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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 48 | No 2 | February 2001

The Evolution of University Governance

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Tom Booth

In the 35 years since the Duff Berdahl report (University Government in Canada), governance in Canadian universities has changed. It is interesting to document the changes that have occurred.

Three benchmarks in the history of our organization can be effectively used to demonstrate the evolutionary pathway. These include the 1966 Duff Berdahl report, the 1993 report of the Independent Study Group on University Governance (ISGUG), and events of the past two years.

Recommendations of the Duff Berdahl report were constructed at a time when universities were publicly funded for the most part and "... internal university government (was) not significantly affected by federal programmes." The principles of university autonomy and shared governance appear throughout the report. Clear-cut suggestion that the board has final authority on fiscal matters and the senate on educational matters is strongly advanced. The authors also recognize the board to have a strong legal role in advancing university autonomy.

The ISGUG report further championed the need for the board to protect institutional autonomy and the role of the senate in collegial academic decision-making. The authors recommended that the principal responsibility of the board was "... the task of mediating between the university on the one hand and its many publics on the other." Significantly increased government-appointed corporate representation on boards was noted. ISGUG also recommended better communication between the senate and the board, suggesting that one or two members of the board sit on the senate.

Since the ISGUG report, board representation on the senate has been implemented in various institutions. One problem is that many senates, or senate-like bodies, hover around only 50 per cent elected members, and appointment of further non-elected members only raises concerns. Representation by academic staff on boards has been eroded with either reduction in number of academics elected to the board or the addition of more government-appointed members. To further complicate matters, the roles of the board and the senate have been increasingly cross-wired. This is in part due to the fusion of the secretariats of the two bodies into a single secretariat designed to serve both academic and fiscal/managerial/corporate activities of the institution.

Over the past two years events indicate that shared governance and collegial decision-making are gravely endangered. Increasingly, boards are departing from their important historical roles and overstepping into the recognized ambit of the senate, sometimes disregarding or ignoring the university's most senior academic body. In the last year the CAUT Bulletin has chronicled just such a case at Trent University.

Senates employ, depend on, and embody shared governance and collegial decision-making. Where and when these principles are devalued senates are diminished, moving our universities ever closer to a corporate management model. Top-down governance structures have long been recognized to be harmful in academic settings. Structures allowing faculty members and other academic staff to control educational decisions are vital to maintenance of the integrity and quality of the university. Top-down governance structures also serve outside interests that would turn universities into academic enterprise providers for the private sector. To continue to insist on top-down management and suppression of shared governance and collegial decision-making is to run the risk of serious damage to the structure and function of the university and to diminish the quality of higher education.

One of the most important achievements of our faculty associations since the release of the Duff Berdahl report is the contribution made to increased collegiality on our campuses through negotiation of collective agreements. While senates should remain the embodiments of shared academic governance and the commons of collegial practice and ideals, faculty associations may have to find other routes to insure these principles if senate powers continue to be diminished.