The Single Worst Thing That Happened at the University of Alberta Board of Governors Meeting on Friday (11Dec2020)

Copy of post to the Members’ Forum of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) on 12 December 2020

Dear Colleagues,

You already know the upshot of yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Governors. With the Invisible College model defeated at the special meeting of the General Faculties Council on Monday, the recommendation before the Board was for a “leadership structure” for the “colleges” that involved both a service manager and a “Deans’ Council.” Yesterday the Board passed a motion from which it struck the service manager and in which it arranged for the colleges to have Executive Deans in the form of “Seconded” Deans. This means that the Board failed to respect the recommendation that came forward to it from the General Faculties Council, and rejected what it has heard overwhelmingly from the University community — that it does not support the creation of an additional level of senior administration no matter what the “Executive Deans” are called.

To achieve its objectives yesterday, the Board had to ride roughshod over collegial governance. In so doing, it confirmed what much of the University community has feared from the outset of this process: that this entire process involved a mere sham of consultation and democratic decision-making when the Board knew full well what it intended to do and would make sure that nothing stood in the way of its primary objectives.

I’m not sure, though, that everyone realizes the worst thing that happened yesterday.

First, while the presidents of the two student unions were scrupulous in upholding all three of GFC’s recommendations even where they did not agree with them (the Graduate Student Association president was very pointed about this), the faculty member elected by the General Faculties Council as its representative to the Board was not. Not only did she refuse to uphold GFC’s recommendation, she let herself be treated as the person with whom the Board Chair and the Provost could negotiate for a “compromise.”

This “compromise” did not simply involve changes to the “Deans’ Council” by which the Board gets what it wanted all along, a new tier of academic administrators. It also involved an entirely new clause, not properly connected to the rest of the material, which reads as follows:


With clear metrics, including financial and quality of shared services (including clinical, excellence in interdisciplinary research, and education), to be developed by the Board of Governors, with progress to be reported monthly to GFC, the Board of Governors, and administration over the next 12 months.

With this clause, the Board of Governors not only makes plain its real objectives in wanting to create Executive (“Seconded”) Deans, it also usurps an authority it does not have under the Postsecondary Learning Act to design the evaluative principles and mechanisms for the work of the new Colleges. As AASUA President Ricardo Acuña and NASA President Elizabeth Johannson declared in their letter to Board Chair Ms. Chisholm yesterday, “Our bicameral structure ensures that decisions about academic oversight, programs, and structures are arrived at through careful debate and deliberation by academics themselves through the General Faculties Council.” 

As the Board’s Chair, Ms. Chisholm made the Board’s usurpation of authority possible by breaking with democratic procedure right from the start. Instead of putting the first motion on the table for the Board’s consideration and debate, she informed Board members that she was going to “put [them] on the spot” by “going round the table” and requiring each of them to declare their views on GFC’s recommendations. In so doing, she forced Board members to declare their views so that where their views did not coincide with hers they could be managed to produce the outcome that she desired. This, as the Gateway has reported, was explicitly stated:

“I understand why adding three incremental well paid positions at the same time other positions are being eliminated seems uncaring and tone deaf,” she said. “I nevertheless believe that it’s absolutely in our best interest to have college deans to absolutely make sure that even worse things don’t happen to the U of A.”

Ms. Chisholm required Board members to speak in a pre-determined order in which the GFC-elected representative Dilini Vethanayagam was supposed to speak last. This meant that the Board members who supported Ms. Chisholm’s position had plenty of opportunity to affirm their values first, as people who hailed from the corporate world or “industry”: there needed to be clear “accountability” in the leadership structure, with a minimum of “direct reports” to the Provost; and the Board needed to establish the “metrics” they desire for the evaluation of the functioning of these new “colleges.”

Unfortunately, when Dr. Vethanayagam finally spoke (after almost an hour and a half) she did not support GFC’s recommendation. Instead, she claimed that Executive Deans “would not be allowed to succeed due to the degree of opposition” to them and welcomed amendment of GFC’s recommendation. This made it easy for Ms. Chisholm to extract a “compromise” from her, which Dr. Vethanayagam was informed she would need to “sell” to “her group” — by which Ms. Chisholm meant the General Faculties Council as the statutory body charged with responsibility over the University’s academic affairs.

