I am a proud Carleton alumnus. If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study. You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience. I’m always talking up Carleton. So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.
The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors. Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account. He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).
The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”. Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense. In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.
This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share. You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board. But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not. Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance).
What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”. This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.
One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance. Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions. Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself.
Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities). But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here. Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out. Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong. Carleton needs to re-think this policy.
So says this alum, anyway.