Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Governance

March 13

Tea Leaves on the Rideau

Last Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau set the date for the federal budget for next Wednesday (March 22) and naturally people are wondering: what goodies are in store?  Without being privy to any inside information, here’s my take on where we are going.

At the press conference announcing the budget date, Minister Morneau dropped some important hints.  The biggest one is that, contrary to what had been heavily promoted for the past year, this budget will not be an “Innovation Budget”, but will represent a “downpayment” on an Innovation Budget.  From this we should probably deduce two things.  One: the feds are broke.  Well, maybe not broke, but certainly unwilling to increase borrowing in the face of a $30 billion deficit, slow growth and adverse demographic trends.  Two: the government has – THANK GOD – attained enough self-awareness to discern that does not really know what it’s doing on this file.  I noted back here that the Finance Minister’s Economic Council was flatly in opposition to the Innovation Ministry’s ideas about innovation clusters, and it probably came to the conclusion that making big budget commitments in the face of such disagreement was untenable.

To be clear: I am thrilled with this outcome.  Yes, it’s too bad the feds seem to have wasted a year on this file.  But far better to take a sober second look at the issue and make smart policy rather than to charge forward in order to meet an artificial deadline.  I also take it as a favourable sign that the government has brought Ivey Professor Mike Moffatt – co-author of a large recent piece on Innovation Policy by Canada 2020 – into the ministry on a temporary basis. For one thing, he actually understands what innovation policy means outside the tech sector, a concept which has been missing from ministry discourse since the minute Minister Bains was appointed.

(Many of you have been asking to me on twitter to explain what the hell the terms “Innovation” and “Innovation Policy” actually mean.  Sit tight: we’ll work on that one this week.)

There were also hints from the Minister that this would be a “skills” budget, a sentiment which has left many puzzled.  A year ago, the big issue for the near term was supposed to be the renegotiation of Ottawa’s Labour Market Development Agreements with the provinces, which mostly hasn’t happened. Since then there have been no major policy initiative apart from that.  There has been – via the consultations on Innovation policy – something of an understanding that skills are a big part of the innovation problem, but government thinking doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond “more coders”! as a result.  (At a rough approximation, this government’s skills policy is more or less the same as the last ones, only if you just take out all the references to welding and insert the coding instead).

The worry here is that the “big initiative” will in fact be the implementation of the horrifically-named “FutureSkills Lab” promoted by Dominic Barton, chair of Morneau’s Economic Advisory committee (which I described back here).  If that’s the case, we may be about to view the first really big policy disaster of the Trudeau era.  First of all, no one is going to buy FutureSkills – essentially a kind of policy laboratory – as something which will help Canadians in anything other than the long term.  Second of all, the feds have yet to discuss the idea meaningfully with the provinces and without their buy-in, this initiative will be Dead on Arrival, just as the Canadian Council on Learning was.

To be clear: I don’t think this is going to be the “big initiative”.  I don’t think the Liberals are that stupid.  But I guess we’ll see.

What about Science?  Here, the news is not good.  You may recall that the Government of Canada commissioned a Fundamental Science Review, and asked by the inimitable David Naylor to run it.  Naylor, as requested, submitted the report to the Minister of Science in December.  The Government of Canada has yet to publish it and refuses to answer questions about when it might be published.  Why?  It seems transparently obvious that the government found some of the findings inconvenient, and would prefer to bury it until after the budget.  Maybe the report suggested the system needed more money (which would have been beyond the committee’s remit since it was only asked to comment on the management of the system, not the size).  Maybe the report suggested that certain science bodies which the government has already decided to fund were redundant.  Either way, the government seems to have decided the budget will be easier to spin if we haven’t all first read Naylor’s report.  I have a hard time imagining how this could a harbinger of good news.

In sum: don’t bank on anything big in this budget.  In fact, brace yourself for at least one major piece of goofiness.  Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen, but best to be prepared.

April 28

Two Theories About University Governance

I recently had a chat with a colleague about a piece I wrote a few years ago called “Time for a New Duff-Berdahl”.  And over the course of the conversation we came up with two theories about university governance in Canada (and elsewhere I suppose).

