Organizational challenges are mounting for Canadian universities. Principles of good governance suggest that an important part of the solution lies in a revitalized and strengthened role for university boards of governors.  

Current challenges range from the financial impact of the recent federal decision to reduce the number of international students to the fiscal health of Queen’s University, the bankruptcy of Laurentian University, the closure of Quest University in B.C. and highly politicized debates on any number of issues. 

Universities are full of creative people, so there is never a shortage of ideas about how to meet these challenges.  

Where there is a gap is in how to link those ideas to the broader public good. Current mechanisms for providing external accountability are insufficient to ensure strategic decision-making in the face of the sector’s challenges.  

This problem of accountability must be addressed before seemingly more practical programmatic changes if our universities are to achieve the significant, differentiated yet nuanced changes necessary. 

That’s where strengthened university boards can play an important role. They can render an institution accountable without threatening its autonomy.  

Accountability mechanisms  

For the past generation, there have been three significant accountability mechanisms for all Canadian universities.   

The first – peer review and norms of scholarly excellence – operate at the level of the individual scholar or program. Federal research funding reinforces this mechanism. This creates powerful internal dynamics within universities that drive them toward ever-increasing research intensity. 

However, as the current fiscal challenges of Queen’s University demonstrate, neither scholarly excellence nor a successful research enterprise necessarily provides the resources needed to balance an institution’s operating budget.  

At worst, the use of designated research funds to pay core salaries or infrastructure needs, as occurred at Laurentian, violates research funding agreements and can obscure the real financial situation of an institution until it is too far gone to be salvaged. 

The second mechanism – student enrolment – is essentially a market mechanism where the advantages lie with the university.  

Students and parents try to sort through the messy and incomplete information available to them to choose the program and institution best able to meet their needs. 

At the aggregate level – for example in the transition of enrolment from social sciences and humanities programs toward STEM subjects – student choice can produce powerful signals.  

But at the level of a specific university or program, enrolment signals on their own say relatively little about the quality or efficacy of the education provided. And, it doesn’t speak to the relative weighting of the academic versus non-academic aspects of the university experience in meeting the needs of an ever more diverse group of students.  

The shock as post-secondary institutions navigate new rules cutting international student visas or face the challenges of artificial intelligence highlights just how contingent this mechanism can be.  

More formal mechanisms of student engagement in university decision-making – whether through student unions or student involvement in collegial decision-making – might provide more fine-grained accountability are almost universally and probably inescapably weak. 

Finally, there are provincial governments and regimes of significant variability for external quality control and/or political oversight imposed by them.  

In some provinces, these have resulted in extensive reporting and measurement systems that create more or less standardized funding incentives. In others, such government oversight is close to absent, and the universities are left largely to their own devices.  

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At any point on this spectrum, these mechanisms of government oversight and resource allocation are extremely difficult to design well.  

More recently, albeit nowhere yet as forcefully as we have seen in the United States, politicians and activists see universities as another front in the culture wars and seek to interfere directly in the classroom. This creates dangerous challenges to institutional autonomy and academic freedom that must be resisted. 

These three mechanisms of external accountability are powerful. Each is attached to significant financial levers and can pull any given university in different directions. 

However, none is powerful enough to be a single determining factor in the same way that a company’s share price might be for a corporate CEO in the week before an earnings call.  

Nor are these mechanisms closely tied to the particular realities of any given professional or geographic community served by a university. As well, each tempts universities toward incremental and technocratic solutions to strategic questions about what (and who) they value. 

How boards can help  

In both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, the last 30 years have seen significant strengthening of the capacity of boards to make strategy, exercise institutional oversight and provide actionable and data-informed advice to executives.  

This trend has been less marked in the university sector, primarily due to strong traditions of collegial governance and the resulting complexity of internal decision-making. 

Being close to, yet not entirely a part of, a university means boards are in a unique position to understand the needs of both the community that the university serves and the institution’s particular opportunities and realities.  

There are a number of concrete ways in which boards could be made more effective and their capacities enhanced. 

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These could include better compensation paid to board members, enhancing their training opportunities and providing them with more robust means to garner public input into their decisions. It could mean supporting a more robust and data-informed role for boards in strategic planning and assessment. 

Even more challenging and context-dependent, it could also mean frank discussions about how the strategic leadership of boards, the various forms of collegial governance and the executive leadership of universities can fit together within the specific context of any given university. 

For example, such discussions would be different in a unicameral (board-governed), bicameral (board and senate) or tricameral (board, senate and faculty council) context.  

Revitalized boards could play a valuable role in helping universities integrate the signals provided by scholarly research communities, student enrolment changes and provincial government directives into a coherent direction at an institutional level.   

This is not an argument to look only at private sector models (though this should be done). The cooperative and not-for-profit sectors, as well as public Crown corporations and agencies, all offer insights and practices that could revitalize board governance.  

This will enhance the ability of Canadian universities to respond to their current challenges in ways that maintain their ability to serve the common good. 

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Jim Farney
Jim Farney is a professor and Regina director at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina. His most recent book (with Clark Banack) is Faith, Rights, and Choice: The Politics of Religious Schools in Canada 

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