Big BoG problems: it’s not just UBC

UBC’s Board of Governors has been intensely scrutinized the last few months, facing accusations of a lack of transparency, accountability and oversight. These problems have led to calls for an external review of the Board of Governors and outrage from students and faculty.

In light of this, we decided to take a look at UBC’s governance structure as a whole and how it measures up to other universities in Canada. What we found was that most universities share the same structure, several also have problems with transparency and accountability and even the one that’s different still has its share of issues.

How does this place work, anyway?

To begin with, UBC’s Board of Governors (BoG) is responsible for the business side of running a university. In broad terms, this means the board is responsible for overseeing the management, administration, business, property and revenue of the university. 

On the other hand, academic affairs are under the jurisdiction of the senate. This is known as a bicameral system, in which one group is responsible for business affairs and another for academic. The bicameral system used by UBC is the fundamental system used by many other public degree-granting universities in Canada — excluding the University of Toronto, which is unicameral. Queen’s and the University of Saskatchewan are technically tricameral, meaning that they have a university council which provides academic oversight, a board of governors which represents financial oversight and a senate which provides a platform for the public voice.

The majority of the BoG are appointed to their post by the provincial government. In BC, the board’s composition and general objectives are mandated by the BC University Act. This Act mandates that UBC’s Board of Governors have 21 members: eight elected, 11 appointed and two receive membership automatically with their roles — the president and the chancellor.

The people appointed to the BoG by the provincial government are usually distinguished by their success in business and have often donated generously to the political party in power at the time of their appointment. Their job, once appointed, is supposed to be working in the best interests of the university — the province picks those who they feel have the experience to do so.

“The goal is to find individuals who have the necessary managerial expertise to look after a $2 billion budget … and to look out for the interests of the university as a whole, whether it be in teaching, research or in societal service such as in training health professionals,” Andrew Wilkinson, minister of higher education for BC’s provincial government, told The Ubyssey in February.

The lieutenant Governor in Council may remove an appointed member at any time. If a two-thirds majority of the members of the board vote to remove a member of the board, the Governor in Council may remove them. The removal of a board member is currently unheard.

“That would be very unusual circumstances. I cannot contemplate that being the case at UBC,” said Wilkinson. In fact, Christy Clark was asked on her visit to UBC after the documents pertaining to Guptagate were released whether or not she plans to remove any BoG members — her answer was no.

Once the Board of Governors is appointed, the government does not have a role in the governance of the university.

“There’s a well-established arrangement for university and board governance in our society and more particularly in British Columbia. [The board] has a fiduciary duty for looking after the interests of the university, and we respect that role and we leave it in their capable hands,” said Wilkinson.

What about other schools?

For the most part the bicameral system is one shared by every major university in Canada — Simon Fraser University, Dalhousie, McGill and Western, to name just a few. However, slight differences exist between the specifics of appointments and membership composition.

For example, in the University of Northern BC (UNBC)’s system of governance, their president and Board of Governors appoint their chancellor. The latest appointment at UNBC has become highly controversial.

James Moore, UNBC’s new chancellor, was very recently minister of industry with the Conservative government and gained an association with budget cuts and fiscal restraint — in light of this, his appointment has received a lot of pushback from the community. According to William Bruneau, past Faculty Association (FA) president and professor emeritus in UBC’s Faculty of Education Studies, none of this matters as much as the fact that this appointment was done privately, with no consultation of the broader community of UNBC. He also notes that such a lack of communication is the norm for the Board of Governors.

“When you look at the December BoG minutes for UBC, the minutes are public but there is a lot that’s not said. Part of the meeting is always in-camera, private. Typically that has to do with personnel decisions and real estate. Well, my goodness me, those happen to be the crucial decisions — the ones that matter the most,” said Bruneau. “The very ones you’d like to be public are private.”

It is not uncommon to hear UBC’s Board of Governors criticized for their lack of connection to or understanding of academic life. However, in this area, universities in Quebec fair far worse. When Bill 38 was passed in 2010, the influence of faculty members and student representatives was reduced in all ten provincially-run universities in Quebec.

“They introduced business-style management practices … which is certainly not the way I’d like it to go,” said Bruneau.

One of these things is not like the others

There is only one university that does not use the bicameral system in Canada — the University of Toronto. U of T has a Governing Council, which is a unicameral system that basically combines the Senate and the Board of Governors.

The biggest difference between U of T and UBC’s own Board of Governors is in representation numbers. Students hold eight seats — 16 per cent, comparable to the 14 percent of seats held by students at UBC — while provincially-appointed members hold 16 seats, or 32 per cent, significantly less than the 52 per cent held by provincially-appointed governors at UBC.

U of T did not always have this system of governance — it was established by the 1971 University of Toronto Act in response to student protests in the late 1960s.

“The board was very conservative and very averse to any attempts by the university to deal with student protests. [Then-president Claude] Bissel was shocked by what he saw and decided to do something,” said the Assistant University Archivist at the University of Toronto, Harold Averill.

Boards are quite right to want to get the most bang for their buck. I want that too — I’m a taxpayer too. But I would never want it at the expense of a really good quality education for students … that is even more important to me

— William Bruneau

However, even assigning joint responsibility to a large governing body containing members from the academic and business sides of the university has been shown to have its issues. Committees are of vital importance with a council so huge, and the University of Toronto has one that deals with financial matters.

“Everybody at U of T complains just as much as they do here about the secretiveness of the finance, real estate and personnel committee. But some of it has to be private — it just has to,” said Bruneau. 

According to Averill, the sheer size of the Governing Council is a sticking point, as it makes the body “in some ways a bit unwieldy.” Still, in Bruneau’s opinion, U of T’s system may still have some advantages over UBC’s.

“I’ll give you an example that makes me think that U of T may be a little bit ahead of UBC in terms of transparency. Every contract that’s over $50,000 is available online at U of T. So if the University of Toronto makes a contract with someone — a consultant, a company — that’s over $50,000, it will immediately be online,” said Bruneau. “You can get it at UBC too, if you’re patient. But too often it involves going [through] FOI requests.”

Accountability and transparency are not issues specific to UBC’s BoG. However, the problems we’re seeing now might be symptomatic of wider issues with the systems of governance available to universities.

The current system focuses on allowing efficiency, and decreasing the risk for conflict of interest in people appointed to the board. However, placing too much emphasis on these two parts can lead to unacceptable compromises of transparency and accountability.

“Boards are quite right to want to get the most bang for their buck. I want that too — I’m a taxpayer too,” said Bruneau. “But I would never want it at the expense of a really good quality education for students and first-rate research at the highest possible level — that is even more important to me.”

Some factual inaccuracies have been corrected since original publication. Queen’s and Saskatchewan technically have tricameral governance structures (not bicameral), the number of BoG members who are elected is eight, not 10, and the chancellor is appointed by the BoG on consultation, not elected by the alumni as was originally stated. The Ubyssey regrets these errors.