Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: academic structure

May 18

Electing the President

In developed Anglophone countries, we basically take it for granted that Universities are run by Presidents (or occasionally Principals) who are not only responsible to a Board of Governors, but are also selected by them.  But this is not the only way to select institutional heads.  They can be selected directly by the Ministry of Education (which still happens in many places, including China).  Or they can be elected, which is the case in much of Europe.  Indeed, in much of Europe, the concept of “academic freedom” is tied pretty closely to the “freedom” of a community of scholars to select their own chief executive (i.e. its closer to our notion of “institutional autonomy”).

And, intriguingly, in a couple of universities in Quebec.

These past couple of months, both Université Laval and Université Sherbrooke have both held elections for new rectors (Presidents).  At the former, Sophie D’Amours won a three-cornered race with 50.7% of the vote to become Laval’s first female Rector in its 350 year history.  At Sherbrooke, Dean of Medicine Pierre Cosette beat out three rivals to become the President.

Now technically, these are not campus-wide elections, as does occur in some universities around the globe.  At both Sherbrooke and Laval there are “electoral colleges” which hold the necessary votes.  These are pretty broad in their composition.  For instance, at Sherbrooke, it consists of 13 nonacademic staff members (split across 3 bargaining units), 11 chargés de cours, 30 students, 4 “external members” and 90 academic staff (some of whom also are also administrators).  At Laval, all members of the Board of Governors and Senate have a vote, as to members of three “commissions” for academics, research and student affairs (I don’t completely understand what they do or they fit in the governing structure, but they seem like super-committees of the Senate except they report to VPs rather than the Senate).  In terms of votes, the proportions are similar to Sherbrooke (fewer students, chargés de cours, and non-academic staff, more external members) with the academic representation split 70-30 or so between regular academics and academics with decanal positions or higher.  (Laval has an excellent website explaining its election procedures if you want to check it out).

One thing about this kind of selection procedure: it tends to reward insiders.  Not always: in the 1990s, Francois Tavenas managed to get elected at Laval despite being a Vice-principal at McGill at the time (though he wasn’t a total outsider having spent much of his career there).  But on the whole you’re not going to get outsider candidates like Santa Ono or Richard Florizone using this method (flip side: you’re probably not going to get a Karen Hitchcock either).  It’s a system less likely to challenge entrenched academic interests.  People may legitimately disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.  At a practical level it’s not clear to me that these two universities are actually managed that differently than other Quebec universities (francophone ones, anyway).  Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone in Quebec make that case (though granted I spend a lot less time there than I used to).  After all, they are trying to attract the same staff, dealing with the same government, operating under the same regulations.  Elected and theoretically beholden to their constituencies they may be, but they’re still mostly facing the same sets of incentives as Presidents who are appointed by Board of Governors, so maybe there’s not that much of a difference.

This might be heresy in continental Europe, where internal autonomy over top appointments are sacrosanct (Danish academia has just spent months freaking out over a proposal that government might name Board chairs), but it’s probably worth a deeper dive than I can provide here to find out.  All you higher education grad students out there: there’s a killer doctoral thesis in this.

December 03

Every University and College Needs a Fool

OK, yes, lots of ways to complete that sentence (e.g. “Every university and college needs a fool… and mine already has several”, etc.).  But I mean this in a very literal sense.  Institutions need the equivalent of Medieval Fools, or Court Jesters, to help them combat bad institutional culture.

In addition to being a barrel of laughs, Fools had a specific function in medieval and early renaissance courts; namely, they were able to speak truth to power, albeit obliquely (think Robin Williams rather than Jon Stewart). Because they were dressed as figures of fun, they had some license to tweak the noses of the powerful, because their words could be shrugged off as the ravings of a simpleton.  Yet, frequently, those ravings were useful because they presented truths that could not otherwise be said aloud.  Those Fools were no fools; as Shakespeare said, playing the Fool took considerable wisdom.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting that universities and colleges need to dress someone up in an ass’ costume and run around making fun of people in an academic council meeting (inspiring a thought as that may be).  Nor am I suggesting that there needs to be someone who is specifically charged with poking fun at executive power at a university – most institutions already have enough self-appointed critics filling that job.

No, what I have in mind is something different: someone who has license to speak truth across the institution.  Not constantly, as a gadfly role (that would just get annoying).  But occasionally, maybe once every year, it would be useful for a Fool to give each institution a once-over.  And where I think this could be most useful is not on issues of specific policy – again, each institution has lots of self-appointed critics of management to do that – but rather on issues of institutional culture.

As a friend was observing to me yesterday, bad institutional culture never looks bad from the inside.  There’s always good reasons for this little bit of secrecy, or flippant refusal to make data public; there’s always a good reason for sanctioning financial or business entanglements, which are at best borderline, or good reasons to not make tough decisions, thus allowing problems to fester.

No one sets out to be part of a bad institutional culture.  Bad cultures are created gradually, inch-by-inch, so slowly that no one on the inside notices.  The function of a university/college Fool would be to come in from the outside and say, maybe once a year, forcefully and publicly: What the heck are you people doing?  How did you all get this inappropriately cozy with industry?  How did your principles of governance get so undermined that the faculty union thought it appropriate to grieve Senate decisions? (Don’t scoff – this has happened.) Why are you even thinking about evicting a student union from its building? 

Everybody wants to be part of a good academic culture.  Fools might be able to play a role in keeping everyone on the straight and narrow.  It’s got to be at least as good an idea as having organizational behavior consultants crawling all over the place.