Transparency Needed at Concordia’s Board

The fall semester claimed a final victim before students returned to university this week, clearing out the last of Concordia’s big names.

First Kathy Assayag, the fundraising whiz, departed under a cloud. Then Michael DiGrappa, the master builder, was lured away, and now President Judith Woodsworth’s chair is empty.

For the second time in three years, Concordia is without a president.

With the senior administration gutted and VP External Relations Bram Freedman keeping the president’s chair warm for whoever can be convinced to take the post, the university’s board of governors has never been so powerful.

A club of successful businessmen and cultural elites, the 40 members of Concordia’s board sit at the apex of the university’s power structure. While the board has the power to manage and oversee all decisions affecting the university, this power is normally tempered by the presence of a president and a capable administration. All internal checks on the board’s power have now been swept aside.

Having dismissed its second president—the first, Claude Lajeunesse was fired in October 2007 for erratic behaviour and arrogance—the board is now acting like the corporate board of directors it is more familiar with. Senior administrators are now being retained and dismissed based on immediate results and public relations as much as they used to be chosen based on vision and academics.

The reasons for Woodsworth’s dismissal are not as clear as those for dismissing Lajeunesse. While the president made mistakes during her tenure, the decision to drive her away was not academic and the board will not explain itself to the students whose best interests it claims to serve.

The cost of buying the silence of the past two presidents now nears $2 million. Whatever can be said about Woodsworth’s dismissal, the decision was clearly not in the interest of students.

The worrying question now is not why Woodsworth was let go, but who is next? A senior VP at Power Corporation, the CEO of Montreal’s Airports Authority, the chairman of a major property development firm and the president of BMO Financial Group now have the power to decide who will lead this university next.

What will their criteria be?

Woodsworth set out a clear vision, balanced the books and spoke publicly in favour of raising tuition to $5,000 by 2020—a figure closer to $10,000 per year when you include the ancillary fees. What more could the board want?

Instead of demanding a clear vision from the presidents they appoint, perhaps it is time that the board sets forth its own vision of how it thinks Concordia should be run. Any perspective president would need an intimate relationship with the board, or a contract that provided near dictatorial powers, to even think of taking the position.

With the terms of 32 of the 40 governors set to expire by the end of the year, the decision made about who will take over the university’s depleted upper ranks will be a more important one than most.

­By 2012, Concordia could be a very different place. The process of choosing who will lead the university needs much more transparency than the closed sessions of the past.

—Justin Giovannetti,

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 17, published January 4, 2011.