Contest Over “Restructuring” and Collegial Governance at University of Alberta Could Set Dangerous New Precedent Across Canada

Posted September 28, 2020
By Carolyn Sale

All eyes on the University of Alberta! Collegial governance is under attack there, along with the capacity of faculty to exercise their academic freedom rights. It is not clear whether the elected representatives of the General Faculties Council will have the meaningful opportunity to discuss and debate the restructuring process and proposed scenarios. If they cannot there may be serious consequences for the University of Alberta, and a harbinger of what may be facing the entire Canadian academy.

This afternoon, the General Faculties Council at the University of Alberta meets to discuss proposals for the “restructuring” of the University driven by Jason Kenney’s government’s dire cuts to the University’s budget. (These will total well over $300 million across four years.) In the face of these cuts, the University’s new president, Bill Flanagan, has responded with a “UofA for Tomorrow” plan that is being rushed at breakneck speed through governance processes.

The University community has been told that the aim of the cuts is to make the University more “efficient”. “Efficiency” will be achieved by slashing hundreds and hundreds of support staff jobs and returning academics currently serving in administrative roles to their research and teaching. This is supposed to improve the University’s rankings (the University has slid down 40 spots in international rankings over the last decade as a result of budget cuts). The stated goals of the “UofA for Tomorrow” plan also include freeing the institution from dependence on government funding by increasing its reliance on corporate donors and philanthropic funding.  

As part of the administration’s rush to “restructure” the University to make it more “efficient” and more “excellent,” the General Faculties Council learned that the Provost was handpicking the members of the “Academic Restructuring Working Group” (ARWG) that would develop “scenarios” for the transformation of the University and that the Council was not to be permitted to elect any representatives to the ARWG. Strike one against collegial governance. The General Faculties Council, which must approve any restructuring plan before it can proceed to the Board of Governors, was informed that the ARWG was not a GFC committee, and it had no authority over it, which raises doubt about whether its “approval” of the scenario is to be anything more than a formality — “window dressing” as some members of the University community are suggesting. Strike two against collegial governance. The General Faculties Council was also informed that its elected representatives could not “compel” the administration to give them any of the consultant data or recommendations that would be the basis for the scenarios they are to “approve”. Strike three against collegial governance.

The President has also refused to let the two unions representing staff, the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) and the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA), have any representation on the ARWG. This is a refusal to let these organizations, which are the collective voice of the academic and non-academic staff of the university, play any role in the restructuring. At the same time the administration has declared that it will be fully transparent and will consult with the entire University community about its plans. To date, “consultation” has principally involved PowerPoint presentations on YouTube and the solicitation of “feedback” by way of “ThoughtExchange” in which participants post anonymous “thoughts” that disappear into the administration’s black box for them to do with them what they please.

The three proposed “restructuring” scenarios are now available to the University community, and the General Faculties Council has their first opportunity formally to consider them today. But under the proposed agenda, which can only be amended by a 2/3rds vote, there will be a mere 50 minutes for this item. Much of this time is likely to be taken up with a presentation on the “scenarios”. Unless this is changed by two motions I am proposing today, elected representatives on GFC will have only about twenty minutes to discuss and debate the proposals.

Whether or not you are a member of a university community you should find all of this outrageous and deeply worrying. Here’s why.

Canada’s universities are unique workplaces. They depend for their running on a system of collegial governance. This is sometimes called shared governance. In this system, all faculty play a role in running and managing their universities. This is supposed to a horizontal system of governance — that is, not a system in which some have authority over others, but a system in which any attempt to exercise top-down authority is held in check by the faculty as a whole, or the faculty as collective authority.

In the strongest forms of this system, every faculty member has equal voice and equal vote at the university’s principal governance body. Oxford University’s “congregation” is the premier example of this. In Canada, authority over the running of universities is shared between the Board of Governors and a faculty Senate (the General Faculties Council at the University of Alberta). Unfortunately, these senates do not comprise all faculty members. They are representative bodies. That already poses a problem for strong collegial governance. At U of A, faculty do not even constitute a majority of GFC members. But collegial governance also works through a university’s system of faculty councils and committees. At Faculty councils, every faculty member of a Faculty does have equal voice and equal vote.

