’t ignore them). It’s also why Boards and Senates should probably meet together more often, both formally and informally, so as to encourage more exchange about “big picture” stuff.
But a University Board is not a Parliament – not even to the extent Senate is. Representativeness is not, and never has been, one of its functions. If you want to worry about boards, worry about their effectiveness. Worry about their knowledge base of higher education and its challenges. Worry about their size (many Canadian boards have 30-40 people, which is about twice as big as they should be). Worry about cliques gathering in specific committees and doing end-runs around the rest of the Board (or the President). These are all significant issues that require attention.