Never mind that academic analysis of performance metrics shows not only that they are fundamentally wrong-headed but, worse, counterproductive. Never mind that performance metrics are their own financial burden upon the institution as administrators and faculty waste their time and energy developing, administering, and complying with them. All of this is ideological. (For more on this, please see the blog post that Laurie Adkin published yesterday for the Parkland Institute, “Government Takeover of Postsecondary Education.”)

But let’s be clear: the Board was able to trammel collegial governance yesterday to secure what they see as the necessary infrastructure for the implementation of their College metrics regime because of the choices made by President Bill Flanagan.

Ms. Chisholm asked President Flanagan to speak first. After a limited account of the debate at GFC that did not even mention that GFC had considered the Invisible College model, President Flanagan declared that he would “recuse” himself from voting on the motions before the Board.

As it turned out, he did not simply recuse himself from voting. He chose not to speak, not even when a Board member asked the Chair to have him address a question.

What this meant was there was a vacuum in the room on the key topic around which decision-making turned yesterday, collegial governance.

The burden of defending collegial governance should not have fallen solely on the shoulders of the faculty members in the room, or the students.

The person who should have taken responsibility for articulating the academy’s governing principles yesterday was President Flanagan as the chief steward of the institution.

Flanagan could and should have been doing this work across the entire Fall in order to offset the almost cultic citation of “change management” ideas at the Board table yesterday. The Board is not entirely to blame for not understanding academic principles. Those members of the Board who are not academics needed assistance in understanding them so that their decision-making yesterday could have been informed by them.

The Board was taking, as Flanagan himself noted, a “historic” decision. Yet he permitted this decision to be taken in relation to concerns about whether a “Deans’ Council” was an adequate form of academic leadership, without offering a single explanatory statement about collegial governance. He sat there silent and permitted GFC’s recommendation to be fundamentally changed so that it matched corporate conceptions of leadership. There cannot be good stewardship of the University when its presiding officer is not willing to speak to and defend the academy’s key principles.

But something even worse happened when the President declared in his opening remarks that as the chair of GFC he respected the recommendations that GFC had made but as President he remained concerned that the leadership model recommended by GFC would not achieve the required cost savings.

With this declaration, President Flanagan thoroughly undermined GFC’s recommendation before the Board even began to discuss it.

This declaration was a direct betrayal of the collegial governance principles and processes of the University. As Chair of GFC, President Flanagan should not have permitted GFC to take a decision he regarded to be flawed without supplying it with the information he regarded to be pertinent to its decision-making. Worse, he had no right to make such a declaration to the Board when he had not made any such declaration to GFC.

Any statutory body charged with making democratic decisions must have all of the necessary information at their disposal before they take any decisions. That is why I attempted to move, at the June meeting of GFC, that GFC be provided will all of the data and consultant reports with which the Academic Restructuring Working Group would be working. President Turpin ruled the motion “out of order” claiming that GFC could not “compel” the senior administration to give it the information. That was deeply wrong of President Turpin. It was equally wrong, if not worse, for President Flanagan to permit GFC to take a decision that he did not support by withholding a view that he would take four days later before the Board along with any information that would have provided GFC with evidence for this view.

There is a strong possibility that the claim is not even true. Nobody disputed the claim at GFC that the Invisible College model would save at least the same amount as the Provost’s College model. The GFC recommendation, like the Invisible College model, did not add a new administrative layer to the colleges. How, then, could it not achieve the same savings as a “leadership structure” that creates new senior academic administrator positions with supporting professional teams?

President Flanagan almost certainly meant this: that the Executive (Seconded) Deans will be required to have a kind of relationship to the new Colleges and their members that will force “savings” out of the new structures that would not otherwise be squeezed out of them if the colleges were run collegially, in the best interests of their Faculties and the University as a whole. Flanagan, Dew, and the Board need top-down Enforcers who will put the Board’s and the senior administration’s directives ahead of what front-line academics determine to be best for achieving the University’s academic mission.

In my view, the University of Alberta deserves better leadership. In the meantime, as a consequence of what happened yesterday, the Board has seized control of academic decision-making by giving itself the prerogative to establish, define, and enforce the “metrics” according to which the new Colleges with their demoted Faculties will be run.

Sincerely,

Carolyn

P.S. It has been brought to my attention that Board procedures may have been violated: the Board should not have been able to consider GFC’s recommendations until they had first been considered by the Board’s Learning, Research, and Student Experience Committee which, under its Terms of Reference:

f) reviews and approves recommendations of General Faculties Council:

i. for the establishment, continuation and re-organization of faculties, schools, departments and makes recommendations to the Board in respect thereof.

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