The general MO of the current senior administration is to marginalize GFC by bringing as little as they can to GFC for its approval, and to discourage any sense amongst GFC members that they have the authority to move proposals of their own. There is not likely to be any improvement in the state of academic governance at the University of Alberta until the elected representatives on GFC understand they have a statutory and a university policy right to true “inclusion” and “participation” in collegial decision-making.
I always remain hopeful that positive change to any institution is possible. That’s why I am bringing forward a proposal for a really important change at GFC’s meeting on Monday. There will be no genuine collegial governance at the University of Alberta until members of GFC can bring forward proposals for decision-making by GFC. But there is no question that even where members have the wherewithal to bring forward proposals, where these proposals don’t have the senior administration’s approval the deck is stacked against any such proposal succeeding.
Partly this is a problem of structure. It appears that the General Faculties Council at the University of Alberta may have the lowest percentage of faculty members relative to other members amongst academic senates in Canada’s U15.
But it is just as much a problem of culture. The Flanagan administration has been largely successful at transforming GFC into a “Town Hall.” As the groundbreaking Duff-Berdahl report on university governance in Canada noted in 1966, the senior academic governance body of a university must not be treated as if it is “a mass meeting” or a “public relations committee.” Duff-Berdahl asserted that as the university is a “community founded on reason,” the President must be able to persuade the Senate (or in our case, the General Faculties Council) of “the rightness of their proposals” according to whatever time-table is necessary for that. But as we saw last Fall, the General Faculties Council had to fight for the necessary meeting time to consider the Provost’s restructuring proposals, and the President succeeded in turning even “Town Halls” into forums where members of the University community could not get to any mic, even a virtual mic, to ask questions or comments on the administration’s proposals. For important public criticism of last Fall’s “consultations,” see David Kahane and Lynette Shultz’s Op-Ed for the Edmonton Journal.
The technique of turning GFC meetings into town halls starts with the administration making sure that GFC’s agendas are so jam-packed with items that there can be no meaningful discussion of anything within the limits of the scheduled meeting-time (“normally,” two hours). As it stands, the best members of GFC can hope for is that a few people may get to speak to an issue before the President, as Chair of GFC, begins to say things like “keep your remarks brief” or “we have just 5 minutes, and still two items left on the agenda”—all of this said with apparent unawareness that it is the responsibility of a good chair to manage meetings so the participants can fulfill their obligations to discuss and debate matters properly before taking a decision. Good chairing involves setting agendas that allow for an appropriate amount of time for discussion of all items, and facilitating discussion and debate, not short-circuiting it. And it is the members of GFC, not the chair, who should decide when sufficient time has been allotted to a discussion.
With Zoom meetings, matters have been made worse by the GFC Secretary using the Zoom mute function unilaterally to silence GFC members. The GFC Secretary also regularly argues that GFC members do not have the right to move amendments to agenda items. All of this is a flagrant refusal of the well-established rules for parliamentary procedure under which GFC is supposed to operate. I hope no other GFC or academic senate in Canada is being subjected to this kind of thing. As a 2004 independent governance report for the Canadian Association of University Teachers noted, the secretary should do their work independently of the senior administration:
Techniques for silencing members of GFC include the President, as chair, permitting certain members of GFC to breach the rules for parliamentary procedure by impugning the intentions of speakers who are criticizing proposals supported by the senior administration or seeking to move ones that the senior administration does not support. In addition to being a serious procedural abuse as well as an abuse of academic freedom principles, this technique turns GFC into a place of coercive decision-making. If even a tenured faculty member can be silenced through the President’s acceptance of breaches of parliamentary procedure, how confident can any student member of GFC be in their right to speak up against governance proposals or initiate proposals of their own that they believe to be in the institution’s best interests?
At the University of Alberta, this culture of coercion is not limited to the General Faculties Council. As the Gateway reported last month, at the October 15th meeting of the Board of Governors, Board Chair Kate Chisholm accused student representative David Konrad of speaking in “inflammatory and accusatory” ways, and purportedly suggesting that the Provost was “lying,” when Mr. Konrad asked a question about the extraordinary tuition increases that are being inflicted upon students in the wake of the Kenney government’s savage cuts to the University’s budget—a degree of cutting, playing out across three years, that no leading research university in the world has ever experienced.
The extraordinary tuition increases are just one of the means by which the senior administration and Board are making students pay the price for their choice to kowtow to the government and not defend the University against these savage cuts. And now students aren’t to be permitted to question the measures being imposed upon them?
