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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2004

Discussion of University Governance Needed in Canada

Glen A. Jones

Governance in Higher Education: The University in a State of Flux

Werner Z. Hirsch & Luc E. Weber, eds. London, Paris & Geneva: Economica Ltd., 2001; 204 pp; ISBN: 2-7178-4190-3; hardcover $19.95 US.
How should universities make decisions? Given the significant higher education reforms that have taken place in many countries, the shifting role of the university in the face of new social and economic demands and the dramatic expansion of enrollment in many jurisdictions, it is not surprising this question is receiving considerable attention in the higher education research literature. University governance has become an important issue for policymakers, institutional leaders and the university community.

Unfortunately, this edited collection of papers selected from a January 2000 colloquium in California contributes little to the international discussion of university governance. The central problem is the lack of balance in perspectives, author selection and jurisdictional coverage. While the objective of the volume is to review university governance in the United States and Western Europe, seven of the 13 chapters focus primarily on governance in the American research university - a problem of balance that becomes exacerbated by the editorial decision to begin with three such chapters and conclude the book with two more.

The American contributors demonstrate little knowledge about university governance outside the U.S. and the sandwiched Western European coverage is marginalized in a volume that begins and ends with the assumption that the American research university is "the" university.

The organizational structure of the volume is particularly unfortunate given the strongest chapters are buried in the middle. Guy Neave's essay on "Governance, Change and the Universities in Western Europe" is a thoughtful macro-review of reforms in university governance in continental Europe in the context of significant shifts in university-state

Further along, Peter Scott reviews a number of university models and demonstrates how different views of governance emerge from different understandings of university organization. He defines and discusses five useful patterns or categories of university governance. He concludes that governance reform must somehow address seemingly contradictory pressures of the need to centralize, "to act corporately," (p. 139) and the desire for decentralization, in order to encourage greater innovation. He argues in favour of "a shift from emphasizing governance's contribution to the management of change to its responsibility for changing institutional cultures" (p. 140) through open and transparent processes.

Hans van Ginkel (in a poorly copyedited chapter) discusses the tremendous diversity of university governance arrangements and the impact of these differences on university policies and strategies. He makes a number of interesting observations on the dramatic reforms to university governance arrangements that have taken place in The Netherlands as well as other jurisdictions.

James Duderstadt's contribution, "Fire, Ready, Aim! University Decision-Making During an Era of Rapid Change," is a call for significant governance reform including rebalancing participatory faculty governance structures and overhauling "weak, ineffectual, and usually short-term administrative leadership." (p. 49)

One of the core challenges associated with discussions of university governance is that where one stands is heavily influenced by where one sits. Since many of the contributors to this volume are current or former university presidents, a great deal of attention is given to factors that reduce a university president's ability to respond quickly in a rapidly changing environment. Most of the American contributors assume, like Frank Rhodes in the opening chapter, that "the concept of board governance and responsibility has proved remarkably resilient and successful" (p. 13), but that the system fails when boards become politicized or begin to intrude into the affairs of the central administration.

Faculty participation in university decision-making - or "shared governance" in American parlance - receives considerable attention in several chapters, but none of the authors suggest faculty could play a legitimate role on university governing boards, or that collective bargaining is anything other than a destructive phenomenon. The voices of faculty, students, trustees, external organizations and government leaders are largely missing from the discussion.

Given the focus of the volume is on the governance of research universities, surprisingly few of the authors view the topic as one that can be addressed by research. With a few important exceptions, the authors seldom refer to empirical research on university governance in the U.S. or elsewhere.

The "Glion Declaration," a series of statements and suggestions on governance reform emerging from the conference, is included as an appendix, but there is no attempt to explicitly link these ideas to the arguments of the chapter authors or to any other body of research or thought.

In one way or another, all of these criticisms of the book involve issues of balance and the editors have done little to help the reader understand the logic underscoring these decisions. The editors' introduction takes the form of a four-page preface, but there is no introductory chapter to guide us and no concluding chapter to help us understand where we have been.

Canadian readers will learn relatively little from this volume other than the fact that other jurisdictions are grappling with many of the same governance issues that can be found in our universities. Neave's chapter provides a good introduction to some of the dramatic changes in governance arrangements taking place in some Western European countries, and Scott and others provide a useful analysis of the key challenges associated with governance reform.

Perhaps the book's greatest contribution is that it provides a fairly clear indication of how a number of influential American higher education institutional leaders understand the topic and their answers to the question of how universities should decide. The volume clearly reinforces the need for a Canadian discussion of university governance and the importance of finding made-in-Canada solutions that address our unique issues and needs.

Glen A. Jones is an associate professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.