Improving Boards of Governors
Last week, I did a piece on academic Senates and how they could be improved. This got a few of you asking, “what about Boards of Governors”? Man of the People that I am, I have no choice but to accede.
I should start with the usual caveats about Boards in Canada: not only do they come in a variety of sizes (most have between 15-30 members but there are some outliers), possess a variety of practices with respect to who gets to sit on Boards (what % are appointed by government, or elected by various internal constituencies, etc.), they also have varying relationships with government. In most provinces, government selects its Board members and then largely washes their hands of the matter; in Alberta, when the government wants something done at an institution, it calls the chair of the Board of Governors, not the head of the university (BC is closer to Alberta than the rest of the country, but it is nowhere near as extreme). And everyday governance practices and cultures vary. So, what I say here is not going to be true at every institution but serves as a set of observations.
Canadian boards exist because of two fundamental axioms.
1) Nobody trusts professors to run a university.
2) Nobody wants universities to be micro-managed by governments.
Point 1 is typical throughout the Anglosphere and is the main difference between this zone and Europe, where academic self-governance is actually the very definition of “academic freedom” and the one power professors really defend is the exclusive right to choose the Rector (i.e. President). Point 2 is more a Canadian value because many US states have governing boards, responsible either to the legislature or the governor or, in a couple of cases to the voting electorate (in Alabama, for instance, each congressional district elects its own member to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.)
Boards of Governors are therefore the compromise solution. They are (I think) all “lay-majority” – a majority of the members come from outside the university and are not seen to have vested institutional interests. They are usually prominent members of the community, which means government can entrust them with the fiduciary responsibility to keep a significant public institution in good working order, but at older universities they are almost always made up of alumni, which means the university can trust them to be boosters (rule of thumb: you want a significant chunk of your Board of Governors to help with fundraising).
Boards have three main tasks:
1. Make sure the university prospers financially or is at least sustainable; also ensure controls are in place to avoid malfeasance.
2. Ensure that the university is meeting its broader responsibilities/ambitions, whatever those may be, whilst not infringing on the (admittedly sometimes poorly delineated) responsibilities of Senate.
3. Hire/Evaluate/Dismiss the president.
The first one is mostly the responsibility of the budget/audit/finance committee(s). The second one is the responsibility of the entire board, but – and this bit is key – for the most part the only tool they have to influence this is through number three, through control and oversight of the president.
But here’s the thing. Our Boards were designed for a different time, when enrolments were smaller, institutional missions were simpler, and – to put it mildly – higher education was less politically contested. Back in the day, it would not have been difficult for a volunteer board to read a few documents a month, show up for a retreat once a year plus attend a half-dozen 3-hour meetings and the same number of committee meetings, and be said to be exercising reasonable oversight. You didn’t need a whole lot of time or expertise to govern a university where the biggest decision was whether to wait another year to replace the boiler for the classroom building.
Now, universities’ responsibilities – and more importantly the risks – are incomparably larger than they were decades ago. The physical infrastructure required to run modern universities is completely different, all the more so if the institution has pretensions to be a serious player in research. The extent to which institutions must raise their own money rather than rely on government has created a whole new layer of challenges as well. The network of stakeholder groups is immeasurably more complex, as is the external political and media (especially social media) environment. Demands from organized labour and equity-seeking groups also add to the complexity.
And yet has governance changed? Barely. The amount of time – and arguably the extent of expertise about higher education itself – has barely changed in forty years. The average board member sincerely wants the institution to do well, but often has very little practical sense about what that means. This lack of practical experience of anything resembling academic management – which on a lay board is almost a given – leads to some decisions that seem incomprehensible to those working and studying in the institution.
What can be done? Some talk about solutions in terms of “skill-matrices” of Board members – the Nous report on governance at Laurentian does this a lot for instance – but these almost never include any actual expertise in running universities, which is the central problem. Here are two possible options.
The first and more boring option is “more training”. My very strong impression is that most universities do an at-best indifferent job of briefing incoming board members. And to the extent they provide this kind of briefing, they tend to focus on what their own institution does, not what the broader sector in which the institution operates looks like. So improved onboarding and training is an option: in fact, provincial governments could design and mandate a multi-day course for all new board members which covers all the stuff about post-secondary education outside the home institution. That probably wouldn’t be appreciated by all institutions – anything that makes it harder to recruit board members would probably be resisted – but it would be a step in the right direction.
But here’s another possibility. Why not make it a criterion on every board to include among the lay members at least one ex-university president and one ex-researcher/administrator – perhaps one that has left academia for the private sector – from other institutions. That is, people who can provide the board with a broader perspective on how other institutions view similar problems. I imagine this wouldn’t be completely welcome to all presidents – I can see where having another president on the board might seem threatening to some – but I genuinely think it would improve board performance.
Is it a complete fix? Of course not. But it’s a reasonable first step until Canadian institutions move towards larger re-thinks on how to make both Boards and Senates more effective.
A quick erratum from last week’s piece on Senates: I said that no new university other than the Technical University of British Columbia had been created without a Senate – in fact, Royal Roads operates without one. And my chronology on the University of Toronto was off – it did not “retain” unicameral status after Duff-Berdahl; rather, it adopted this structure in 1971, a few years after Duff-Berdahl. My thanks to those who pointed out the errors.