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Changes ahead for university governance in Quebec

This sensitive subject is back in the spotlight following tabling of new bill.

BY FRANÇOIS-OLIVIER DORAIS | SEP 08 2009

A new provincial bill that could change governance mechanisms at Quebec universities has sparked a debate about the modes and cultures of governance since it was tabled in mid-June in the Quebec legislature.

The principles set out in the bill focus on the composition, operations and responsibilities of a university’s board of directors with an eye to greater transparency, effectiveness and efficiency in Quebec universities. Under the bill, at least 60 percent of board members would have to qualify as independent directors, and the board of directors would need to establish additional committees and adopt new guidelines for publishing information and reporting to government.

Bill 38 (a second draft of the former Bill 107) is to be discussed at a parliamentary commission in September, where all concerned parties will have a chance to express their opinion. The bill also comes on the heels of Université du Québec à Montréal’s real estate and financial problems in 2006.

A statement by Quebec’s Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne, aired on UQAM’s student radio station CHOQ FM in June, suggests that the purpose of the bill is to achieve standardization. She said that “an act requires all university institutions to adopt clear guidelines. An act is mandatory in nature. It assigns responsibilities that must be clearly defined, known to the public, and transparent for everyone in the university milieu.” The minister didn’t respond to a request for an interview with University Affairs.

The content of the bill, not surprisingly, has put Quebec’s university community on the defensive. Both faculty and student unions were quick to express concerns about the Minister’s objectives.

The bill proposes changes that are already under way in several Quebec universities. The Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) plans to submit a brief arguing that it would have been better to adopt an approach based on bilateral agreements and partnerships, on a case-by-case basis, rather than a legal process that doesn’t take into account the particular needs of each institution.

University governance in Quebec, according to a recent report on the governance of university institutions, is not based on a monolithic model. Each institution has its own governance mechanisms that are informed by its particular constitution, charter, history, traditions, values and culture. Jean-Marie Toulouse, the report’s author, says, “It’s impossible to talk about a single culture of university governance in Quebec. The model, which encompasses chartered universities, Quebec’s university network, and specific models like Université de Montréal or Université de Sherbrooke, is extremely diverse.” He said this is why his report did not recommend the adoption of a law.

At first glance, Bill 38 may seem to be an attempt to bring Quebec’s governance cultures in line with the rest of Canada and even with North America. But according to Luc Vinet, rector of Université de Montréal, the differences today are virtually non-existent: “At the moment, I see very few differences, with the possible exception of the mechanisms for selecting presidents,” said Dr. Vinet. Some Quebec universities use an election process for choosing a rector. “Other than that, most boards have the same number of members, statutory committees exist pretty much everywhere, and performance reporting principles have already been standardized.”

As for the bill’s lack of provisions regarding the selection process for rector, Dr. Vinet believes that this is the best approach. “In some universities, tradition plays a very important role. I think the bill respects this reality and rightly so. If changes are to be made, they should come from within, rather than being imposed.”

For Dr. Toulouse, the debate around governance is not exclusive to Quebec or even to North America. “Sound governance is an issue in almost all organizations today and universities are no exception.”

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