Senate readies for non-confidence debates

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western President Amit Chakma continues to push forward on his announced 100-Day Plan, even as the university Senate prepares to debate a motion of non-confidence in his leadership on Friday.

Western President Amit Chakma continues to push forward on his announced 100-Day Plan, even as the university Senate prepares to debate a motion of non-confidence in his leadership on Friday.

The president has spent the better part of his post-Senate meeting week launching his announced campus engagement plan. The President’s Office said Chakma’s schedule has been cleared of most external meetings “to remain available for internal opportunities.”

On Monday, the president spoke to the Science Faculty Council, where he heard concerns over a range of issues, including rising tuition and fees, matching fundraising to university priorities, reduced staff support as it relates to research, contract faculty teaching loads and the challenges facing graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in launching their careers. On Wednesday, Chakma met with the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) executive team to discuss its concerns, and then with department chairs and Senators from Social Science, in separate events.

Next week, the president will launch the first of his town hall-style meetings in Engineering.

“I’m grateful for the invitations extended to me, thus far, by the faculties to engage directly with them, and I’m looking forward to meeting with other faculties and campus groups in the near future,” Chakma said Tuesday. “Monday morning’s meeting with the Faculty Council in Science was a good start and very insightful. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness people expressed through their comments and questions. They highlighted for me the variety and complexity of their concerns.

“As I continue to meet with more faculty, staff and students across campus, I anticipate some key issues will emerge that we will address in the first phase of the plan.”

On Tuesday, the UWOFA Board of Directors issued a statement calling on campus to use the events of the last two weeks as “an opportunity to create a better university.”

“We have always maintained that our concern is not with the money, or even with one person, but with the serious underlying problems that the double payment has brought to light,” the open letter stated. “The president admits he has been disconnected from the Western community and concedes that we need to improve Western’s model of collegial governance. We agree. He hopes to reconnect via a ‘100-day listening project.’ UWOFA believes we need far more than town hall meetings. Our members need concrete, tangible action.”

The UWOFA statement called for three actions:

  • An independent, objective and full review of the state of governance at Western, including the operations of the Senate and the Board of Governors;
  • An independent review of compensation practices related to all senior administrators at Western; and
  • The development of a more transparent budget process that properly sustains all of the faculties and frontline services to which the university has committed itself.

Noticeably absent from the statement, however, was any endorsement of the non-confidence question facing the Senate or any call for the president’s resignation. The letter simply stated that decision “remains in the hands of the Senate.”

“UWOFA was out in front from the start on this. We felt our members would be looking to us for a position,” said Alison Hearn, UWOFA president. “The membership already voted non-confidence in the president. They showed their frustrations. But the board wanted to make sure we are part of the conversation going forward.

“Whether the president stays or goes, these things need to be addressed.”

On April 2, UWOFA, which represents more than 1,600 faculty members, voted 94 per cent in favour (54 per cent of members represented) of a non-confidence resolution concerning Chakma and Western Board of Governors Chair Chirag Shah.

“Some people are concerned about what will happen if he (Chakma) goes; others want him out as soon as possible. No matter what the outcome, the most important thing is that a full debate of the motion be had at Senate this Friday,” Hearn said. “We all know there is so much work to do, and so much doubt and mistrust, that we believe an apology is good, but actions are better.”

All this positioning takes place as the university Senate prepares to hold a special meeting to discuss its motion of non-confidence in the president.

Senate by-laws require a special meeting be held upon a written request from a minimum of seven Senators. Such a request must state the business of the proposed meeting at the time it is made. Last week, 22 Senators requested the meeting to discuss the proposed motion: “That the Senate of the University of Western Ontario has lost confidence in President Amit Chakma.”

A second motion concerning the leadership of the Board of Governors was added to the Senate agenda Wednesday morning by the Senate’s Operations/Agenda Committee, chaired by Health Sciences Dean Jim Weese, who will chair the special meeting as well. That proposed motion reads: “That the Senate of the University of Western Ontario has lost confidence in Chair of the Board of Governors President Chirag Shah.”

