Power and Politics at Laurier: the Senate, the Laurier Act and Centralized Decision-making

This is an article from the WLUFA Advocate November 2014 3.2.

Kimberly Ellis-Hale, Sue Ferguson, David Monod and Brenda Murphy

Laurier’s governing structure was established in 1973 when Waterloo Lutheran University was transformed into a public institution. The Wilfrid Laurier University Act gives residual power to a 34-member Board of Governors (BoG), and grants specific control over the curriculum to a Senate on which faculty have a fixed one-vote majority. Because the division between allocating and operationalizing resources is murky, the Act overlaps the membership and powers of both governing committees. For example, the Chair and three members of the BoG sit on Senate; Senate has the authority to make recommendations to the Board on any matter related to the use of resources; and, where Senate establishes qualifications for such things as tenure or promotion, the Board grants them.

If there was potential for conflict in governing Laurier 40 years ago, when the university included one small cam-pus of 2,300 students, a few dozen faculty and no unions, how much more difficult is it today? Is it time for a change?

Despite the Act, growth has been accompanied by changes in governance practice. Most notably, since the 1960s there has been a steady centralization of power. When Laurier was created, departments were the primary decision-making bodies on campus. Department heads met regularly with their deans to discuss matters of shared concern, but program development, all aspects of pedagogy, student advising and hiring and promotion were in the hands of departments-in-council.

According to faculty memoirs, depart-mental autonomy was already waning before 1973, but the Act accelerated the trend. The creation of faculty councils, a Senate Academic Planning Committee, a Senate Tenure and Promotion Commit-tee and a “Council of Deans,” introduced new decision-making levels. Over succeeding decades, much of the job of student advising (outside of Brantford) has moved to the Faculty; Faculty-level curriculum committees oversee course developments and set standards; chairs under the collective agreement are denied the status of supervisors and have limited information about, or authority over, full-time faculty; in Brantford (and increasingly on the Waterloo campus) deans determine individual course caps, thereby influencing pedagogy; and the number of courses offered in a program is everywhere determined at the decanal level. The decline in the authority of departmental units is continuing, and the IPRM’s recommendation that the university adopt an activity-based accounting system, based on Faculty-level enrolments, is simply another step in a long process of centralization.
At the university level, senior administrators, bureaucracies and committees have proliferated, especially over the last decade. As the university’s functions change, the dragons’ teeth are sown and up pop administrators. Sometimes, as in the case of the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, part of an existing dean’s job is split off and a new vice-president appointed; in another case, like the Dean of Students’, a dean was made
a vice-president; in yet other cases, like that of the Associate Vice-President Teaching and Learning, a new vice-president appeared to do a job that had not previously existed.
Faculty tend to get angry over this kind of bureaucratic growth, which seems to be sapping resources out of teaching. There is a relationship, direct or not, between paying the salaries of a burgeoning administration on the one hand, and the “savings” realized by bigger classes and greater reliance on casualized labour. How-ever, faculty also have to recognize that the institution is becoming an increasingly complex business organization. Today, Laurier is a real estate company, a political lobby, a public-relations firm and a retailer, in addition to being an educational institution.

As the university’s mission becomes more complex, its administration creates instruments to manage the diversifying portfolio. Consider, for example, the recent appearance of a public-relations arm, the office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing (CPAM) which has both a Director and a Vice-President. CPAM coordinates Laurier’s public imaging, including its website, information about its Milton campus, PR for the new business building, advertising and a host of other activities. A Member’s recent effort to get information related to Contract Faculty highlighted Laurier’s changing institutional culture by exposing how tightly controlled its public relations approach has become. CPAM releases only the information the university wants be-fore the public, which means only that information that cannot be considered negative to the school’s image. Given how universities today compete for donations and students, this might be a logical development, but it also speaks to an increasingly corporatized institutional culture that many faculty and staff find alienating.

Paradoxically, contracts and legislation have the effect of freezing structures, making visible past organizational practices and further aggravating the perception that change is illegitimate. The WLUFA/Wilfrid Laurier University Collective Agreement, is a case in point, as it builds control over programs from the bottom up, beginning with a department-in-council. Given the centralization of power over the last 20 years, this fragment of an older university seems almost anachronistic.

Of course, administrators and faculty negotiate their way around the contract and the Act on a daily basis, creating, among other things, a proliferation of grievances. But the gap between structure and practice is growing ever wider. Here’s just one problem: how is the implementation of the IPRM Academic Priorities Report actually going to hap-pen? Since a department-in-council is responsible for initiating curriculum changes in its discipline, are we to assume that it will have to move an IPRM recommendation for its own elimination? The mind boggles.

The other partner in governing the university is the Board of Governors, which has responsibility for university finances. Its membership includes students and faculty but it is dominated by community members, primarily executives from local and regional business-es. It meets regularly, and governors will sometimes ask hard questions of the administration about Laurier’s financial priorities. At the same time, their largely private sector background means that they don’t always fully understand why management can’t just “get on with it,” especially when Faculty – who are in fact legislated as partners in the running of the university – raise tough questions about some of the administration’s priorities. For in-stance, many governors were confused about why Divisional Council documents censuring the IPRM process were presented to a BoG meeting. They may need reminding that, unlike a private sector organization whose goal is generally to increase profits, the BoG is beholden by the Laurier Act to the taxpayers of Ontario. It must make decisions about spending in accordance with the university’s mission statement – a statement that prioritizes “excellence in learning, research, scholarship and creativity.”
The Laurier Act seems out of sync with practice. It establishes the authority of the Senate over pedagogy and operations. But how realistic is it to expect a group that meets for two hours once a month to really exercise supervisory authority over student life, curriculum, research and teaching? In the 1990s, Senate became little more than a forum for the presentation of administrative updates. That era has, mercifully, passed, but now there is a substantial consent agenda on top of recruiting reports, IT updates and other curricular business. The President, who chairs Senate, is always conscious of the time as well as the volume of business and frequently drives the agenda quickly. It is easy in this context to miss things – or to find ways to make sure that things are missed. The massive growth in university business, the shift in the centre of authority away from faculty and their departments, and the weakening of “collegiality” has debilitated the instruments of governance.

While the Act may be outdated, some suggest that it is time to bring practice back in line with the spirit and letter of the law. Although it centralized decision-making, the Act also put the pow-er of academic planning and prioritizing squarely in the hands of Senate and its bodies (divisional, department and program councils). The Chair of Senate is just that, its chair. Not a president, with executive powers, but a presiding officer who is mandated to follow the democratically negotiated will of Senate members who are themselves, in the case of faculty members, delegated to represent the members of their divisions. We might begin, then, by encouraging Senators to exercise the power that they, in fact, have. To do so, however, they need also to foster debate and discussion among their constituents so they can make informed decisions about when and how to challenge agendas that may conflict with faculty interests.

How else might governance be made more transparent and responsible? A faculty watchdog body that reviews Senate documents might help foster awareness and debate, for instance. Or it is possible that shuffling the BoG membership to include those who rep-resent a wider swathe of the community – such as the service sector, non-profits, and even social movements – might help the Board make better sense of academic priorities.


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