Theory #1 is that we have a governance problem because we have lost the culture of informal engagement within universities.  Back when universities were smaller, and when faculty spent a whole heck of a lot more time on campus, they would sit and talk together in coffee lounges.  There were also faculty clubs where Deans, and vice-presidents were easily accessible.  Basically, there were a lot of places you could have low-stakes discussions about the direction of the university outside of formal bodies like Senate and Board, and that was to the good for four reasons.  One, people knew each other better and that reduced the tendency towards demonization of opponents; two, low-stakes discussions (as opposed to formal ones in decision-making bodies) tend to lead to a more open exchange of ideas and hopefully coming to a little bit more common ground; three, in practice a whole lot more people got to participate in these discussions and as a result; four, institutional culture was more cohesive and so there was a lot less petulant foot-stamping all around.

What follows from theory #1 is that somehow, we have to find ways to re-create that kind of engagement.  It’s a tricky one because you can’t just re-open all those faculty clubs that were shut in the 90s, and you can’t force people to spend more time on campus because God only knows the fuss that would create and you can’t go out directly and do something like an “engagement exercise” because faculty would smell a rat and you can’t hold town halls because “OMG More Meetings”?  But presumably some creative types could imagine ways to create a little more common culture in the name of creating a better shared campus culture.

Theory #2 accepts the basic premise of Theory #1 – not enough shared culture – but basically says any attempt to try and reform it is doomed to failure.  As research has taken on a prominent role in our universities, the culture of academia has made academics care a whole lot more about their discipline than their university.  More to the point, profs are much more likely to be collaborating with colleagues at other universities than inside their own.  So, frankly, why should they care about better institutional governance?

It’s a collective action problem, really.  Pretty much everyone cares about shared, collegial governance, but almost no one cares enough to put in the hours necessary to make it work.  So profs in effect outsource the tough work to administrators, who they find irritating in many ways, but not quite irritating enough to make profs do the work on their own.  For good measure they unionize, which is arguably a way of outsourcing the task of sticking it to administrators when something goes wrong.  Hedging, you see.  And so, effectively in the name of professorial convenience, you get an administration/union dynamic which dominates what used to be a Board/Senate dynamic.

Yet what I found interesting about what has happened at UBC over the last four months is that when faculty decided to start engaging with university governance (which I wrote about back here), they didn’t do so primarily through their faculty union (not that UBCFA was indifferent, just that it was not always taking the lead).  Come crisis time, faculty sometimes still have the old collective-governance instinct.  The question is: is there a way to make that ethos come through even in the absence of a crisis?  Theory #1 says there is, theory #2 says Good Luck With That.

Curious what you readers think: have a go in the comments section, I’d be interested to hear your views.


March 02

Faculty Power and the Expansion of Administration

There was an interesting little op-ed in the Vancouver Sun the other day, to the effect that faculty are “waking up”, “realizing their voices matter”, and taking collective action to “effect substantive change at UBC”.  You can read it, here.

I think it is a fantastic piece.  It’s great when people in a community realise they have the power to change things, and begin acting together to effect that change.  My only question is: what was stopping them from acting on this before?

The answer, if we’re honest, is “nothing”, and the authors admit as much.  Canadian Senates – or academic councils, or General Faculty Council, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods –  have an enormous amount of power to drive institutional policy; at the faculty level, things differ a bit from place-to-place, but there is no doubt that at most universities, the collective professoriate is able to develop and drive policy, if it wants to.

But the plain simple fact of the matter is that at most universities, most of the time, they don’t want to.  There was a time, when universities were much smaller, cheaper, and less complex, when academic staff could take on a lot of non-academic work as part of their day jobs, and universities could run more or less without professional non-academic staff.  But with massification and the growing importance of research in academia, staying engaged in senior levels of academic governance is a real struggle for many.  So they do what they are supposed to do: delegate to professionals, and hope these people do a good job.

And for the most part, they do.  Or at least they do it well enough that there is no concerted movement by professors to turn back the clock and put more academic oversight into the system.  It’s tacitly understood that a university that doesn’t hire good communications professionals, good fundraisers, and good government relations people is likely to be a smaller, poorer university.  We might bemoan this fact a bit, but everyone knows it’s true.  And so by and large, the expansion of administration over the last 30 years has tacitly been endorsed by faculty, because otherwise they are the ones who would have to do that work.  And, y’know, thanks but no thanks.

Where administration becomes an issue is when those professionals are no longer seen to be of good value: that is, they are paid too much relative to their value, or when they are perceived to put their own interests ahead of those of the academic enterprise.  And while rare, this does happen every once in awhile.  And when it does, there is nothing to stop academics re-taking the wheel.  Which is as it should be.

So in sum, it isn’t a matter of faculty “re-taking” power in universities.  Faculty have always had power in universities; they’ve just chosen for the sake of convenience not to use it very much.  If this is changing, and faulty  want to exercise power to a greater extent, as the UBC editorialists suggests, that’s perfectly A-OK.  Just remember that everything has trade-offs.

