Concordia Has a Governance Problem

Graphic: Morag Rahn-Campbell

“Transparency does not equal good governance.”

These were the words of Peter Kruyt, Chair of the Board of Governors, back in 2012, when students tried to make the Board’s meeting more open. They wanted all meetings to have spaces for 50 members of the public, as well as a question period and a recording with an online broadcast.

Needless to say, the highest decision-making body of our university considered this excessive. This was in 2012, when Concordia University governance bodies were widely decried for displaying a “culture of contempt.” Since then, very little progress has been made. There is still no access to a recording of the meetings online. Board meetings are now barred to non-Board members. The only option for observers is a livestream in a small room of a different building, which is far from satisfactory.

Meetings of the Senate—Concordia’s highest academic decision-making body—are open to the public and recorded, as are the meetings of the Concordia Student Union. The decisions made by the Board of Governors affect us all, from setting tuition and other fees to approving pricey contracts to senior administrators that include millions in severance pay. As such, they should be accountable to the Concordia community, and the first step in accountability is transparency.

This shyness is perhaps due to the majority of our Governors coming from a community less at ease with public scrutiny, lest it gets in the way of their profits. Indeed, out of 25 voting members, there are 15 seats attributed to “external Governors,” a term defined as “any member who represents the community-at-large.”

However, a quick look at the list of this “community-at-large” does not reveal actors of the civil society involved in the community, but almost exclusively CEOs and executives of large banks and companies. The vice-chairman at RBC wealth management, a former vice-president at SNC-Lavalin, the CEO at Mirabaud Canada, the list goes on—not exactly a representative sample of the population.

The presence of external governors on the Board is justified by arguing that it helps Concordia, partially funded by taxpayer money, fulfill its public mission. However, because these seats are filled with corporate executives, the University’s governance and mission is reduced to running a business instead of a public institution. How can people accustomed to serving private interests in corporate boardrooms feel comfortable serving the public good in a transparent, democratic setting?

Equally problematic, the lack of socio-economic diversity on our Board, which brings with it a lack of gender and racial diversity. This poses a real threat to the integrity of our University’s mission.

How can we expect Concordia to stand up to the government’s austerity programs when the private sector directly benefits from these policies? How can we expect Concordia to make a stand against the increasing commodification of our education when the private sector is the main beneficiary of this process? And how can we expect CEOs and executives of large corporations to understand the struggles of students who, to make it to the end of the month, may have to choose between buying decent food and buying textbooks?

This lack of understanding by the external Governors was exemplified on Dec.14, when the Board voted on the adoption of tuition increases for international students. The motion was narrowly defeated because it failed to garner the 60 per cent threshold necessary for its adoption. Unsurprisingly, the opposition to the increase came from staff, faculty and student representatives. All external Governors present either supported or abstained on the motion.

Even at the Senate, a comparatively more democratic and transparent institution, the way in which meetings are run has also recently proven to be an issue. Senate is supposed to be a collegial institution, but it is chaired by Concordia President Alan Shepard.

This directing role has allowed the administration to evade questions multiple times, adjourn meetings prematurely and entirely shut down discussions, like on Dec. 9, when student senators tried to raise their concerns about the academic impact of tuition increases for international students.

Instead of allowing a discussion, Graham Carr, Concordia’s provost who was chairing in Shepard’s absence, refused to answer questions or allow the discussion to take place. He said that tuition is a Board of Governors matter and “not really in the purview of Senate,” despite the fact that Article 69 of the Concordia by-laws states that the “Senate may make whatever recommendations it deems appropriate to the Board of Governors.”

Concordia is not the only university to experience governance problems. The Students’ Society of McGill University recently released a research report outlining a number of recommendations on how to reform their Board of Governors.

These recommendations include increased student and McGill community representation and representation that better reflects the “diversity of the wider community, such as Indigenous peoples, people of colour, trans people, people with disabilities, and others with diverse lived experiences,” as well as increased transparency and community involvement in the Governors’ selection process.

Concordia University has a public mission. As such, it should be held accountable to the wider community, not only the Concordia community. But unlike Peter Kruyt, I believe that transparency is a prerequisite to accountability, and accountability is necessary for good governance.

Similarly, to pretend that 15 affluent, mostly-white people represent the “community-at-large” is not only wrong, it is offensive. I encourage the Board to review the conclusions of the SSMU’s research, as they are also pertinent to Concordia.

And finally, I would like to remind the Board that on the same day that they voted on the proposed tuition increase, which had been kept secret and been developed with no consultation whatsoever, they also adopted the University’s first Sustainability Policy.

This policy was brought forward after years of student pressure. It integrated contributions from stakeholders across the Concordia community in its development. This policy, which the Board is now tasked with enforcing, states: “Consultation is integral to the decision-making process.”

I hope to see this commitment put into practice.

Aloyse Muller is the Concordia Student Union’s external affairs and mobilization coordinator. He was actively involved in the campaign against the implementation of cohort pricing for international students in deregulated programs.