Following the UCP government’s appointment of party friends and insiders to the boards of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, there was a brief period of public outcry and controversy. There are ways to make this selection process more democratic, such as publicly electing these boards, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest from the public in having a more robust conversation about potential changes.
Back in August, as part of a major shakeup of the province’s agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs), the UCP government made changes to the board of governors at 10 of the province’s public post-secondary schools, including replacing board chairs at eight of those institutions.
This is important because, although positions on these boards are unpaid, their members oversee critical institutional matters. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the development of policies such as admission requirements, the management of finances and hiring for positions such as faculty deans.
For example, Mount Royal University, which saw substantial changes to their board, including the appointment of a new chair, describes the role of their board of governors on their website as those who oversee “the management and operation of the university’s business and affairs.”
In addition, the board is responsible for administering the “development of the overarching strategic direction and policy framework” for MRU. Through this, the board is supposed to ensure the activities the university undertakes are “consistent with its mandate, overseeing the efficient and effective use of financial and human resources to meet institutional objectives and institutional risk management.”
To accomplish these goals, which are similar amongst all of Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions, board of governors are made up of both public members, who can only be appointed by the government, and representative members which include nominated academic staff members, non-academic staff members, students, alumni and, if applicable, senate members and graduate students.
The exact number of public and representative members on boards differs depending on whether a school is classified as a university, comprehensive community college or polytechnic institution. What remains the same at all institutions is that, although government-appointed members don’t make up the entirety of these boards they have the potential to fill up the majority of positions on each. That gives the government a distinct, potentially more powerful voice at the table.
Necessary or nepotism?
Laurie Chandler, press secretary for the Ministry of Advanced Education, wrote in an email to the Calgary Journal that this type of control is necessary given the cooperative nature of the relationship between the government and post-secondary board of governors.
“Through their chairs, boards may provide input into the development of provincial policies,” she wrote. “Therefore, it is important for the Minister to have strong relationships with the board of each institution, and for the Government of Alberta to be confident that each board has the desired skills, knowledge and experience.”
However, this government control over the make-up of post-secondary board of governors is what led many, including the NDP’s advanced education critic and former Minister of Education David Eggen, to accuse the UCP of playing favourites when it came to who was appointed, especially when it was discovered that one-third of all the most recent ABC appointees are long-time conservative donors. Eight of the top 10 conservative contributors ended up on the governing boards of post-secondary institutions.
During their own time in office, the NDP did make changes to the board appointment process. But, as MRU policy studies professor Duane Bratt points out, these changes were not enough to end favoritism in the selection process.
“The NDP also made partisan appointments, but the NDP brought in two changes,” he said. “The first is they waited for people’s terms to expire, then they replaced them. The second is they brought in an application procedure. They ended up still choosing people that they supported but there was an application procedure.”
What can be done?
There are ways to reform the selection process even more than the NDP did to make it more fair and democratic. One potential solution could come from south of the border. In four American states — Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada and Colorado — they publicly-elect boards that have responsibilities similar to those of boards of governors here in Alberta.
At the University of Colorado, this board is called the board of regents. According to the university’s website, this board is responsible for “the general supervision of the university and the exclusive control and direction of all funds of and appropriations to the university.”
The board is made up of nine members who serve staggered six-year terms, meaning they come up for re-election at different times. Seven of these members represent each of Colorado’s congressional districts, while two represent the state as a whole.
By electing these members, as opposed to appointing them, the regents become accountable not only to the university and the students they serve, but also to the public who helped choose them. They are then truly representative of the public that they are meant to act on behalf of on these boards.
Following Colorado’s lead and electing public post-secondary board of governors is just one possible way Alberta could reform the current selection process for these crucial positions, but it’s not the only one. Other solutions include making an application process mandatory for these positions, staggering representatives’ terms or implementing mandatory fixed term limits.
Apathetic about academia
Regardless of the potential fixes, though, it seems that most people don’t even want to have the conversation. The Council of Alberta University Students and the Alberta Students’ Executive Council, who, combined, represent 18 of the province’s public post-secondary schools and their students, refused to engage on this issue when asked to by the Calgary Journal.
Via emailed statements to the Journal, the CAUS wrote that they do not “have a position on how board members are selected;” while the ASEC wrote more fully that “at this time, ASEC does not have an official stance on the board of governors selection process at public PSE [post-secondary education] institutions in Alberta, however, we believe that transparency in the process is important.”
So, why is it that even though there are potential solutions to make this process more democratic, almost no one is talking about them?
Bratt has a very simple explanation. At the end of the day, he said, “People don’t care about universities.”
Editors Note: This story is part of the Calgary Journal’s November-December print issue. You can find a digital version here, or grab a copy at news stands across the city.
Editor: Chelsey Mutter | firstname.lastname@example.org