February 08

(#fake)Tenure, Governance, and Academic Freedom

If you follow higher education news from south of the border, one scrap you’ll probably have noticed over the past year or so is the one over tenure in Wisconsin.  Until recently, tenure provisions at the University of Wisconsin were inscribed in state law.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker decided to remove tenure protection, leaving the University’s Board of Regents to inscribe it in their own rules.  At the same time, the Governor gave university management more power, free from the scrutiny of Senate and other shared-governance arrangements, to close or modify programs.  Put these two things together, add the fact that public sector unions in Wisconsin are legally forbidden from bargaining over anything other than wages, and you have a situation where it’s a lot easier to get rid of professors than it used to be.

So far, so clear.  For obvious reasons, professors at Wisconsin are upset about this, and many are calling this new system #faketenure because they believe that any tenure protection given through new Board of Regents rules is effectively undermined by the new management powers to eliminate or modify programs.  This, they say, means that there will be a form of academic chill at Wisconsin, with people afraid to voice controversial opinions or undertake challenging research for fear of political backlash.

Now, I get why most professors would prefer the old regime to the new, but the idea that challenging or difficult research can only take place in environments where tenure is ironclad and all program modifications can only take place with faculty agreement is simply not true.  If this is genuinely your position, you have to have a good answer to the question: “what about the UK and Australia?”

In the late-1980s, the Thatcher government in the UK simply abolished tenure for anyone hired after 1987.  People were still hired on permanent contracts (though as in the US and Canada, massification also led to an increase in the use of part-time contracts), but there was nothing stopping institutions from making people redundant by chopping whole departments – as is the case in Wisconsin.  Of course, unions can deter this to some degree by insisting on buyouts, redeployments, etc (as indeed Canadian unions do, too – see here for more on this).  But essentially, the conditions in the UK are pretty close to what some in Wisconsin are calling #faketenure, and yet one doesn’t often encounter the claim that UK researchers are doing ideologically cowed, or less daring research.

It’s the same thing in Australia.  Universities give out “permanent” positions somewhat more quickly than our universities – their equivalent of “tenure-track” is maybe half as long as it is here – but academics are much more actively managed (a fall in publications will bring a rise in teaching load relatively quickly), and large-scale institutional restructuring is much more common (La Trobe University, for instance, more or less slashed its entire economics department a couple of years ago).  Again, possibly not a model to follow if you’re a prof, but can anyone really claim that Australian academics are less free, less bold, less daring than their counterparts elsewhere?

To put this simply: people make a lot of universal declaratory statements about tenure and academic freedom.  For the most part, they aren’t true.  There is lots of top-notch research – even in the social sciences and humanities, where a lot of the most controversial stuff is concentrated – that occurs in places without the specific North American context of tenure and shared governance.  This is undeniable.

Now, this isn’t to say that removing those kinds of protections over here in North America wouldn’t have an effect.  One of the reasons the loss of protection in Wisconsin is cause for concern is because Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is increasingly a partisan body, with its members entirely appointed by the Governor, and it’s not that far-fetched to imagine them going after specific programs or even specific professors.

But that’s precisely the point: claims about the effects/benefits/drawbacks of any particular constellation of policies on tenure and academic freedom need to take very close account of the legal and political context in which they are operating.  Claiming that tenure *has* to be inscribed in a collective bargaining agreement, or that it *has* to be inscribed in legislation are equally incorrect; the point is that there are many possible equilibria on tenure, governance, and academic freedom.  Claiming the opposite is simply evidence of a fairly limited imagination about how higher education can be run.

January 12

Management in Universities

In organizations, people work in teams, but teams work effectively is difficult: this is what management is for.  It doesn’t always work well, but efficient management – making teams work together smarter, faster, and better – is the key to organizational success, whether you are in the private, public, or non-profit sectors.

Universities, of course, are an exception.

OK, not entirely.  Every university has units that must act as a team in order to deliver results.  Bookstores, admissions offices, physical plant: if teamwork goes down, if work is badly managed, the unit will not produce the desired results, and this can have deleterious effects on other units (difficult to do lab work or teach classes if the heat isn’t working properly; tough to pay staff if admissions are falling, etc.).

But in academic units?  Ha!  No.

It’s not that academics are resistant to team work.  The lone wolf is rare in academe.  If an academic is running a lab, s/he is running a team.  Any major long-term project – whether funded through a granting council or self-initiated/funded – involves co-operation with one or more scholars and co-authors, and requires co-ordination of work among scholars who may be all over the world.  Teams are everywhere.