There has been handwringing for over half a century in Canada about the ways in which senior administrators continually attempt to divert power and authority to themselves. As the Duff-Berdahl report noted in 1966, “[t]he university is supposed to be a community founded on reason,” but “Presidents and Board members are . . .  tempted to bypass the discord and delays seemingly inherent in faculty committee deliberations.” In 1997, the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ “Independent Study Group on University Governance” (ISGUG) noted that despite the fact that it is not “clear that centralized, ‘top-down’ management structures even serve the business community well,” university administrations pursue “an authoritarian management model” regardless of the damage that such a model, anathema to collegial governance, may do to “the structure of the institution itself.” University administrations tend to treat faculty, they noted, as if they are part of an “administrative obstacle which must be circumvented in order that the institution might get on with its proper business.” This leaves faculty feeling “both impotent and intimated,” “used and stifled.”

That was over twenty years ago. As an elected representative of the Faculty of Arts on the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council for the last six years, I have witnessed with my own eyes the extent to which collegial governance at the University of Alberta is seriously atrophied. Only a handful of faculty members speak out at any given meeting of the General Faculties Council. I have also witnessed and been on the receiving end of strong-arm tactics, including rule-breaking, through which administrators have sought to ensure, and almost always succeeded in ensuring, that collegial governance cannot operate to thwart top-down administrative plans.

The ISGUG argued that the single most important thing that faculty can do, as a matter of collegial governance, is “ensur[e] true accountability [by] eliminating the shroud of secrecy that very often attends the university budgetary process and other university decision-making.” Universities, they wrote, must be “effectively accountable to the general public.” In a 2004 discussion paper, “CAUT Policy on Governance: Where we have been and where we should go,” CAUT noted that university senates are the one venue in which a university community has the opportunity to hold university administrations accountable for their decisions. That accountability can only be achieved through the exercise of the intramural rights of academic freedom — that is, the rights of the faculty to question and criticize senior administrators and engage in collegial discussion and debate with one another that may involve critique of the institution and how it is being run. Collegial governance and academic freedom are intimately tied and essential to the ability of the university to fulfill its societal mission of educating students and advancing knowledge.

That ability is what is at stake in the restructuring discussion at the University of Alberta. To have their say, and play their proper role in collegial governance, the elected faculty representatives on the General Faculties Council must have not only ample time to ask questions about the proposals, but also ample time to debatethe proposals. Full collegial debate would involve every member of the council having the opportunity to air their views on whether they are for or against the proposals. It would also involve them all having the opportunity to respond to one another. Anything less than this is not proper collegial debate. And anything less that keeps the General Faculties Council from meeting, with due diligence, its statutory responsibilities under Alberta’s Postsecondary Learning Act.

The agenda’s attempt to contain faculty voices is an attempt to contain the faculty as voice — that is, to make sure that there is no collective authority that can possibly stand in the way of the senior administration’s planned “disruption” to the University of Alberta’s way of being. (“Disruption” is their word choice.) Their “preferred” scenario makes it clear that the aim of this “disruption” is to put an end to collegial governance as we know it. (See page 44 of the “Interim Report.”)

So-called “Scenario B” would reorganize the University’s 16 Faculties into three “divisions”. Each of these divisions will be run by a new category of administrator, an “Executive Dean.” The Executive Deans will then “oversee” “Academic Deans.” According to the Provost, at the meeting of one of GFC’s committees earlier this week, these “Executive Deans” will be supported by large professional teams. They will set the strategic plans for the “Division.” “Academic Deans” will do as they say. Academic Deans will make chairs do as they say. And the faculty, deprived, across campus of hundreds of support staff, will struggle under increased workloads that will ensure that even if they still wanted to strive to have voice in the governance of the institution they will have virtually no time to do so.

At the meeting of the Academic Planning Committee last week, the Provost spoke with exuberance about what this will enable. The smaller team of three Executive Deans would serve as a model for how decisions are taken across the institution. He indicated the aim is to get away from decision-making processes that engage “fifty people or even twenty people” so that when a smaller group of people sit down at a table to decide on what they want to do they can make the decision on their own and then walk away with the power to execute what they have decided. “This is something we’ve never had before,” he said.

That’s right. This is something the University of Alberta has never had before because Canada’s universities are collegially governed.