Once inside the meeting, regular parliamentary rules apply. The motion will need to be brought to the floor and seconded. It is then open to the same range of procedural motions as any other motion. For example, the motion can be amended in any number of ways (except if an amendment would negate the “original sense” of the motion) – a decision could be postponed to a particular time or indefinitely, or the motion could be referred to a committee or subgroup for further consideration, explained Irene Birrell, Secretary of the Senate.

The meeting is open to the public, however, given it concerns personnel decisions, a Senator could ask for a vote to move the discussion into closed session. The request would need to be approved by the Senate, however.

The final motion requires a majority of the Senators present and voting to vote in favour. There are currently 101 voting members of Senate; quorum is 51. As a voting member, Chakma can cast a vote.

In the end, however, a Senate non-confidence vote is non-binding. If approved, the results would go to the Board of Governors for action.

Although unprecedented at Western, non-confidence votes – or even a near non-confidence votes – in university presidents are not unheard of among postsecondary schools in Canada, and far more so in the United States.

In September 2013, a motion to hold a vote of non-confidence against the president and provost of the University of Regina failed by a single vote. In March 2011, the Academic Senate of Nipissing University passed a motion of non-confidence in President Lesley Lovett-Doust, over what the governing body described as blatant disrespect for the Senate and concerns about numerous administrative decisions, including naming the school’s library after former Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Lovett-Doust resigned less than a year later.

In the United States, the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) senate passed a non-confidence motion in its president just a few months ago over governance style – and the fact he disbanded the university’s football team. But UAB was far from unique, as senates questioned confidence in presidents at the University of Illinois, City University of New York, Emory University, Marshall University and New York University, in just the last year or so.

But don’t let novelty cloud the seriousness of the vote, two deans are stressing.

“It is naive and misguided to think a non-confidence vote is about nothing more than wagging your finger at the president; there are deeper – and far more serious – implications,” said Iain Scott, Law Dean and Senator. “If the Senate wants to express its frustration at what happened, I get it. Let’s move forward from there. We can take the issues raised and have a broader conversation to create a landscape for success for the future direction and leadership of Western.

“But, as soon as we layer on the fact we have no confidence in our leader and his team, then we are not doing what is in the best interest of the university.”

Scott remains convinced an affirmed non-confidence motion means the president will have a very difficult decision to make. He doesn’t think there is a leader of any organization who would be able to continue to lead after losing the confidence of the body they represent, Scott continued.

“The Senate needs to park its annoyance – and, yes, some might call it anger – at the door. Those who think they can vote non-confidence and all will be OK, they simply don’t get it. I am gravely concerned by it. I am concerned that people see it as an admonition that has no consequences. I believe it has grave consequences.”

Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry Dean and Senator Dr. Michael Strong has “never seen anything more challenging” in his career than the events of the last few weeks. Like Scott, he warned Senate action will echo well beyond campus.

“What would Saturday morning look like? I don’t know if anyone has thought of that,” Strong asked. “People outside the university will not see this as an internal debate or understand the complexity of the issues being brought forward. They will see it only as an issue arising from the Sunshine List. It will cast us in a difficult light, cast us as being dysfunctional, as having set up this difficult dynamic. The perception would be, ‘Why invest in Western right now? They need to straighten their own shop.’

“We cannot appear, as a university, to be disorganized and have a leadership void at this time.”

If the motion fails, Strong still expects action from the president. He wants Senate to make its expectations clear, that the president return to the governing body with a plan to begin to bring the university back together as a cohesive unit and set the groundwork for his eventual successor.

“As a university, we should be capable of putting things into perspective and talk about what’s best for the university,” Strong continued. “This isn’t about arguments not being valid or invalid; this is about addressing those underlying issues.

“The president has received the message very clearly. The Senate has spoken. It is time to move past that now and ask, ‘How do we move forward?’”

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IF YOU GO: The meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday in the Richard Ivey Building, Room 1100. Doors will open around 1:10 p.m., as a previously scheduled Ivey event abutting the Senate start time will delay opening of doors.