Board Outsources Scrutiny

Concordia’s Board of Governors Sends Leadership Review to External Committee

Tempers flared at the Board of Governors’ Feb. 17 meeting as two-dozen irritated faculty members openly challenged the sitting chair and heckled Concordia’s interim president. The jeers were met by poorly veiled threats from long-sitting governors.

Despite the confrontational atmosphere, the Board succeeded in ignoring calls from across the university community for the resignation of many of its governors and struck an independence panel of three external experts to examine Concordia’s leadership crisis.

“I am worried. Are we talking about governance or are we talking about power?” asked Charles Cavell, the former CEO of Quebecor World, as the proposal to create the external committee was questioned.
“External members are what got us into this mess,” cried a faculty member from the gallery as many heads bobbed in support.

Shrugging off the jab from faculty, the 23 external members on Concordia’s Board of 40 governors has been dodging intense criticism since the costly dismissal of President Judith Woodsworth on Dec. 22, the second dismissed president in just over three years.

Faculty and student leaders have said that the $703,500 severance package given to Woodsworth less than half way through her first term was representative of a crisis gripping Concordia’s upper administration. With nearly $10 million spent on severances and buyouts of senior administrators over the previous decade, the legitimacy of the Board’s 23 external members was put into question as spending has lost control.

As a result, all of Concordia’s unions, student governments, and the Board’s academic equal, the Senate, called for the resignation of certain Board members.

Despite the calls for resignation, the Feb. 17 meeting was about the proposed external committee.

Some faculty and governors present felt that the committee, formed under the supervision of the Board’s handpicked interim president, Frederick Lowy, would not be critical of the crisis that rocked the university’s upper administration.

“This Board, I don’t believe has the right to delegate power, because that’s bad governance,” continued Cavell, a vice chair of the Board who has sat for 12-years.

“There are a number of issues where I am concerned about governance. I am concerned that we have committees that do important work where the balance [between campus and external members] isn’t appropriate.
“We have union agreements, which award rights and privileges, which I think is bad governance.

“We are a well-run institution. I listen with great appreciation to Fred [Lowy’s] efforts to say, ‘Lets work together,’ because I can propose a number of changes in government that I think will remove inappropriate allocation of rights that don’t represent the best interests of the institution.”

The sharp string of comments from Cavell, after an hour of debate in the Board chamber, surprised many of the unionized faculty in attendance. With the anger clear on both sides, the debate ended and a motion to create the committee passed.

The committee, whose members have yet to be announced, will likely include a former president from another university, an expert in university governance and a professor.

One of the men most blamed for the university’s woes, Board Chair Peter Kruyt, was absent at the meeting, as he is on a three-month business trip to China. Kruyt has refused to step down, despite a widespread call for him to do so.
An unlikely defense of Kruyt came from Jean Freed, the representative for the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association. Freed countered the complaints by faculty against Kruyt and the Board by telling them that they were part of a “democratic process” that resulted in a coup against Woodsworth.

“It was crystal clear what was happening,” said Freed, a non-voting member who can only speak for CUPFA. “I knew what was happening. We all knew what was happening.

“From my observation, the chair wasn’t even the instigator, we all had a say on seeing Woodsworth go.”

Freed’s comments, while unexpected, reinforced the view that the lines of division running through the Board room were not clear and did not follow the faculty, student or community positions.

Sitting at the middle of the conflict was Lowy, appointed interim president in late January, who returned to a post he retired from in 2005.

“We do have a problem here,” said Lowy, at the opening of the meeting. “Right now, there is a degree of concern and even anger in some quarters.”

The interim president’s remarks were delayed as the meeting’s start in open session was pushed back by the unexpected influx of faculty. While Board meetings have an overflow room, where extra people can watch the broadcasted proceedings, provisional Chair Jonathan Wener was unable to convince the standing faculty and students to leave.

Seats were found and the chair relented, perhaps for the first time in the Board’s history, allowing the extra bodies to remain.

“We will overcome the immediate crisis and we will come to see this, I hope, as an opportunity to explore change about how we govern ourselves, on the way we relate to each other and the way we foster learning, investigation and knowledge transfer,” concluded Lowy.

Now that the Board has settled upon a means of examining its past behaviour, the interim president said he would concentrate on filling the gutted top ranks of the university, reassuring donors, rebuilding Concordia’s battered reputation and meeting the demands of students.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.

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