This is one of the reasons that the General Faculties Council needs to give very serious consideration to the composition of both GFC and all of its standing committees. It is past time for serious reform to the structure and practices of the General Faculties Council and its standing committees.
The final report of the ad hoc governance committee of 2017 (struck in relation to a governance review that began with my letter to former president, David Turpin, and the GFC Executive), not only noted that there needed to be “continuous improvement in administrative, governance, planning, and stewardship systems, procedures, and policies that enable students, faculty, staff, and the institution as a whole to achieve shared strategic goals” (my emphasis), it also noted that the issue of GFC’s composition still needed to be addressed. How is it, for example, that the VP Facilities and Operations has not just voice but vote on GFC when GFC has very serious underrepresentation of faculty? Questions like this need to be raised and discussed in relation to a review of the composition—a review that is now years overdue. Unfortunately, this is typical. The senior administration rushes ahead with matters on which they wish action, and puts us much drag as possible on others, especially those others that might lead to a democratization of the structure and practices of GFC. And then if GFC still manages to assert its authority as it did last Fall by rejecting the proposition that the University create new expensive senior administrators in the form of “College Deans,” the President appears before the Board of Governors to disavow the recommendation.
But the stacking of matters against GFC’s proper exercise of its statutory authority involves a much simpler management technique: that of drafting agendas for the meetings of GFC and (in contradiction of Robert’s Rules) requiring proposals for amending the agenda at GFC to have a 2/3rds vote in favour or a “super majority.”
As I noted in Part I of this series, at Monday’s meeting of GFC, GFC is being given a mere half an hour to hear from the Provost about the “Final Report of the Academic Leaders Task Group” and discuss it. This is outrageous given that report supposedly sums up his task group’s thinking on what is in effect the second round of restructuring at the University. In this round of restructuring, the Provost wants academic units to cut 1 in 4 of the positions that support the student experience and the work of their Faculties in roles such as associate chair, undergraduate programs, and associate chair, graduate studies. This report merits very serious, in-depth discussion. But collegial governance is so weak at the University of Alberta that instead of exercising their collective judgment to put forward a draft three-hour agenda—members of the GFC Executive ask the GFC Secretary if they are “allowed” to do things and then let themselves be discouraged from doing so—they transformed other “discussion” items into “information” items.
On other occasions, however, GFC Executive lets itself be too quickly persuaded to do things not consistent with good governance principles. That’s why I am bringing forward a proposal at tomorrow’s meeting of GFC (29 November 2021), that asks GFC to correct an error that GFC Executive made at its meeting in September when it created, at the request of the President, a subcommittee of Executive for “Governance and Procedural Oversight.” GFC Executive created this committee in haste and without any consultation with GFC, despite the fact that GFC’s document “Principles for General Faculties Council Delegated Authority” expressly states the following:
No healthy democratic system would put matters of governance and procedural oversight of a major institutional body at two removes from that body. The governance of GFC belongs in the hands of GFC itself. So I am asking GFC to create a Standing Committee of Governance and Procedural Oversight for which it establishes the composition and the “Terms of Reference,” with this committee reporting directly to it. (See the proposal document at page 22 here.) This will have the effect of GFC taking back control of GFC governance mistakenly delegated to GFC Executive in 2017.
Tomorrow’s meeting may show us what techniques the senior administration feels are necessary to defeat that proposal. But I hope everyone, including the President and Provost, will keep in mind during tomorrow’s meeting what GFC heard from Florence Glanfield, Professor, Secondary Education, Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming and Research), at GFC’s October meeting.
Professor Glanfield was speaking about the various strategic initiatives that are being developed to indigenize the University of Alberta. She noted that in an institution attempting to decolonize, every institutional practice and every institutional policy should be questioned and opened up to change in order to shape an institution that is truly open and inclusive. She also called upon members of GFC to remember that as the university’s representatives on its statutory senior academic governance body they are the leaders who can play a vital role in bringing about positive change.
At tomorrow’s meeting, GFC members will have the opportunity to take two steps forward: by voting for the proposal that GFC create a standing committee on governance and procedural oversight rather than allowing these matters to be in the hands of a subcommittee of Executive; and by insisting on genuine, sustained discussion of the Provost’s report, with academic staff exercising their academic freedom rights in analyzing and critiquing that report’s contents and supporting students in robustly expressing their views. In the interests of both good governance and the decolonizing of the University of Alberta all of this must proceed without anything that resembles the slightest bit of coercion.