Senate debates validity of process that led to critical report

University Senate ducked discussion of an interim report’s findings into the governing body’s way of doing business and, instead, focused on what some Senators perceived as a lack of participation that comprised the report’s findings. Led by two deans, Senators pressed on if the report’s findings properly reflected the feelings of the entire campus community.

“Trying to make inference on what is a challenge with regards to engagement – or whether there is a challenge with engagement – based on a limited number of individuals, seems to me that we could end up with wrong conclusions,” said Science Dean Charmaine Dean. “This is an important process. Building inference on a small group of individuals doesn’t get us anywhere.

“There is a whole group out there we don’t know anything about.”

The findings of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal Interim Report, released last week, painted a somewhat unflattering portrait of a governing body removed from its constituency with an ambiguous, if not mysterious, role in the university. These sentiments have led to an erosion of trust among some that “our leaders and Senators are acting in the best interest of their constituents.”

Those hot-button points were not debated, however, as Senators instead focused on data collection.

Health Sciences professor Betsy Skarakis-Doyle, Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal chair, stressed repeatedly during, and after, the Senate meeting Friday the committee was confident it had achieved the desired breadth of consultation.

“As for the breadth, we were absolutely consistent in the way reviews happen. This is a really important part to me, that we really did reach a breadth,” she said. “We would like to talk to more people; we are more than open to talking to more people. But the themes in the report do capture the breadth of the commentary we received. They represent what is on people’s minds at this point midway.

“I see this report as the platform for the next step. Certainly, there is an expectation that we would talk to people after we put this out. But this is what we heard so far – so talk to us. In parallel to that, we need to work with what we have heard. We are looking at our processes and we will come up with considered recommendations.”

Throughout last fall, the committee set an aggressive engagement plan that included:

  • Open town hall meetings with each faculty;
  • Consultation meetings with numerous groups, including Campus Council, University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), Society of Graduate Students (SOGS), University Students Council (USC), University of Western Ontario Staff Association (UWOSA), Postdoctoral Association at Western (PAW), Professional Management Association (PMA), Alumni Association, student Senators, associate vice-provosts and vice-provosts;
  • Calls for comments via email to the campus community;
  • Advertisements in Western News and student Gazette;
  • Link to the committee website published in Western Alumni News; and
  • One-on-one consultations with members of the community who indicated an interest in talking with a committee member.

The problem for Senators, however, was the number of responses to those solicitations. For instance, the smallest town hall meeting had one person; the largest had 22. The committee received 18 written submissions and conducted 40 one-on-one interviews.

Skarakis-Doyle continued, “Our goal in doing this was to ensure the voices of everyone who wanted to address the committee, and address the issues we were tasked with, had an opportunity to do so. It is our hope those individuals will see their thoughts reflected in the document. However, if we missed something, we are open to further consultation.”

Addressing the shallow depth, the report concluded a “sense of disenfranchisement and cynicism may have led some people to disengage from the collegial governance process. Disengagement is one of the most important challenges that our recommendations will address.”

That presumption was too much for Senators.

“Ultimately, to bring back recommendations for this body to approve, we need to know the quality of the consultation. You have achieved breadth; you should be commended for that. But as you have observed yourselves, you are not happy with the depth,” said Law Dean Ian Scott. “Whether it was 22 people, or some faculties, I can tell you it was very few, it would be risky for us to adopt anything based on that.”

He further requested attendance figures, including faculty-staff breakdown, for each town hall/meeting be included in the final report.

Scott continued, “You don’t know why people didn’t participate and yet you speculated. You are going to send out a report to people that says, ‘We would like you to comment, but by the way, we think the reason you are not commenting is you are disenfranchised from Senate.’ I don’t think that is the way forward.”

Skarakis-Doyle said her committee didn’t “know how to interpret silence.”

“But you have,” Scott interrupted.

“We attempted,” Skarakis-Doyle continued. “I don’t think we have got it all. But we attempted to at least put forward some of the reasons people might not have.”

Not all deans lined up against the report’s methodology.

“I look at this as a qualitative report card. And you have raised some very important questions,” said Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry Dean Michael Strong. “As scientists and academics, our next question should be, how do we ensure that, before this goes forward and becomes a document reflective of our community, that we know that?

“As I read through this, there is nothing here that doesn’t pass the ‘sniff test.’ What I don’t get a flavour for is how broad this is across the community.”

Strong then said he assumed this data would be used as the basis of a survey across campus to drill down.

“It doesn’t, to my mind, negate the work. It just helps get you there.”

The overall tone of Senate surprised committee members, especially given what they saw as an inquiry done in alignment with the institution’s best practices.

“The reaction perplexed me a bit,” Skarakis-Doyle said after the meeting. “When we do reviews of units in university, we typically don’t do surveys. When reviewers come in, they talk to a breadth of people and then make recommendations. While I certainly understand sampling the population, our process was consistent with the way reviews are done of academic units, of academic programs. Certainly, we welcome the deans’ perspectives, but I do believe the process we utilized so far is absolutely consistent with the way reviews are done of academic units – at least in all the academic units I have been associated with in 25 years here.”

The process is far from complete. Several consultations remain to be completed and the committee will continue to examine and evaluate the information gathered to date. Additional comments and suggestions can be sent to the committee’s email or to any member of the committee.

“This is an interim report – a work in progress. The lines are still open. Please contact us,” Skarakis-Doyle said. “Our ultimate goal will be to identify structural changes that can ensure on-going, effective collegial governance.”

Officially, four committees are addressing issues that arose from the presidential leave controversy, and its ensuing fallout. In addition to the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal, the University Research Board Task Force, Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models and Board Governance Review Task Force are charged with examining the operations of both governing bodies. Only the Board has returned its findings in full.

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The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal Interim Report, released last week, painted a somewhat unflattering portrait of Senate in the eyes of the university community. Here are 10 findings from the report:

  1. For many in our community, the work of Senate, and particularly of its committees, is a mystery. Many do not know how to interpret Senate’s decisions with regard to how they may impact their daily work;
  2. People are aware that information about Senate’s work is available online, but many are unsure where and how to find it. And when they do find it, the documents are not ‘layperson friendly’;
  3. Many are not aware that they may observe Senate meetings at any time.
  4. Senate is perceived as a body of ‘received knowledge’ where questions are not welcome. Its role is seen as that of a ‘rubber stamp’ and, as a result, even many Senators have disengaged;
  5. Some Senators are not prepared prior to meetings and appear not to take the job seriously;
  6. Multiple groups believe that they are not represented (or not adequately represented) in the Senate and feel that the current makeup of Senate needs to change;
  7. Most in the university community are unaware that the work of Senate is largely done at the committee level. Yet, the mandate and reporting structure of Senate subcommittees is not well understood;
  8. Senators’ service on Senate committees promotes engagement and ensures broader understanding of governance, yet there is a sense that committee members are often not prepared for meaningful participation and some Senators do not serve on any committees.
  9. Trust has been broken: trust that our leaders and Senators are acting in the best interest of their constituents, trust that people’s voices are being heard, and trust that committees are representative and transparent in their decision making;
  10. There is a sense that the university, at virtually all levels of administration, has increasingly abandoned true consultation in favour of ‘executive decisions.’ As a result, the campus community no longer feels invested in major campus initiatives;

Read the full interim report at the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal website found within the University Secretariat’s website,