First impressions from an academic member of the Board of Trustees

Last spring, I was elected to the Senate of my University, and then was selected as a Senate representative on the Board of Trustees.  Being on both Senate and the Board is quite interesting, because Senates and Boards represent different sides of the same coin.  Like most universities in Canada, Brock University has a bicameral system of governance. Bicameral governance divvies up responsibilities roughly according to the type of activity.  Senate is responsible for academic matters, namely teaching and research activities, so many professors eventually serve as Senators, sometime during their career.  The Board of Trustees (or Governors, at higher-falutin’ uni’s) is responsible for operations, finance, and generally keeping an eye on management, i.e. the President (or equivalent) and top-level Vice Presidents.  The Board is much smaller than Senate and has only 3 faculty members, so far fewer professors ever serve on University Boards.  Most Brock trustees come from outside the University, often having run successful businesses or non-profit organisations, and serving on boards of various service and charitable organisations.  Almost half are women.  Brock meetings of the Board of Trustees are mostly open, which means visitors can observe the meetings.  Only rarely are matters discussed in camera.

This post is about my first impressions of the Board.  In later posts, I will probably write about the content of Board meetings, but here I just want to tell you a little about them, because they really are an unknown quantity to most of the University.  The Board meets about 4 times per year, with each meeting “cycle” lasting two days (yes, two solid days of meetings for senior Board members!).  The Board has subcommittees that meet first (in sequence), followed by a meeting of the whole Board.  The second cycle of meetings began today and will finish tomorrow.  Some senior Board members also spend a lot of time in meetings in between cycles.  They do this as volunteers, and although it is pretty interesting and very useful, it can also be a thankless task when things go wrong.  More of that in another post, but if you follow university politics at all, you’ll know that our University has had some issues recently.

Halfway through my second cycle of meetings, I am beginning to understand how the Board works.  Board members exemplify the dictum that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  They certainly know a thing or two about running and building organisations.  They take very seriously their responsibilities to the University.  They have no interest in managing the University, because their job is make sure that sustainable financial underpinnings allow the University to fulfill its academic mission.   They pay very close attention to numbers – financial and enrolment numbers especially.  To prepare for meetings, they read mountains of documents very carefully, and judging by the questions they ask, they all read everything (and some of it is pretty deadly).  They definitely see the University differently than Senators do, partly because their job is different from Senate’s.  I think they also see the University differently because they are mostly not part of the academic world, which means that their views of the University are probably more representative of a generally positive slice of public opinion.  While some  University Boards seem to include members who have negative views of academe (why in the world would they join a university board, then?), Brock’s Board are clearly positive to universities in general and Brock in particular.

I was a bit skeptical about this whole Trustee gig when I started – Senate is a more natural environment for many professors, just as the Board is a more natural environment, I suspect, for some of the University’s administration. I’ve already adjusted many of my assumptions about the Board and I hope that my occasional blog posts will bring some of that new perspective to my still (understandably) skeptical colleagues.

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About Miriam Richards

Professor, scientist, farmer, etc.
This entry was posted in Life, the University, and Everything, News. Bookmark the permalink.

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