By J. Percy Smith, executive secretary, Canadian Association of University Teachers
Published April 1966
The report of the Commission on University Government was made public in Ottawa on March 18. The occasion, which brought together the Commissioners, and representatives of the two sponsoring bodies, marked the culmination of a long and important chapter in the history of the Canadian university community.
The events of the chapter had their beginning in the growth, through the 1950’s, of uneasiness in many quarters as to whether the universities would be able to cope with the enormously increased demands that were being made on them, and the even greater ones that lay ahead. It was clear that one of the keys to the problem was in the obtaining of sufficient financial resources. Might not another be found in the structure and processes of the universities themselves?
The conviction in some quarters that it might, and in others that the question at least deserved serious investigation, caused the late Dr. Stewart Reid, as first Executive Secretary of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, to take the initiative which led to the carrying out of the study. It was largely through his efforts that in 1962 an approach was made to the National Conference of Canadian Universities and Colleges, a pattern of joint sponsorship was agreed on, and a successful appeal made to the Ford Foundation for a grant to finance a study.
The steering committee as first constituted comprised Dr. Claude Bissell (Chairman), Dr. Reid (Secretary), Dr. E. F. Sheffield, and Professor A. W. R. Carrothers. After some months of negotiations, they appointed as Commissioners to carry out the study Sir James Mountford, who was then retiring as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, and Professor Robert 0. Berdahl, of San Francisco State College, an American political scientist who had made a close study of the problems of universities in relation to government. The untimely death of Dr. Reid and the illness of Sir James Mountford delayed thestudy and necessitated changes in the personnel involved. Professor Bora Laskin succeeded Professor Carrothers on the steering committee and Dr. Percy Smith, who had succeeded to Dr. Reid’s post, became secretary; and in the summer of 1964 the committee was fortunate in persuading Sir James Duff, who had retired as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Durham, to become senior Commissioner. One further change occurred in the steering committee: on the elevation of Professor Laskin to the Supreme Court of Ontario in August 1965, Professor Jacques St-Pierre, of l’Universite de Montreal, replaced him.
From the time when the decision to carry out the study was first made, committees and individuals on many campuses studied, discussed, and wrote reports about the structure and government of their institutions. A massive quantity of the resultant material, together with acts, charters, by-laws, and other such documents, was submitted to the Commissioners through the secretariat. In consequence, before they began to make on-the-spot enquiries, the Commissioners had already spent a great deal of time in preparatory study, and had a vast knowledge of the background of the problems that they were to discuss. It was largely because of these preparations – and, one must add, of their own astonishing vitality – that they were able to make in a period of two months a tour of 35 universities, talking not only with presidents, faculty members and administrators, but with students, boards of governors, and representatives of provincial governments. The interest which their visits occasioned is testified to not only by scores of individuals who met them and saw them in action, but by the eagerness with which their report was awaited. Individuals may, at this point or that, disagree with their findings or recommendations. No one will question that the report is the work of two minds richly informed, perceptive, forthright; above all, deeply – indeed passionately – concerned for the life of the intellect and for the institutions which in our society are dedicated to it.
In their report, the Commissioners make it clear that no Canadian university is to be thought of as hopelessly bad in its governance, and that on the other hand no amount of reform is going to make any of them utopian. The work of large, complex educational institutions inevitably produces tensions, both within themselves and between them and the community, and there is nothing unhealthy in this per se. On the other hand, it is quite possible for the tension to reach a point where it becomes harmful and even destructive; one way of minimizing this danger is the adoption of suitable organizational structures and practices.
The Commissioners have found that at a great many of our universities the tensions have indeed gone far beyond the point to which simple vigour and academic high spirits might carry them. They do not, however, spend time in examining specific symptoms, still less in looking for individual sources of illness. They have assumed wisely that their function is that of the physician rather than the pathologist, and they have gone roundly to work on prescriptions.
After the first two chapters, in which they state incisively their conviction that a great deal is wrong in the government of the universities, and a third in which they reject certain suggestions which have been made, the Commissioners devote most of the remainder of the report to discussing ways of setting matters right. In doing so they have kept constantly in mind that universities are preeminently places of learning and of teaching; that they cannot appropriately be governed as if they were either business corporations or mediaeval dukedoms; that their responsibility is to the republic of knowledge and also to the immediate tax-paying community, in both of which they must exist.
The most far-reaching of the proposed reforms reflect especially this latter, dual consideration. The Commissioners hold that it is not enough simply to alter the internal pattern of university government, but that the relations between the university and the community must be made more significant. They have noted that in too many universities the senate, theoretically intended to be both the supreme academic body and the principal means of contact between the university and the community, is in fact neither: it is too large, too amorphous, too unrepresentative of either constituency. They recommend therefore a complete reform of this body, so that it may effectively perform the first of these functions; and they call for the adoption of other devices to perform the second. The senate, they propose, should be an academic body of not more than 50 members, of whom the administrative group must not be a majority; the majority of its members should be elected by the faculty, by a method which will ensure representation of all ranks and age groups, and should serve for staggered three-year terms; and its chairman should be the president of the university.
