Western Canada seems to be ground zero for talking about Board composition these days. Take, for example, folks at UBC getting upset that government appointments to the Board of Governors lack a certain diversity (i.e. they all come either from old Vancouver money or the tech sector). The Government of Alberta has decided to not automatically re-appoint any Board members whose terms are up for renewal (this actually is not something specific to universities – it’s part of a more general effort of De-Baathification of all provincial boards which have been stacked with appointees by a single party for the last 44 years).
This raises the question: what should a Board of Governors look like?
Governing Boards in North America have a pretty simple history. The first universities were set up by groups of local worthies (which usually included a lot of the local merchant class) to provide liberal education, mainly to train teachers and clergy. Those universities were very small – the President was often the only professor, though he may have had a couple of assistants to help with tutorials and recitations. Tuition was not enough to keep these institutions funded, so there were regular contributions from the local worthies. Since the President was spending their money, they had a real interest in making sure the President was hewing closely to their views on education. Boards of Governors were therefore primarily instruments of accountability, a way of ensuring that Presidents (and, as the schools got bigger, his employees) did not get too far out line.
Now, as governments started to take over the funding of universities, the importance of local worthies’ money diminished. But the principle of “the payer calls the tune” remained in most places. At public universities, Governing Boards still payed the same role, but their members were named by governments, not local committees. Boards weren’t necessarily partisan, but appointments certainly tended to follow the party in power (this is still the case pretty much across Western Canada). The argument at UBC is essentially that the Board looks too much like the party in power and not enough like “the province as a whole”. This is an accurate observation, but difficult to see how in practice how this could ever be changed; on the whole, governments tend not to divest themselves of patronage opportunities.
But meanwhile, as public universities acquired an ever-increasing appetite for prestige and money, they looked to Board members to have other skills. The first was an ability to raise funds, which tends to make them seek out people exactly like the old local worthies (if you need to ask a rich person to donate money, it helps if the person doing the asking is another rich person who has already donated). But other needs are important, too: Boards need members with enough knowledge to oversee the increasingly complicated property and financial deals on which universities are embarking, enough judgment to understand how the university should deal with major sources of financial risk, etc.
So here’s the trick. You need boards whose members collectively have the ability both to cheerlead and fundraise for an institution, provide it with specialized knowledge and talent whilst simultaneously holding its senior management (via the President) to account generally on behalf of the both the democratically-elected government of the day and the general citizenry.
Simple? Not by a long shot. And what makes it more complicated is that no one has the luxury of composing an entire board to get an adequate mix of talents. That’s not just because most Canadian boards have a variety of elected positions in addition to those either selected by governments (in most of western Canada) or by the institution itself (more common in eastern Canada), but because Board membership turns over slowly and so the mix of talents (and hence the gaps in needed talent) are constantly changing.
So with respect to the Alberta New Democrats’ attempt to make big changes on the province’s university boards, there is both opportunity and danger. Opportunity because the policy of not automatically renewing anyone’s term means they can change board composition quickly if they think something is amiss; danger because there’s a worry about jettisoning too many people with specific, needed skills in a bid to make the new boards “look like” the province (or “act as NDP agents”, as the case may be).
Basically, boards are tricky. Getting them right is a serious, delicate business.