A Cautionary Tale: Dangers to Collegial Governance in the Time of COVID-19

Posted April 6, 2020
By Carolyn Sale

On March 19th, the Executive of the General Faculties Council at the University of Alberta took the unusual step of acting on delegated authority, at a special meeting, to refuse to grant students letter grades for their Winter 2020 courses. The plan, instead, was for students to receive only a CR (credit) or NC (no credit) notation on their transcripts. The University community learned about the decision from the student newspaper The Gateway, which reported on the GFC Executive’s decision that very evening, with the meeting having barely adjourned. This included members of the General Faculties Council (our equivalent of the Senate almost everywhere else in Canada), who hadn’t been notified that GFC Executive planned on taking any decision by delegated authority, much less one of such significance for our students.

Within hours, Ethan Kreiser, a third-year student at the University, launched a Change.Org petition that asked the University to revise its decision to let University of Alberta students have the choice that students elsewhere across the country will have for their Winter 2020 grades: a letter grade or a CR/NC notation for each course, as they choose. At the time of the GFC Executive meeting, no other major university in Canada had taken the decision to deny students letter grades for Winter 2020 courses. That remains the case two and a half weeks later.

On the afternoon of March 30th, the General Faculties Council met. Formal efforts to have it review and potentially revise the Executive’s decision met with failure. This post is about the broad implications of that failure for collegial governance at Canada’s postsecondary institutions during this pandemic — a period with no certain end.

The March 19th and March 30th meetings of GFC Executive and the General Faculties Council were the first to be held virtually. Some postsecondary institutions may have rules for how online or virtual meetings of their governance bodies are to be conducted. Some may also have principles for the delegation of authority that ensure “emergency” or “extraordinary” situations cannot be invoked to allow for rapid decision-making by a few, except when there is absolutely no alternative. Neither is the case at the University of Alberta. The story I tell below is a cautionary tale for everyone committed to democratic practices of collegial governance. 

Within hours of its launching, the student petition had thousands of signatures on it. This number rose steadily across the next few days so that a week later the petition had well over 13,000 signatures. A review of the digital archives of The Gateway confirms that the students signing the petition were engaged in an unprecedented attempt to make their voices heard in relation to an administrative decision they regarded as unfair. There has never been anything near this volume of student response to any other administrative decision in the history of the University. A “counter” petition asking the University to uphold its decision has garnered a mere 132 signatures.

Nowhere that I know of has University president David Turpin publicly acknowledged the existence of the student petition signed by more than 13,000. This tale, then, is one about the suppression of students’ collective voice by one of the most disrespectful means possible, by simply ignoring it. But it is also about the suppression of faculty voices at the General Faculties Council meeting of March 30th.

Faculty at the University were divided about GFC Executive’s decision on Winter 2020 grades, with the situation complicated by the administration’s setting of an arbitrary deadline of March 27th, the Friday before GFC’s meeting, for faculty and other instructors to submit any changes to their syllabi consonant with the peremptory ditching of the letter grade system. This deadline led many faculty to regard as impossible the proposition that the General Faculties Council might formally review the decision, and possibly change it, at its meeting of March 30th: the decision taken by delegated authority was regularly referred to as either a “done deal” or “rung bell,” and any attempt to change the decision as therefore pointless. Some faculty and other instructors took the position that the decision treated our students equitably. Some faculty felt the decision was wrong and should be changed to allow students choice. It is worth noting, however, that the materials for the meeting of GFC Executive framed the decision in terms of the University’s need to deal with a variety of administrative difficulties, with concerns about a possibly “unmanageable” number of “accommodation” and deferred exam requests at the top of the list. 

With so many of our students having attempted to use a petition to register their objection to GFC Executive’s decision, I agreed, as a faculty member representing Arts on the General Faculties Council, to bring forward a motion consistent with the petition — that is, a motion that would allow the General Faculties Council, at its meeting of March 30th, to consider whether it wished to uphold or revise the decision taken under delegated authority in its name.

My concern in this blogpost is not with the vexed question of whether the decision taken by GFC Executive under delegated authority was the right one, but with the fate of collegial governance at the University of Alberta at GFC’s meeting of March 30th, and its implications for collegial governance across the country. 

