Losing Sight of Basic Principles at UBC

In November I posted “Ten Principles of a Well-Run University” on my blog after reflecting with higher education experts on the leadership crisis at UBC following the sudden and unexplained departure of Arvind Gupta, as well as crises at other public universities (e.g, UBC, Calgary, SaskatchewanMissouri, IllinoisIowa, Texas, and Virginia). The post was greeted with acclaim from faculty, former academic administrators, and even consultants like Alex Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates.

Events over the past six months at UBC, including the infringement of my own academic freedom, in addition to today’s release of unintentionally leaked documents related to the Gupta departure, reveal serious gaps between UBC’s governance and the principles of a well-run university.

UBC seems to have lost sight of the fact that the university is its faculty and students, not its Board of Governors; of the importance of shared governance with a strong faculty voice; of academic freedom (rather than donor concerns) as the university’s core value; of the responsibility of the BoG to represent the public interest through transparency and accountability; of the necessity of formal review of a president with broad faculty input; of communication to and from the governing board being properly through the president (not a micromanaging BoG Chair and end-arounds by the deans); of the right of the president to build his or her own team; and of the need for members of the president’s administration to support his or her leadership.

Before selecting and installing our next president, UBC has far to go in reforming its governance to make sure that president – and the university itself – can succeed.

1. At its core the university is its faculty and its students, by a definition as old as the institution itself. As universities became more complex and granted formal education and degrees, faculties were organized by broad disciplines and were led by the pre-eminent scholars in those disciplines. Thus, deans, vice chancellors, other administrators, and governing boards came into existence to facilitate the work of other scholars and students.

2. The principle of shared governance is inherent in the university. The responsibility for the continuity and quality of the university is vested in its faculty. This means that the faculty is responsible for what is taught, by whom it is taught, and to whom it is taught. It means that the faculty are expected to express views on the policies, leadership, and direction of the university.

3. Academic administrators serve the faculty and its students. All administrative officers in a university have multiple and various responsibilities. However, their paramount responsibility is to advance the mission of the university: the faculty’s ability to discover and advance new knowledge, its freedom to communicate that knowledge, and its service to the community.

4. Academic freedom is the core value of the university. Freedom of inquiry is essential to the discovery, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom is not absolute; its exercise is always subject to the measure of competence, as ascertained by peer review by experts in the discipline. Based on established expertise, however, faculty have the right to express their views, even if others may disagree with their conclusions.

5. The role of governing boards at public universities is to represent the interests of the public. Governing boards are accountable to the public for their actions. Accountability is impossible without transparency, so the actions and reasons for actions of boards must be public and the positions of individual board members with regard to those actions should also be open to public review.

6. Governing boards are responsible for fiduciary and policy decisions affecting the university. Governing boards do not involve themselves in the administration or management of the university, which are the responsibility of the university’s administration and faculty.

7. In consultation with the faculty, the governing board hires and fires the university president. The governing board seeks faculty opinion by means of an organized process with broad input from the faculty. Except for cause, in which case special investigations are required, the termination of a president or the failure to renew a president’s contract is undertaken only after a formal review in which the views of the faculty are sought.

8. Communication to and from the governing board is through the president. This is because the president alone is responsible to the board and the president alone is hired and fired by the board. Exceptions to this line of communication may occur when the board asks the president to have policies explained or presented by other university officials, or when the board has undertaken, with the knowledge of the president, a formal review of the president’s performance. Board members communicate their concerns about the university, its faculty, or students directly to the president.

9. Vice presidents and deans are appointed by the president, in consultation with the faculty, and serve at the pleasure of the president. Vice presidents and deans work with the president in developing the policies of the university that will be presented to the board and they serve as administrators of the university in their assigned spheres. It is not uncommon for a new president to ask for the resignations of those who report directly to the president to enable the new president to build his or her own team.

10. Members of the president’s administration support the president’s policies and leadership. They are free to advise the president and to disagree with the directions or policies of the president when consulting with the president. As members of the president’s administration, they should not criticize those policies in a public forum or to the board of governors without the consent of the president, except in the case of a formal review of the president by the board in which broad faculty input is sought. If these administrators feel unable to support the president in this way, they should return to their faculty posts, where they can exercise their freedom to express their criticism publicly.

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