Higher Education Strategy Associates

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

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.

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10 Responses to Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

  1. Bob says:


    University boards like all boards are governed by corporate law (in this case not for profit corporation acts) as well as fiduciary duties. It is trite law that board members as fiduciaries are required to support decisions once duly made and approved by a board.

  2. Jim Sentance says:

    As another Carleton alum, and someone who has served on a Board of Governors, I’ll second that.

  3. John Osborne says:

    Bravo, Alex! As another Carleton alum, I agree completely. But I am not optimistic that anything will change.

  4. Brett Fairbairn says:

    Alex, you fall into the trap of dichotomising everything someone in a university would like to do versus an alternative that is “corporate.” In fact collective board responsibility is a basic governance principle for all kinds of boards, including not-for-profits, co-ops, public sector boards, you name it. You don’t see individual directors on any of these boards blogging about the board’s internal discussions, because if they did so their colleagues would feel less free to speak in board meetings. You are right that board members should have and express diverse views: they should open up and share anything with each other, and the consensus of the board should take shape out of that, with every board member accepting the resulting responsibility. A meeting of representatives who can dissent openly is a council or assembly, not a board. Those have their place in governance, too, but a board exists so that a small group of people will keenly feel collective responsibility and can be held accountable, having pooled their thoughts so they are, hopefully, wiser than a single individual would be.

    There exists an experientially tested, theoretically articulated model of governance applicable to pretty much all other organizations in society: Perhaps you are correct that universities are unique, but I think it is incumbent on those holding such a view to propose an alternate theory of university board governance and explain why it will work.

    I agree with you on most things, Alex, but not on this one.

    That said, I have no comment on a “loyalty oath,” if that is a fair characterisation, as a mechanism to deal with this. It seems to me like a clunky solution, but I would say your alma mater is in a tight spot and needed to do something

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hi Brett. Three responses.

      One, I’d say collective Board responsibility and gag orders are two different things. Two, I would say your comments about a ban on blogging about things which genuinely need to be confidential are absolutely correct, but there is no need for the majority of items on board agendas to be private (and as near as I can tell in this case were not). The tendency at some Canadian universities to place more agenda items under “in camera” at these meetings is not healthy. Three, if you’re going to have a governance system where certain constituencies elect people to the Board, you have to cut those representatives some slack about communicating with their constituencies.

      I think with a little common sense and goodwill, these can all be accommodated within a model which, as you say, is tried and trusted. I am disappointed in Carleton for choosing the clunkier option instead.

      • Brett Fairbairn says:

        We can agree that it is a matter of judgement. I would say that beyond legitimately confidential agenda items, anything that verges on who said what or what positions were voiced in the meeting, on any issue, is problematic. Safer would be to write about the issues facing the university, as opposed to specifically what was discussed at the board. I don’t think the idea of “representatives” is compatible with board governance in most cases – I have observed many problems with this in co-ops, too. I would say election should be seen as a selection mechanism only.

  5. Bob says:

    Brett is absolutely correct. whether a board member is an external community member, a professor , staff or student doesn’t change the fact that all of them once on the board are fiduciaries. In that sense universities are no different than any other organization whether a business, not for profit or a charity and they as board members are required to act in the best interest of the University at all time, not as a representative of a particular group or interest. Fulsome, open and frank discussion happens is to occur at board meetings (not online or on a blog), but once a decision is taken, as a fiduciary a board member is required to support the decision. That legal requirement is not a gag order in anyway shape or form.

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