As a courtesy, I had given the University’s President, David Turpin, a week’s notice of my motion. I could, of course, have simply brought the motion from the floor, at the beginning of the meeting, when GFC was adopting the agenda for its meeting. As it turned out, no member of the General Faculties Council was permitted to bring any such motion at the start of the meeting, for President Turpin began the meeting without asking GFC to approve an agenda. He proceeded instead to a “discussion” of the controversial decision for which he had arranged, in advance, a very long line of speakers who supported the decision, many of whom had participated in taking the decision either at Deans’ Council or at GFC Executive. 

As the meeting was conducted by Zoom, with the microphone system on lockdown, there was nothing any member of GFC could do to stop this breach of the rules for democratic decision-making. Amongst the most important rights of the member of a democratic assembly is the right to “rise” to bring either a point of order or a point of privilege. A point of order allows a member to object, in the moment that it is happening, to any breach of the rules. A point of privilege would, in this case, have been the means of objecting to the absence of any means for bringing a point of order. Both the point of order and point of privilege, because they are such vital means for protecting the body’s rules for democratic decision-making, are protocols under which one may interrupt whoever has the floor. One cannot do that, however, if one has no means of being heard. With the microphone system in the control of administrators, there was no means by which a member might virtually have “risen” in order to claim the floor, instantaneously, in order to object to a breach of the rules.

This should not be happening at any meeting of a university executive, council, or senate anywhere in the country. The rush to hold virtual meetings to address “crisis” issues is no excuse for not ensuring that the members of such bodies have at their disposal the tools they need to uphold the body’s rules for democratic decision-making.

With the members of the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council having no such tools to hand, the President, as Chair of GFC, was free to conduct the meeting as he chose, in breach of the rules. Quite literally, no one had the voice to stop him. Those on the pre-arranged list of speakers spoke for almost an hour before the floor was opened to anyone who wished to use the little blue hand feature on Zoom to get on the speakers’ list to express any contrary view about the decision.

This is exactly the kind of circumstance that rules for democratic decision-making are designed to prevent. Only after the extended charade of “constructive dialogue,” as the President called it, was a motion to approve the agenda allowed, along with a motion to amend the draft agenda to allow review of the GFC Executive grading decision. At that time, the meeting having been managed so that “debate” could occur under the guise of “discussion” before there was any motion on the floor, the motion to amend the agenda to allow GFC’s formal review of GFC Executive’s decision was moved, seconded, and swiftly defeated, without discussion, as the President, in contravention of Robert’s Rules, claimed that a motion to amend the agenda was not debatable.

At the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council meeting of March 30th, it wasn’t just a motion that was defeated. What all members of the Council had to witness, whether or not they agreed with the decision taken by the GFC Executive, was a failure of collegial governance.

No chair of any meeting of an executive, council, or senate at any of our postsecondary institutions in Canada should ever be permitted to deprive the executive, council, or senate’s members of any of the procedural mechanisms by which members can act to protect the procedural rules for the meeting by speaking out against a breach of the rules. That goes for all meetings of faculty association executives and councils as well. If anything, Canada’s universities should be especially careful to uphold the rules of democratic decision-making given that (depending on the size of the institution) tens of thousands of students are affected by their decisions. Canada’s postsecondary institutions also have a responsibility to uphold the principles of collegial governance, which includes that the senior academic body’s right to make decisions should not be abrogated by an “emergency” unless there is absolutely no other alternative. That was not the case in this instance. 

It is true that collegial governance in twenty-first century North America is a relatively impoverished phenomenon. It bears only vague resemblance to the strongest forms of collegial governance in place at Oxford and Cambridge where every faculty member has equal authority in academic decision-making. In North America, since the mid-twentieth century, collegial governance has steadily weakened, with university administrations more and more regularly engaging in the folly of taking decisions on a top-down basis without ensuring that they have the strong support of the faculty. Collegial governance now expresses itself in a decidedly weak representative form through committees on which very few faculty members sit. A mere seven faculty members are elected to the University of Alberta’s GFC Executive, and even the General Faculties Council, on which all the Deans sit along with many student representatives, has only 51 elected faculty members amongst 159 members. That’s about one for every forty of the University of Alberta’s roughly two thousand faculty members.

