If there is one thing that the departure of Arvind Gupta has demonstrated, it’s that there are a large number of faculty (and others) who either misunderstand or dispute the role of Boards of Governors at universities.
Here’s the deal. Regardless of whether an organization is for-profit or not-for-profit, there is some kind of committee at the top, which usually has the word “Board” in its title – Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, whatever. The job of this board is threefold: first, make sure the organization meets its strategic goals. Second, make sure it meets its financial goals (in for-profits, these two are pretty much identical, but in non-profits they’re different). Third, hire and hold accountable a chief executive for getting those things done.
At this point, I hear the objections: “universities aren’t corporations, how dare you compare us to a for-profit company, etc.” The first of these is wrong: universities most definitely are corporations. Corporate status is key to providing the legal framework for pretty much everything universities do. True, they aren’t for-profit entities (in our country, anyway) but for-profit/not-for-profit is irrelevant with respect to governance: you still need a body at the top of the organizational hierarchy performing those three functions.
What makes universities unique is the degree to which staff are involved in developing strategic goals. Both for statutory and practical reasons, this job is more or less left to Senates (or their equivalents), and their committees. Boards formally ratify these strategy documents, and thus “own” them, but compared to other types of organizations, they are very hands-off about this part of the job. Senates, in effect, are the source of university exceptionalism. But there is nothing – literally nothing – that makes universities exceptional with respect to the jobs of maintaining healthy finances, and selection/oversight of the chief executive. The Board of a university executes those functions exactly the way the board of any other organization does.
When it comes to hiring, people kind of get this. When new Presidents are hired, no one questions the prerogative of the Board to make the decision. And while there is sometimes grumbling about who got chosen or who didn’t get chosen, no one parades around demanding “transparency” about why candidate X got picked instead of candidate Y. But apparently when a President leaves, many people think that the Board owes the faculty all the gory details. Because transparency. Because “universities are different”.
Transparency is usually to the good, of course. But sometimes, if you’re dealing with a personnel matter, the correct way to deal with it is to say goodbye as quickly and as amicably as possible. By and large, you don’t do that by broadcasting the circumstances of the departure to the world. Transparency sometimes comes second to expediency, tact, and judgement. Yet, what a lot of people at UBC seem to be saying is that Boards owe them explanations. Because “universities are different”.
To keep this short: universities are different – but not in that way. Regardless of the organization they serve, boards don’t owe anybody explanations about personnel decisions. They have a responsibility to make sure the organization is fulfilling its mandate (in managerial terms: making sure it has a strategic plan, and is fulfilling it), and providing a public good. That’s it. What they have to make clear in a university context is whether or not a dismissal/resignation affects the strategic plan, or (especially) if there was a dispute between Board and CEO regarding the nature or direction of the strategic plan. And the reason they have an obligation in this scenario is because of Senate’s role in creating the strategy in the first place.
Sure, faculty might want to know details. They’re curious. They’d like to know (or impute) the politics of the whole thing. But there is no right to know, and saying “universities are different” – when in this respect they clearly are not – doesn’t change anything.