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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2001

Professors at Trent Want Supreme Court to Decide

The proposed closure of Trent's two downtown colleges & the subsequent court case that upheld that decision has left professors little option but a high court appeal.

The continuing dispute over the closure of Trent University's two downtown colleges is heading to the Supreme Court of Canada. Trent professors Ian McLachlan and Andrew Wernick are seeking leave to appeal a recent split decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal that upheld the university board's power to close Catharine Parr Traill and Peter Robinson colleges despite opposition from the university senate.

"If boards had sole jurisdiction over educational policy and were empowered to act without the approval of senates, then universities would be stripped of their academic autonomy," said McLachlan, a former master of one of the colleges slated for closure.

McLachlan said the case raises important questions about university governance, which traditionally has seen authority shared between boards appointed by government and senates elected from the university community. "It's not surprising the Harris government supported the Trent board in front of the Ontario court," he said. "To put all the power in the hands of the board may make narrowly corporate 'common sense,' but it violates every norm of academic common sense."

Professor Wernick argues the majority decision ignored the history and rationale of how Canadian universities operate. He said he hopes the Supreme Court will "overturn the radical and detrimental change in university governance that could result from this decision."

CAUT has announced it will support the two professors in their appeal to the Supreme Court.

"What is at issue is a simple question arising in situations of bicameral governance," said CAUT president Tom Booth. "While it takes the agreement of both the board and the senate to establish something, what happens when one body wants to continue it and the other one wants to end it?"

According to Booth, the Appeal Court majority ruled that the board can act unilaterally in such a situation, while the dissent argued that neither the board's power of general governance nor its power of the purse allow it to usurp the role of the senate to control, regulate, and determine the educational policy of the university.

"Whatever the outcome of the case in the Supreme Court, we will be better off with a clearer statement of which of these views applies to the relative powers of boards and senates. Even if we lose, the Supreme Court reframes its conclusions and may give useful guidance," Booth said.

A second issue involved in this case is the right of interested faculty and senators to standing. The Appeal Court majority held that a senator and a faculty member, even though materially and substantively affected by the action of the board do not have right to standing.

"This is a devastating denial of a democratic right as well as a misreading of previous Supreme Court decisions," Booth said.