Even in total agreement on an issue, Western’s Board of Governors could not shake a spectre of community criticism hanging over its processes as members considered a minor change to The University of Western Ontario Act.
The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU) asked the university to endorse a proposal to remove from The University of Western Ontario Act – commonly known as the UWO Act – a requirement that members of the Board be Canadian citizens. Western is one of four Ontario universities to still have this requirement. The other three are considering the same request.
“This is the right thing for us to do,” Western President Amit Chakma said. “Think of our students. We are bringing in large numbers of international students and we are saying to them that they are somehow different and cannot run for office.”
Nobody disagreed with the sentiment, however. The Board, eventually, passed the motion.
What Board members wrestled with was the manner in which the recommendation was brought forward and if it was consistent with conversations from the past year.
The Board’s Senior Operations Committee – known as ‘Senior Ops’ – received and brought forward the request to the entire Board. Chair Hanny Hassan admitted the request should have been considered and brought forward via its Bylaws Committee.
It’s a procedural difference that a year ago would not have generated discussion.
However, circumstances have changed.
“We’ve decided at Senior Ops to recommend this change with the understanding that this is the only element that we will consider to change,” Hassan said. “For other matters under consideration by the Board, they will still be under the prevue of the Bylaws Committee. They can deal with the review and other elements that we are talking about in transparency, openness and the rest in a more fulsome way.
“Given the criticism of Senior Ops as not being transparent, there is some concern about this bypassing the normal committee structure.”
Struck in June 2015, Board Governance Review Task Force was charged with exploring the Board in the wake of the presidential compensation controversy. A handful of the review’s recommendations dealt directly with the problem areas cited by the Goudge Report as fallout of the controversy, including the Board’s committee structure, its connections with the university Senate, as well as its relationship and communication with the overall university community.
Specifically, the Goudge Report chastised the Board’s Senior Operations Committee 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.
In December, the Board unanimously backed the Report of the Board Governance Review Task Force.
In the case of the TCU request, the optics of Senior Ops perhaps overstepping its bounds troubled some Board members.
“I have some concerns putting this forward now – and it has nothing to do with whether someone is a citizen or not,” said Jeremy Adams, who represents the Alumni Association. “I guarantee the other three institutions on that list have not gone through the same governance issues we have in the last 12 months. I don’t think it sends the right signal to the community. Admittedly, this is not a substantive change to the UWO Act – but it is a change nevertheless. It is not responsible for us to say to the committee it is OK to open the UWO Act for this, but not the things you wanted.”
Adams motioned to return the request to the Bylaws Committee for consideration. That motion was defeated.
“From a campus view of us,” said Matthew Wilson, City of London representative and chair of the Board Governance Review Task Force, “we say we are worried to ask the government to make changes to our act that they will make changes we don’t like.”
Brian Timney, Senate representative, echoed those sentiments. “When we met with people, lots of different groups were looking for representation on the Board. Our response to them was that we need to be very careful about opening up the UWO Act,” he said.
Once the motion passed, Hassan expressed his hope that the Bylaws Committee would “reflect on the issue.”