The Commissioners suggest that the senate should not only be the supreme academic body, but that it should have the power to “make recommendations to the Board on any matter of interest to the university,” and that it should play a strong role in long-term planning as well as immediate policy-making. They have clearly understood the dangers that lie in inhibiting faculty discussion of any matter affecting the life of the university, and particularly the evil effects of the f ait accompli. Holding that the senate’s power ought to range from matters of curriculum policy to recommendations about tenure, promotions, and the university budget, they suggest the kind of committee structure that will be required for its work.
The chapter dealing with senate reform is rightly the longest in the report; for in many ways the others – though some precede it-are its corollaries. They deal, on the one hand, with some questions of internal government; on the other, with university-community relations.
As to the former of these, the Commissioners are clearly disturbed by what they saw of the effects of a too rigid hierarchical structure: on the one hand, the failure to obtain the advice of the people most concerned with the effects of decisions to be taken, sometimes even the failure to communicate the decisions; on the other, frustration, misunderstanding, resentment and a conviction of waste. The proposals for reform have to do, therefore, with simultaneously breaking down the rigidity and improving vastly the degree of consultation and the flow of communication. Procedures are suggested for use in the selection of presidents, vice-presidents, deans, and department chairmen that will ensure varying degrees of faculty participation in the choices made. Further, limitations on the length of term in office for the deans and department chairmen are proposed, as a desirable means of providing for flexibility at these administrative levels, and of minimizing the sacrifice of good scholarship to administrative paper-work.
As to university-community relations, the Commissioners deal with them on three levels. In the first place, they recognize it as inevitable and right that the supreme authority in a university should rest in a board of governors, most of the members of which are not otherwise members of the university. However, in the light of the discussions of recent years, it will surprise no one that a strong plea is made for significant faculty representation on boards. In addition, having in mind that the board’s function is to deal effectively with some of the most important university matters, the Commissioners recommend that its size be kept to sensible dimensions; and having in mind its special position between the university and the community, they argue that it should be far more representative of the various sectors of society than most Canadian boards have ever been. As in all their recommendations, they are especially concerned with the importance of adequate communication throughout the university structure; and they recommend that while faculty members should certainly be represented on boards, it is equally true that some provision should be made for board members to participate in senate meetings and in the work of some senate committees.
In the second place, suggestions are made for strengthening the relations between the university and the community by such devices as the creation of a “university court,” the co-opting of non-university persons for certain university committees, and the appointment of outside members to the advisory councils of professional schools and the like. Thirdly, the Commissioners discuss a question that has been growing sharply in significance in recent months: the relations between universities and governments. They recommend, as did the Bladen Commission, the development of strong advisory committees, with significant representation from the universities, especially from their academic staffs.
In addition to developing the suggestions outlined here, the report deals with the place of faculty associations, the student body, alumni associations and professional societies in the conduct of university affairs. They suggest, for example, a considerable increase in the use of joint studentfaculty committees, and the provision for the student voice to be heard at the board level through a representative elected by the students, though not himself one of them.
Finally, there is a brief chapter on some of the special problems of church-related universities.
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As the Commissioners note in their concluding chapter, a university is and should be a “battleground of clashing ideas,” in which the possibility of a “cosy consensus” is remote indeed. In saying that-wise men as they are–they may have been thinking specifically of the reception of their report; for it is doubtful that it will please any of its readers at every point. Some faculty members – perhaps including deans – will wonder how it is that the Commissioners could with flawless logic argue the case for limiting the terms for chairmen and deans, and cease to apply the logic to presidents. Some presidents will have serious qualms over the notion of the senate reviewing the university budget. Some energetic student groups will feel that they have not been given sufficiently serious consideration. Some faculty association members who have worked tirelessly for the improvement of the conditions of university work will find it ironical that a faculty association should be described as “a body of protest rather than achievement” – when the existence of the Commission was to a very large degree the achievement of faculty associations.
Nervousness and discomfort are part of the price of change, however. In Canada at the present time the challenges confronting higher education are unthinkably great. It is not conceivable that they could be met on the old terms or by old devices. Within the past year the challenge to rise to the occasion has twice been sounded: once by the call of the Bladen Report for a vast program of public support, and now by the call of the Duff/Berdahl Report for a thorough shake-up of the organization of the universities. If the publication of the latter marks the end of one chapter, it ought to mark the beginning of another.