But for most profs, the term “team” simply doesn’t apply to the folks down the hall who just happen to have adjacent offices.  That’s not to say they dislike those folks; they may go for coffee together, they may team-teach the odd class, and they recognize “they are all in this together” in the sense that they are all getting paycheques from the same source. But fundamentally, departments and faculties are not seen as a key unit of collaboration.

To people not embedded in the academy, this sounds bananas.  For instance, academic staff in colleges, where departments are seen as teams jointly delivering an integrated academic program, tend to find this behaviour nonsensical.  But in universities, non-professional undergraduate programs (i.e. those not subject to accreditation) and degrees are only dimly seen as a product that requires “management”.  Indeed, the entire academic architecture of North American universities has been set up to avoid thinking of degrees as a specific set of inputs requiring efficient management.

We set up degrees as smorgasbords from which students choose, rather than (as in most of the rest of the world) a fairly structured set of modules requiring integration.  Get so many credits from bucket A, and some from bucket B, and a few from bucket C, and Presto!  A degree.  No integration required.  And then we inculcate professors in a peculiar academic ideology in which the principal meaning of academic freedom is what some call “classroom sovereignty” – i.e. what happens in class is my business and no one else’s.  The idea that a particular class covering a particular subject might belong to the department as a whole, rather than the academic unit responsible for ensuring quality control, is a violation of academic freedom – at least according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, our august national faculty body.

(Note: I am very definitely not endorsing this point of view.  Just explaining it.)

So, having set up degree programs so that teamwork is unnecessary, except for somewhat pro-forma curriculum reviews, profs are unsurprisingly a bit bewildered to find there are a lot of managers floating around, particularly at the faculty level.  What are they all doing, exactly, one reasonably wonders?

And the answer, briefly, is that a lot of people who get called “managers”, and may even have the title of manager, are in fact not managing anybody, but rather are simply doing tasks that are deemed to require professional competence.  Sometimes these people are academics on secondment (in which case, they get a small bump in pay and an “Associate Dean” title of some sort), or they are non-academics with a particular skill: someone to do communications, marketing, alumni relations, development, event co-ordination, etc.   A lot of them get “director” or “manager” titles not because of managerial responsibility, but rather because of simple title inflation.

So yes, there is a lot of management in universities.  But it doesn’t involve managing academics, who on the whole prefer to be left unmanaged.  And as long as one could assume with some confidence that everyone was pulling their weight, and being rewarded according to their contributions, it would be fine.  I leave it to the reader to decide if that’s actually the case.

August 28

Boards, Senates, and Myths of University Exceptionalism

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.

February 27

Clearer Thinking About Student Unions

Student associations have difficulty being effective, what with leadership turnovers over every year or so, and corporate memories that rarely extend beyond 36 months.  But every once in awhile, either because of some astute hires, or a lucky co-incidence of good leaders being elected at the same time, a student group gets on a hot streak.  StudentsNS, which represents the majority of associations in Nova Scotia, is in that zone right now.

The latest evidence: their recent review of governance at student unions.  Quite simply, it’s incredibly refreshing to have representative associations think aloud – thoughtfully, I might add – about their own deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and democratic procedures.  For that alone, StudentsNS deserves high praise and widespread emulation.

One of the key issues the paper deals with is elections.  Student associations have enough problems with legitimacy, stemming from low participation in student elections; but they often complicate this problem by making an absolute farce of how they conduct these elections.  At many associations, election rules are from the pre-internet era, and are fixated on trying to create level playing fields by means that, by any modern standard, violate freedom of speech (not to mention common sense).  Chief Electoral Officers are given enormous powers to set the terms of the game – and with that power comes the ability to potentially game the election if they so choose, something they are frequently accused of doing.  The StudentsNS paper gives some very good suggestions in that respect.

It also gives some very good general advice about the relationship between student unions and universities.  Rightly, it says this attitude needs to be collaborative rather than adversarial: both have an interest in seeing students complete their studies with the tools (academic and otherwise) they need to succeed in their subsequent careers, and both have a role to play in helping students deal with social and academic barriers to integrating into an institution.  They can do a lot more together to affect and improve campus culture than they can separately.  That’s not to say students shouldn’t hold institutions to account: particularly when it comes to keeping universities focussed on their teaching mission.  But the basic tenor of the relationship needs to be one of partnership.

