Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2016 (1317 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Whether you are intimately involved or have never set foot on a university campus, how our highest academic institutions are controlled should matter to all Canadians.
Universities are the guardians of intellectual freedom and creators of knowledge. They are responsible for the lion's share of the discoveries that make life in Canada as privileged as it is. Therefore, it's important to keep an eye on who has the power to make decisions for these public assets.
Universities and the legislation surrounding them reflect the need to separate powers to ensure political, religious and cultural forces don't interfere with academic freedom. This usually leads to some form of bicameral governance model, where one body makes money decisions and deals with politics and the other is free to focus on academics.
This has been a constant struggle for thousands of years.
To appreciate the importance of academic freedom, one can reminisce about the famous 17th-century case of scientist and professor Galileo Galilei, who argued the Earth revolved around the sun and spent the rest of his days under arrest by the Catholic Church, forbidden to promote science that conflicted with Scripture. The church apologized 360 years later.
How are Manitoba universities governed, and how well is academic freedom preserved?
The following is an evaluation of the two major institutions in the province and how they compare with the other research-focused universities on the Prairies. Scores range from A+ (truly fair and free) to F (in dire need of reform). Of course, all of these institutions would earn an A+ by 17th-century standards, but it is a worthy exercise to use a 2016 perspective instead.
This institution has a board to run its financial matters, consisting of university leadership, staff, students and community members. The provincial government has a great deal of influence on this body and selects most of the membership. Academic decisions are supposed to be left to the senate, which is full of experienced university community members and separated from government influence. The U of M scores fairly well because its senate is more powerful than average and can make some academic decisions without the approval of the board. This is a mostly successful separation of powers.
This institution is governed by the University of Manitoba Act, which gives the senate power to establish faculty and school councils to determine how programs are managed, decide who gets admitted and grant degrees. The council, a third body of university members and outsiders, has no authority but gives advice and tries to keep the university looking sharp in the eye of the public.
To improve, the U of M could make its senate more powerful and independent of the politically controlled board and give some real powers to the council.
As noted in the University of Winnipeg Act, the primary and almost exclusively powerful governing body is the board of regents. On this board, 29 per cent of seats are reserved for members of the United Church of Canada leadership. By definition, almost one-third of this public institution's leadership must have professed "their faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him." Unsurprisingly, given Galileo died centuries ago and not yesterday, this is the only institution that requires a religious test to hold office. A fairly weak but secular senate is the secondary body, with some authority over smaller academic decisions and advisory ability for larger ones.
The U of W would benefit greatly from leaving religion out of governance and having a senate more able to challenge and check the power of the board.
The enviable U of S has a board mostly limited to financial matters, the academic decisions of which require approval of other bodies. An academically focused senate and council can make binding decisions without approval — the former regarding smaller decisions, the latter regarding the biggest choices the university might make. Council (consisting of university leadership, staff and students) has real authority over the academy backed by provincial law. As if this isn't fair enough, there is also a general assembly — a watchdog consisting of all faculty and many students — that can vote to delay and force reconsideration of decisions and to dissolve council and temporarily transfer power to the senate. Others should take a good look at the University of Saskatchewan Act.
The U of R, in accordance with the University of Regina Act, has a governance structure almost identical to the U of M's. It scores lower because of its senate having less power. The board has too much unchecked control.
The Alberta institutions, the universities of Alberta, Calgary, Lethbridge and Athabasca, are all governed by the same piece of legislation, the Post-Secondary Learning Act. The primary governing body is the board, and the secondary is the general faculties council. The board is supposed to make money decisions; the council, academic ones. In practice, council has some power, but technically the law gives supreme authority to the board, which must approve and can override anything passed by council. It also has a completely powerless senate.
If you are unsatisfied with any of your public institutions' governance, you should look to your province, as these rules are born in the provincial legislature. Your MLA would be the person to contact — hopefully with the idea of improving the barrier between politics and religion and academic inquiry. These universities are yours; your tax dollars feed them, and your lifestyle depends on them. Feel free to voice your opinion.
Brayden Whitlock is a PhD student in the faculty of medicine and involved in university governance on the general faculties council at the University of Alberta.