The University of Alberta’s senior leadership wants to put an end to this system. For advice on how to do so, they have hired the Australian consultancy firm the NOUS group to “guide” them. The NOUS group has “restructured” various universities in Australia and the UK to make them more “efficient.” The NOUS group is offering them an exogenous model, one that is antithetical to the collegial governance model of the Canadian academy. The model is a managerial one — that is, a model of top-down vertical management that is anathema to “shared governance.” The managerial model has repeatedly been shown to undermine faculty ability not just to help run their institutions but to do their job. On this, one might read Yancey and Raymond Orr’s “The Death of Socrates: Managerialism, metrics and bureaucratisation in universities,” which argues that the goal of the managerial university is to displace the judgment of individual faculty members. The displacement of individual judgment is the first, essential step towards short-circuiting the possibility of the faculty working collectively as the brain trust who run the university.

Who can stop the NOUS-inspired plan to do just that at the University of Alberta? If the senior administration have their way, nobody. Having taken no public stand against the Kenney government’s cuts to the University’s budget, the senior administration can now seem to be “saving” the University with restructuring by ushering in the door the NOUS group as the fifth columnists that will help them make over the University according to their own top-down vision of the authoritarian managerial university.

But this can be stopped. It can be stopped if the faculty refuse to be silenced.

Let me be clearer on why the faculty’s need to refuse to be silenced is so urgent.

When discussing Scenario B with the General Faculties Council’s Academic Planning Committee meeting earlier this week, the Provost offered an example of how the system of managerial governance with the Executive Deans would intersect with the University’s greater reliance for funding from external parties under the “UofA Tomorrow” plan. The University needs to be run in ways, he claimed, that give donors the assurance that their dollars will go where the donors want them to go. Collegial governance and academic freedom both stand in the way of this because it is the responsibility of academics to ensure that their academic programs and research are free from external influence. A healthy collegial governance system will ensure that no third party can interfere with academic programs or with how research is conducted, or how or when research results are disseminated. But now, with the University more reliant on external dollars, it is a very serious problem that the members of a leaner “executive” team will have the power to let donors decide what happens by way of research and other scholarly activity at the University.

This is an immense threat to institutional autonomy. The University of Alberta is not the University of Suncor, and the faculty representatives on the General Faculties Council have a responsibility to ensure that they do not permit a restructuring of the University, in the face of the Kenney government’s budget cuts, that results in a small team of “Executive Deans” managing the University with the President and the Provost a in top-down fashion with corporations rather than the faculty shaping how the University is run. 

Already, sadly, other levels of administration are emulating this top-down, non-collegial approach. In the case of the Faculty of Arts, which held a “webinar” on September 9th in which the interim Dean and vice Dean informed their colleagues about the Provost’s desire that the Faculty reduce its number of departments, the muting of the faculty was literal: not only could the colleagues who showed up not see one another on the digital platform or otherwise know, by way of a participants list in the “chat,” who else was present, they were not permitted to use the chat to comment during the proceedings. Worse, they could only post questions to the hosts, and could not see the questions posted by other participants. A conversation that should have taken place at Arts Faculty Council, where all faculty have equal voice and vote, took place instead through a digital platform used in a way that fragmented the faculty cohort and suppressed their ability to have anything that resembled a collegial exchange. (Video here.) The question now is whether elected representatives of the faculty on the General Faculties Council can have the voice that has been and is being so effectively suppressed across campus.

An earlier attempt to “transform” a university in Canada in this kind of way was defeated when the head of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, Robert Buckingham, went to the media, with a document entitled “The Silence of the Deans” in which he made clear how the senior administration was seeking to suppress collegial debate and decision-making even at the decanal level. “Major changes with long term ramifications have been planned behind closed doors, with little or no opportunity for faculty or students to respond,” Buckingham wrote. The outrage of the Canadian academy at Buckingham’s firing for this act of speaking out in the end resulted in both the Provost and the President losing their jobs. But no university can depend on one or another Dean to exercise their academic freedom to speak out in such situations. Critique must come from what is referred to as the “rank and file” faculty protecting the academic integrity of their universities against the predations of imported models of the “managerial” university.

What happens with the University of Alberta’s restructuring may very well be a foretaste of what will happen elsewhere in Canada. It will be important for all Canadian universities that this attack on collegial governance does not succeed.