Where the report goes slightly awry is in its recommendations on governance.  The paper conceptualizes student unions as dispensers of member services, and student union councils as needlessly focusing on organizational minutiae instead of more narrowly on governance.  Of the latter there is little doubt.  But the paper’s solution is effectively to get rid of most of the campus-wide elected positions (for instance, Presidents and Vice-Presidents) and just get students to elect a governing board, which can then elect a president who in turn manages a largely professionalized staff.

This strikes me as an unnecessarily bloodless definition of a student association.  Granted, there is real ambiguity about their true role: they aren’t “unions”, though they do provide political representation, and they aren’t “governments”, though they do manage services for members.  This paper tries to do away with this tension by redefining political representation as simply another service to members, one more thing to hand over to unelected staff whose work is overseen by a President and governed by a council.

I don’t buy this, and I kind of doubt students will either.  Representation is a matter of politics, not just “governance”.  Students want and need a forum to express how they feel about major issues with respect to how universities are governed, and how provinces pay for universities and colleges.   The main way they do that is by voting for specific representatives who run on specific platforms.  Under this plan, representation would be handled by someone who is hired (perhaps annually, perhaps longer) by a President to execute the (possibly quite muddled) compromise views of a governing council elected on widely differing platforms.  This is both more complex and (probably) less effective than what exists now, and I suspect would lead to a decline in student engagement with their student unions rather than an increase.

But that’s quibbling on my part.  The report is basically a good one, and student associations across the country should ponder its recommendations.  The more important question for the country as a whole is: how can we develop more student associations as thoughtful as StudentsNS?

October 08

The War Between Universities and Disciplines

From the outside, universities look like a single united entity, with many administrative subdivisions – kind of the organizational equivalent of the United States.  However, the closer political analogy is actually early 1990s Yugoslavia: at a very basic level, universities are the sites of permanent civil wars between central authorities and the disciplines whose interests they purportedly serve.

Disciplines – which, except for law and theology, mostly started their existence outside universities – allowed themselves to be subsumed within universities over the course of the early 20th century.  They did so for administrative reasons, not intellectual ones; bref, it seemed like a good bargain because universities offered a way for disciplines to obtain much larger amounts of money than they could get on their own.  Governments (and to a lesser degree, philanthropists) found it easier to do business with universities than with, say, random groups of anthropologists or chemists.  Similarly, banding together within a university made it easier for disciplines to attract the ever-growing number of students and, with them, their tuition dollars.  The deal was that the anthropologists and chemists would lend their prestige to universities, and in return the university would take care of raising the money necessary to meet academics’ need for space, students, and steady pay cheques.  The idea that the university had any corporate interests that superseded those of the disciplines at an intellectual level was simply a non-starter: disciplinary interests would remain supreme.  As far as academics were concerned that was – and is – the deal.

Thus, there is little that drives academics crazier than the idea that a university might deign to choose between the various disciplines when it dispenses cash.  If an institution, in response to an external threat (e.g. a loss of government funding), says something like, “hey, you know what?  We should stop spending so much money on programs that lose money, and redistribute it to programs that might attract more outside money”, they are immediately pilloried by academics because who the hell gave the university the right to decide which disciplines are more valuable than others?  When you hear people bemoaning universities acting “corporately”, this is usually what they’re on about.

This attitude, which seems so normal to academics, provokes absolute bewilderment from the outside world (particularly governments and philanthropists), who believe universities are a single corporate entity.  But they’re not.  As ex-University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins said, universities are a collection of warring professional fiefdoms, connected by a common steam plant.  A more recent formulation, from the excellent New America Foundation analyst Kevin Carey, is that the modern university is just a holding company for a group of departments, which in turn are holding companies for a group of individual faculty research interests.  In other words, Yugoslavia.

But the actual point of a university, the reason for its existence beyond sheer administrative convenience, is that it serves the advancement of knowledge by getting the disciplines to act together to tackle problems in ways they would not do so independently.  And that means that the university’s raison d’etre is, in fact, to continually make choices on resource allocation across disciplines, to the areas that make the most sense, both financially and intellectually.

Yet there exists within universities a substantial and determined constituency that claims it is immoral for institutions to make such choices.  Much of the incoherence, idiocy, and sheer weenieness of university “strategy” documents come from senior managers trying to square this circle: appearing to make choices, while acting in deference to the autonomous disciplinary republics, to avoid actually making any.

In short, strong disciplines are necessary and important to insure academic quality.  But letting them run the university is madness.