In a note sent to the General Faculties Council in advance of the March 30thmeeting, President Turpin declared that he could have taken the decision about Winter 2020 grades unilaterally. “The executive authority delegated to me by the Board of Governors to act in emergency or extraordinary circumstances permits me to make decisions such as this at times like this,” he wrote. “However, in the spirit of collegial governance, I chose to take it to GFC EXEC on March 19.” The idea that to take the decision to a small committee would meet the demands of collegial governance shows a very weak conception of its “spirit.”

As a result of these choices, more than one kind of voice was suppressed at GFC on March 30th. First, and most importantly, we witnessed the suppression of the collective voice of students, as represented by the over 13,000 signatures on the student petition. But we also witnessed the suppression of the voices of faculty members, who were kept from voicing points of order or points of privilege with the locking-down of the microphone system on the digital platform used for the meeting.

It is possible that what has occurred at the University of Alberta over the last three weeks simply reflects the state of politics in the province and will have no counterpart anywhere else in the country. Alberta is the province, after all, in which, last Spring, when the United Conservative Party was passing its first budget, Premier Jason Kenney handed round earplugs to the members of his caucus so that they need not listen to a word of objection from the opposition MLAs (New Democrats). 

This is also the province whose current government believes that it may spend $30 million on a “War Room” dedicated to suppressing the voices of environmental critics. (At a Centre for Free Expression event cohosted with the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute last Fall Alex Neve of Amnesty International denounced this as an infringement of human rights.) The Kenney government has also shown its disrespect for Charter protest rights with its Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, passed in February, which purports to make even sidewalks public places where it may prevent protest. And just last week, the Kenney government pressed on to passing Bill 10, the Public Health Emergency Powers Act, despite the NDP MLA David Shepherd claiming that “the finest legal minds in the province” believe that the Act, by giving ministers unilateral authority to write laws during the pandemic, gives them authorities that are too sweeping. This is also the province where just last week the Minister of Health made use of cellphone numbers illicitly obtained from the Alberta Health Service to call up doctors in the province who have publicly protested the decisions he has been taking. In short, in Alberta it is sadly too common for citizens to have to witness their democratic leaders ride roughshod over basic democratic protections, including rights to free speech, political protest, and privacy.

It is possible, then, that what has been happening at the University of Alberta in terms of the suppression of democratic decision-making is as unique as the decision it has taken about our students’ Winter 2020 grades, for which it is an outlier in the Canadian academy. It is possible, too, that no other university in any other province in Canada would dream of treating the voices of student and faculty protesting an administrative decision as the current president of the University of Alberta has done. But students and faculty across the country should be on high alert for the radical decisions that may be taken, by governance mechanisms that can only weakly be called “collegial,” as the effects of the pandemic continue to unfold. 

Students at the University of Alberta will pay various immeasurable and sometimes untraceable prices for the decision taken by GFC Executive on March 19th, and a very bad precedent has been set here for top-down decision-making reinforced by rule-breaking. But members of every council and every senate at other universities in Canada should be vigilant in ensuring that there can be no breach of procedural rules to suppress either student or faculty voices opposing institutional decisions. There should never have been any question that an academic decision of the magnitude that the University of Alberta took when the GFC Executive decided to chuck out the grading system under which students had been working for three-quarters of the semester needed to be subject to formal collegial review at the earliest opportunity by the statutory body in whose name the decision was taken.

Covid-19 is unlikely to be the only pandemic we will face in the next quarter century, and university administrations need to learn how to manage “emergencies” in a measured way with respect for collegial governance. And no matter how much an institution believes it has invested in a decision, and how reluctant it may be to admit its error, all decisions taken by delegated authority in the name of “emergency powers” should always be subject to review — proper review, that is, with all members of the democratic assembly reviewing the decision having all necessary tools at their disposal to exercise their rights and their ability to protect decision-making, both at in-person meetings as well as those that are virtual or online. It is true, as Bob Woodward’s famous slogan declares, that “democracy dies in darkness,” but it dies, too, when the rules for democratic decision-making are blithely cast aside at the meetings of democratic assemblies. As this pandemic continues to unfold, the inadequacy of the little blue hand on Zoom cannot be permitted to undermine collegial governance at Canada’s universities. We must contain the pandemic as a health matter, but we must also contain the threat that some are permitting it to pose to democratic decision-making at our universities.

As for senior administrators at our universities, before they rush to take decisions either unilaterally or just with a very few, they might remember the lessons of the coronavirus which include that we are all equal before it, and decision-making at its best is not selective, but inclusive.