Canadian academics lament decline of shared governance

Union members urged to regain influence by focusing on big-picture problems, but time constraints emerge as major challenge

December 1, 2018
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Canadian academics are increasingly reluctant to play a role in the governance of their universities, a conference heard.

Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée, an assistant professor of education administration at the University of Montreal, argued at the assembly of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in Ottawa that the increasing fragility of the country’s shared governance model was a sign of scholars’ frustration with the increasing negativity of their relationships with campus leaders.

Dr Beaupré-Lavallée argued that academics should regain their influence by focusing on big-picture problems such as the challenges of preparing graduates for an era of rapid technological and economic change, rather than what he saw as a preoccupation with organisational issues such as how many faculty representatives should sit on which committees.

“While the world has been going forward, we’ve been staying in place,” Dr Beaupré-Lavallée told Times Higher Education after the conference. “So it’s no wonder people stopped listening to us and our demands.”

Dr Beaupré-Lavallée argued that universities, students and the public were rightly concerned by the need to lower the costs of higher education and to adjust to major shifts in population, demographics and workplace demands. He cited a recent assessment of more than 7,500 students at 20 Ontario universities and colleges, which found that a quarter of graduating students scored below adequate in measures of literacy or numeracy, and less than a third scored at superior levels.

“This is the reality of what society expects of us,” he said. “We’ve listed how everything is everybody else’s fault," he said. “But is it possible that we’re also in part to blame?”

CAUT’s executive director, David Robinson, said that he saw a “partial truth” in Dr Beaupré-Lavallée’s sense that faculty were not doing enough with the institutional powers that they now have.

But he highlighted that power structures have shifted to sidestep faculty, five decades on from the creation of the shared governance model.

Governing boards were increasingly dominated by corporate interests, top administration job hunts were managed by outside consultants, and systems and schedules often deterred overworked faculty from participating, Mr Robinson said.

Those aren’t just matters of petty procedural whining, said Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, who joined Dr Beaupré-Lavallée in leading the CAUT discussion on shared governance.

“If we complain a lot, it’s because we’re worried about our students, we’re worried about our research, we’re worried about our institutions,” Professor Wright said.

Professor Wright saw time constraints as the major problem facing academics hoping to participate in governance: larger classes with growing percentages of high-need students, pressure to find research grants, and more temporary teaching staff not eligible for governing boards.

But without better faculty input, Professor Wright said, important decisions – about new curricula, the integration of new technologies, and more – will be made without those in the best position to advise.

“The administrative branch,” she said, “is a lot of really great people – who are not spending time in the classrooms.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Sounds just like UK Academia, where 'professional' management complete with a non-academic CEO run the business and Academics are either stuck with behaving as if it's just like a school debating society or are so far out on the left wing few take them seriously.