Wilson: Not a report that will sit on the shelf

The message from the campus community has been clear for Matthew Wilson and his fellow members of the Board Governance Review Task Force.

“There is an expectation that Western’s Board of Governors be more open and transparent in how it functions, and that it needs to make a stronger effort in communicating both within and outside the university community,” Wilson said.

“To be able to move forward, we must encourage that dialogue and discussion. Western is, and should be, an institution of critical thinking, of investigation, of thought-provoking discussions. The Board needs to be able to have those discussions in a respectful manner to be able to understand the hopes and dreams, concerns and wishes of the university, so the decisions made around the Board table encompass those.”

Released today, the Report of the Board Governance Review Task Force outlines a number of steps the university governing body needs to take in the wake of a presidential compensation debate that has raged across campus since March. The internal report and its recommendations will be taken up at the next Board meeting, Nov. 26.

“It’s important that this be brought forward in the public,” Wilson said of the report’s time on the upcoming meeting agenda. “We hope there is a good dialogue and discussion. It is the task force’s ultimate hope that our recommendations be adopted by our colleagues around the table.”

Struck in June, the Board Governance Review Task Force was charged with exploring the university governing body in the wake of a turbulent spring. Chaired by Wilson and Brian Timney, the task force was only comprised of Board members and former members, including Rick Konrad, Michael Lerner, Jeremy Adams, Paul Jenkins, Hanny Hassan, Susan Grindrod, Jonathan English and Brendan Power.

The task force was asked to explore:

  • Relationships and communications with larger communities, including Senate, the university community and the wider external community;
  • Structure of the Board and its delegation of authority, including an examination of how members are selected and the role of the Senior Operations Committee; and
  • Role of the Board and of Board members, especially as it relates to its current orientation/on-boarding processes and overall Board.

Many of the findings can be construed as important, but somewhat ‘inside baseball’ to even the most wonkish observer. However, a handful of recommendations deal directly with the problem areas cited by The Goudge Report as main instigators of the recent firestorm.

Most notable, the report chastises the Board’s Senior Operations Committee – known as ‘Senior Ops’ – as a perceived “inner circle” that must do a better job informing the full Board membership of the issues it is dealing with and the basis for those decisions.

The report states: “The role of the Senior Operations Committee has come under particular scrutiny over the past year. Its work is not well understood, nor well communicated. The name itself is viewed as problematic in that it does not provide a clear picture of the role of the committee (as compared to Bylaws Committee or Audit Committee, for example).”

The Goudge Report singled out Board Chair Chirag Shah’s belief he did not need to inform Senior Ops and, in turn, the Board membership, of decisions regarding President Amit Chakma’s contract as a main instigator of the recent firestorm.

“Senior Ops has a specific and particular role to play. But we do need to look at how it operates and how it functions,” Wilson said. “Even if you have the best processes in place – and I am not saying we have the best processes in place – but even if you do, you need to make sure those processes are followed. We need to make sure there is proper delegation; we need to make sure items are being looked at in the right place, in the right way, with the right timing, with the right level of dialogue and communication.”

Despite being singled out, the report does not specify any corrective action for Senior Ops. Instead, it calls for a review of the terms of reference for every Board committee, including Senior Ops.

“We cannot look at Senior Ops in isolation,” Wilson continued. “There are larger governance matters we identified – part of that is looking at our entire committee structure and how they relate to each other, to senior administration and to the Board. To look at Senior Operations in isolation would be stopping too short. We need to look at how the entire system works to make sure it is working in an efficient and effective manner.”

The report also stressed strengthening ties between the Board and university Senate.

Among its recommendations, the task force asks the Board to request a place on Senate agendas for a Board report; establish regular meetings, perhaps semi-annually, between Senior Ops and Senate committee chairs; and conduct joint orientation and education programs focused on the roles and processes of both bodies.

“This is a relationship that needs to be better developed, while respecting the bicameral nature of Western,” said Wilson, who serves as one of two Board representatives on Senate. “We need to do a better job of understanding not only the role of each governing body, but the information and material they are considering. We need to find a way to foster an open dialogue built on mutual respect and understanding.

“But you cannot do that alone. We need the assistance of our colleagues on Senate.”

The relationship between the two governing bodies hit perhaps its lowest point ever in April when Senate members voted down separate motions of non-confidence in Chakma and Shah. Since, however, the relationship has tempered. In October, the Senate quizzed Wilson on the findings of the Review of Presidential Compensation Practices at the University of Western Ontario – or what has become popularly known as the Goudge Report – during the its regular meeting.

Like the Board, Senate is also undergoing its own self reflection.

Struck in June, the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Renewal was charged with reviewing governance at Western, with particular focus on collegial governance and the role of Senate. Chaired by Betsy Skarakis-Doyle and Sheila Macfie, the task force is comprised Heather Bishop, Alison Hearn, Mark McDayter, Lorelei Lingard, Steven Lupker, Tom McMurrough and Emily Addison.

“Sometimes, where there is a vacuum of information, it leads to speculation, misunderstanding and mistrust,” Wilson said.

“We are operating in a traditional model of postsecondary governance. But, while the structure we have in place may have worked in the past, it needs to be reviewed to make sure that structure still reflects current realities. This report is attempting to bring suggestions to the forefront to understand and respect those realities and move the conversation forward.”

Regarding relations with the wider university community, the report calls the Board’s perceived disconnect from the university and its day-to-day mission “one of the most commonly made observations.”

The report states “members of the Board have a responsibility to learn more about what is happening in different divisions of the university, to better understand the work that is being done on a daily basis and how the Board’s decisions both arise out of that work and have impact on it. There is a challenge here in that the Board as a collective meets only five times per year, and not all members are local to London. However, there are steps that can be taken.”

The report calls for regular meetings with campus groups and stakeholders; improved electronic communications allowing the Board, and its individual members, to inform campus of its discussions and actions; opportunities within its agendas for Board members to visit different areas of campus; and creation of a regular report of the Board.

“In order to properly discuss issues facing the university, we must better appreciate the goings-on of the university,” Wilson said. “Some of that involves ensuring there is two-way communication – ways for individuals and groups to bring their issues to the Board, ways for the Board to proactively get involved in the university community, ways to meet with people, to have a dialogue, to see what is happening. Those will help us build a greater context for the decisions we make.”

As far as next steps, the task force warns that “not all of the recommendations contained in this report can be implemented immediately.”

While the report features some “quick wins,” Wilson stressed proper results will require collaboration not only among the Board, but outside partners as well. “We recognize we don’t control all parts moving forward – nor should we,” he continued.

The Task Force recommends the Board’s Bylaws Committee develop an implementation plan for the recommendations, including time lines.

“Just because the recommendations get adopted, that won’t mean that is the end of the process. This is the first stage of many,” Wilson said. “This is not a short-term project; this is not a report that will sit on the shelf.

“Even though the report is being presented to the Board for adoption, the conversation does not stop – it needs to continue.”