June 07

Shared Governance, Corruption in Education and Scientific Socialism

I’ve been in Romania this past week working with the World Bank and the Ministry of Education on an interesting strategy project. Just a few stories I thought I would pass on:

Shared Governance: In what I think was an attempt to curry favour among faculty members, the previous Romanian government brought in a bill in 2011 which created what I think is quite a unique “bicephalous” system of university government.  Under this system, the University Rector (who, as in many European countries and bits of Quebec, is elected by the university community) must share power with the President of Senate (a current faculty member).  Yay!  Faculty power!  Except the result seems to be that in a number of universities, business has ground to a halt as the two keep vetoing each others’ measures.  Not good.

Corruption in Education.  One of the alleged success stories in Romanian secondary school system over the past decade was the great increase in the number of students completing obtaining their Baccalaureate (as in France, getting one’s Bacc in Romania is a test-based affair separate from the act of finishing secondary school).   Back in 2009, over 85% of people who took the Bacc passed it.  Then they started installing webcams in test rooms to crack down on cheating.  The 2011 pass rate?  A mind-boggling 43%, suggesting that roughly half of all previous Baccs were the result of some form of fraud or cheating.  It’s obviously not a happy situation, but kudos to the government for facing up to the problem.  Confronting mass cheating on that scale takes political guts; that’s a lot of parents whose kids just lost part of their future.  The problem, of course, is that combined with a huge demographic shift (we’re now 20 years from the legalization of contraception and abortion in Romania, both of which were banned under Ceaușescu), universities just lost over half their potential intake.

Recovering from Scientific Socialism.  This is one of my favourite conversations ever about academia.

Me: (to a senior administrator at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies) So, after 1989, you must have had many faculty members who knew scientific socialism but didn’t know anything useful about the new market economy.  How did you adapt as an institution?

Senior Admin: Well, about a third of us actually did understand market economics – the ones who negotiated all the trade deals with the west.  We ended up running the place.  Another third left the university.  And another third retrained themselves and began teaching in other fields.

Me: Really?  So in what field of study does an economist who only knows Marxist slogans re-train?  Where do they teach now?

Senior Admin: Mostly in marketing.

La revedere și au un bun week-end

April 10

Time for a New Duff-Berdahl?

Reading Peter C. Kent’s book on the Strax Affair at UNB – in which the case’s denouement was significantly affected by the then-recently-released report of the Duff-Berdahl commission – got me thinking about university governance.

In Canada, university governance has mostly been run on a bicameral Senate/Board model for over a century.  In 1963, the Englishman, Sir James Duff, and the American, Robert O. Berdahl, were jointly appointed by AUCC and CAUT to look into how to modernize university governance, and reduce the increasing number of conflicts between campuses and their governing boards.  Their fix was essentially to strengthen Senates and make them more responsible to internal constituencies – hence the origin of student representations on Senates, and of both student and faculty representatives on Boards.  By the early 1970s, essentially all Canadian institutions moved in that direction, and governance has remained largely unchanged ever since.

It occurred to me while reading about Strax that Duff-Berdahl pre-dates the existence of the two most important forces on Canadian campuses today: professionalized administrations and faculty unions.  The latter don’t exist at all in the report, while the former get a very short chapter on administration called, “The President and his (sic) Administrative Group”, in which the central problem is whether or not the President uses administrators or Senate as his prime source of academic advice.

Union vs. Administration is not a modern equivalent of Senate vs. Board.   Administration has grown over the past fifty years for reasons both good (increased student numbers, growth of research, need for government, public, and alumni relations to boost income) and bad (empire building, reluctance of faculty to deliver pastoral services), but growth hasn’t been designed to increase the power of the Board.  Similarly, there are lots of good reasons for unions to have developed, but it wasn’t to deliver more power to the Senate.  Some even seem to dream of replacing the work of Senates with collective bargaining agreements, and at some universities, where unions have taken to grieving decisions of Senate (yes, really), we’re some ways down this road already.

CAUT’s line that having a unionized faculty “enhances collegiality” is pure codswallop.   Academic unions are both a symptom and a cause of diminished trust in a system which is making shared governance ever-less workable.  The increasing politicization of simple administrative tasks (like producing a budget) is an example of this – see, for instance, the Dalhousie Faculty Association’s critique of university accounting practices.  If relatively objective things like accounting can’t be carried out without union-administration recrimination, an institution is in deep trouble.

Bicameralism needs trust in order to work, and current union-adminstration dynamics may have killed it for good.  Maybe it’s time for a new Duff-Berdahl?