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IN MY OPINION

Universities are ill-served by a corporate governance model

The move towards corporate governance threatens creative thinking at the time we need it most.

By BRENT EPPERSON | AUG 20 2014

Canada’s universities face tremendous challenges. Provincial funding continues to decline, yet tuition and fee increases threaten equal access to education. Global competition for talent drives up faculty salaries and benefits, undermining long-term financial stability at many institutions. Increasing international student recruitment, demographic changes and student expectations for enhanced educational experience all heighten the need for services. Employers bemoan the lack of “work ready” university graduates, but they fail to adequately invest in training their own workers. Students want more professional development opportunities to gain advantage on the labour market, but they resist paying for it. To meet these and other challenges, universities need senior administrators with vision and leadership styles that fit the complex world of postsecondary education.

Three months after the Shakespearean drama at the University of Saskatchewan unfolded and the initial media wave has died down, we have an opportunity for sober reflection on the ways our universities are governed. In particular, it’s a chance to talk about the uncomfortable relationship between corporate culture and collegial governance.

The Saskatchewan dispute centred on a dean’s public criticism of the university’s strategic planning process. The dean was dismissed, causing a chain of events which eventually led to the resignation of the provost and the termination of the president by the board of governors. This story aptly illustrates that fewer people in our universities can say exactly what they think. Both declining freedom of expression and the struggle of many universities to advance necessary changes are rooted in the rise of corporate governance and its mismatch to the campus setting. The move towards corporate governance threatens creative thinking at the time we need it most. In the corporate world, the brand embodies a particular image that is essential to continued profits. Betrayal of the brand is tantamount to treason. Senior managers and increasingly even rank-and-file employees are expected to be uncritically loyal in public. This culture inspires self-discipline and encourages surveillance of one’s peers. Since many members of university boards of governors are successful entrepreneurs who rose to the top of the corporate world, and some university presidents and provosts fetishize no-nonsense CEOs, it’s tempting for them to apply the concept of brand loyalty and broader corporate principles to their institutions. It’s also a terrible mistake.

The fact is that universities are more like governments than private corporations. Elected officials and university administrators can get away with quite a bit when people are not paying attention. Yet, when the public is engaged, these leaders have to make sure the majority supports their planned reforms. When students, faculty, staff and alumni actively participate in the governance process and work together, they have incredible power to shape the outcome of any reform plan. Senior university administrators can admire charismatic leaders like Jeff Bezos or Sir Richard Branson all they want, but it would serve them to remember that their roles and institutions are far more complex than those of any corporate CEO.

The critical disposition of university communities means that there is more bottom-up scrutiny and risk of whistle-blowing than in most corporate settings. Even the strongest university leaders are vulnerable to whistle-blowers who emerge when both collegial governance and systems of control fail. Whistle-blowing, of course, is never plan A; it’s always an act of desperation. The best defence against whistle-blowers is not more control but more public engagement in a culture of collegial governance. University leaders should embrace their critics and include them in decision-making processes. If a university administration cannot persuade the students they serve or the faculty and staff they depend on, then they should carefully rethink their proposals. It is by encouraging critical feedback and debate that leaders identify the high-calibre ideas that only arise in places of free inquiry.

While imperfect, universities remain one of the few bastions of social and scientific progress. The ground-breaking research and critical public commentary of scholars like David Schindler, Thomas Piketty and David Suzuki (to name just a few) may not have been possible without university cultures that encourage people to challenge policies and popular assumptions. Regardless of any claims of a research-administration dichotomy, corporate governance and free inquiry are fundamentally incompatible. Eventually, universities will have to choose.

Canada needs a new vision of postsecondary education, but the priorities and concerns of students, faculty, staff and alumni must be taken into account. It is not a choice between control and disorder, as some would have us believe, but one between ill-suited corporate governance and the model of collegial governance that can help us through the transitions ahead. After the tough lessons in Saskatchewan, let’s hope Canada’s university leaders make the right choice.

Brent Epperson is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Evelyn / August 25, 2014 at 10:50

    Thanks so much for this insightful article. It zeroes in on what is going wrong with higher ed administration everywhere (in the U.S. as well).

  2. Sinisa / September 9, 2014 at 02:10

    Never came across of better explanation of management of universities in Canada. There is still much to be said of government direct and indirect involvement in current shaping of higher education.

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