Senate, research reports rolled out

As university Senate heads into its summer break, the Western community can look forward to transitioning from ‘fact-finding’ to ‘action-taking’ after more than a year of governing body introspection.

Officially, four committees were addressing issues that arose from the presidential leave controversy, and its ensuing fallout, that started last spring. 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 were charged with examining different aspects of university operations.

On Friday, Senate received the findings from both the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal and University Research Board Task Force. With that, all four committees have now returned their findings.

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As she delivered the findings of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal, Health Sciences professor Betsy Skarakis-Doyle stressed her committee’s report wasn’t just about the future but about the present, as well.

“Changes have been occurring in Senate while we have been doing our work. In fact, many who spoke with us mentioned that Senate has been a different body this year,” Skarakis-Doyle, who served as committee chair, told Senators Friday.

Skarakis-Doyle outlined the report’s findings, as well as delivered its 10 recommendations, divided into four larger categories: Transparency, accountability and communications; representation on Senate; committee structures and processes; and Senate-Board of Governors relations.

“The essence of our report is about talking and listening – it is our hope you will accept this report as a first step in fostering conversations about collegial governance, about reinvigorating Senate’s culture, as well as building trust and promoting inclusiveness,” she said. “Ultimately, it will strengthen the integrity and quality of our entire community.”

Skarakis-Doyle said much of what was revealed during the task force’s consultation process spoke to transparency, accountability, misunderstandings about our governance structures, including the basic roles and responsibilities of Senators and the differences between governance and administration. This area received the greatest amount of attention in the report, as the task force outlined six recommendations, including:

  • Improve the visibility of Senate’s decision-making processes;
  • Improve efforts to educate and inform the entire Western community about Senate and university governance;
  • Articulate the roles and responsibilities for Senators;
  • Enhance education of and communication among Senators;
  • Make Senate a more proactive body by dealing more efficiently with transactional business and increasing time spent in strategic discussion;
  • Conduct regular periodic reviews including: a) a full structural review every 10 years, b) an annual Senate performance evaluation conducted collectively and via individual Senators’ self-reflection and c) reviews of standing committees’ Terms of Reference every three years.

“All of these are critical elements of strong, successful, collegial governance,” Skarakis-Doyle said.

Since Senate’s last governance review 20 years ago, the composition of the university’s academic staff has changed significantly, while structures and processes have not. Nowhere is that clearer than looking at who sits and votes on Senate.

According to the UWO Act, eligibility to vote and serve on Senate is tied to the rank of assistant professor (or higher). Skarakis-Doyle said the task force spent hours discussing the mechanisms by which representation on Senate could be enhanced, as well as the ramifications of those mechanisms. Deliberations included opening the UWO Act, a scary proposition to those who fear the Provincial Legislature would use the opening as an opportunity to insert itself more prominently into the internal governance of the university; or 2) creating ranks that were equivalent to the rank of assistant professor internally through negotiations.

Both would be protracted processes with uncertain outcomes, Skarakis-Doyle said. Yet, something needs to be done to address Senate participation, she continued.

“Academic governance of academic matter is foundational,” Skarakis-Doyle said. “Yet, the landscape of our academic staff has been evolving since the last time we looked. Principles of good, inclusive governance suggest we should evolve, too. Further, the critical contributions of others who are not necessarily academic staff should be reflected in Senate participation, as well.”

The task force outlined a single recommendation, in three parts, stating:

  • All individuals who meet the UWO Act’s definition of academic staff should be eligible to vote for members of Senate. In addition, those academic staff who also have at least two years of continuous service should be eligible to run for a Senate seat;
  • Members of those constituencies which do not meet the definition of academic staff (e.g., post-doctoral fellows) or those who do not hold the rank of assistant professor should be considered for seats on relevant Senate committees; and
  • An additional seat on Senate should be created in the administrative staff constituency.

Skarakis-Doyle said the criticisms of the Senate as a whole were mirrored in the criticisms of the Senate committee structure, as well. “Our goal was to try and create similar conditions for collegial governance at the committee level,” she continued.

The task force set down two recommendations, including:

  • The roles and responsibilities of committee members should be specified in all committees’ terms of reference. New committee members should be briefed on these at the first meeting of their term; and
  • The terms of reference of three standing committees should be revised concerning membership, mandate and transparency of their operations.

Simultaneous to the Senate review, the Board of Governors was also examining its practices. In November 2015, the Board accepted the findings of the Board Governance Review Task Force, which included a handful of recommendations that dealt directly with the problem areas cited by The Goudge Report as main instigators of the recent firestorm, including the Board’s committee structure, its relationship and communication with the overall university community, as well as its connections with the university Senate.

The final Senate committee recommendation sought to build on those efforts:

  • Strengthen the connections and cooperation between the Senate and Board.

Following Senate approval in principle Friday, the report and its findings now move on to the Operations and Agenda Committee.

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Even though the research funding world is changing, Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson stressed that fact shouldn’t mean anyone needs to be left behind.

“We want to support individuals across the very, very broad spectrum of research models that scholars are engaged in,” Nelson told Senate Friday. “We seek to increase research support, in general, across Western.”

Nelson broadly outlined the findings of the University Research Board Task Force, and pointed Senators deeper into the report where it offered several recommendations spread across both the report itself, and its appendices.

Struck to address what some saw as a gap between STEM researcher funding and all others, the task force gave voice to the concerns of researchers in social sciences, arts and humanities who felt they were not being valued, recognized or adequately supported, Nelson said.

“Things are changing – and they are changing at the tri-councils. In particular, they are increasingly emphasizing multi-disciplinary team grants, knowledge mobilization and community-based research,” said Nelson, task force chair. “While that is exciting, and many of us can engage in those areas, there are many in the social sciences, arts and humanities who cannot – particularly the solitary scholar or the individual researcher who does their work without needing large budgets. These people are being left out.”

The findings of the task force, Nelson stressed, sought ways to improve conditions for these researchers.

In order to help promote the “value and recognition” of social sciences, arts and humanities research, the task force called on Western to:

  • Initiate a discussion about how research is valued and impact assessed at the level of the institution;
  • Engage in a new and critical discussion of contributions and impacts that are considered in promotion and tenure, Annual Performance Evaluation and graduate student assessment files; and
  • Establish better mechanisms to connect the Communications & Public Affairs office with the faculties and social science, arts, and humanities researchers

The task force also identified areas in which infrastructure should be strengthened to enhance social sciences, arts and humanities, including:

  • Centralize some elements of grant support activities, such as the identification of granting opportunities, grant preparation support, peer review, determination of the nature and strategies for in-kind support, knowledge mobilization strategies and community engaged research facilitation and support;
  • Streamline basic administrative requirements and undertake a broad based review to increase efficiencies and decrease the load on the researcher;
  • Continue to support the search for improvements and efficiencies in the ethics approval process, noting the improvements that have taken place in the last year;
  • Centralize support for key research tools, such as Qualtrics and NVivo; and
  • Provide more support for interdisciplinary research by encouraging the continued support for the Interdisciplinary Development Initiative (IDI) program, working for improvements in cross-unit appointments and creating spaces that promote collaboration and cross-unit communication

Concerns over existing internal funding programs were addressed broadly, as the task force called for the University Research Board to strike a subcommittee to oversee re-organization of the internal funding mechanisms.

Overall, Nelson said the strength of the report lies in the voices that are represented.

“At the heart of being valued is the simple act of being heard,” the report stated. “This is not to deny the very real concerns and perceptions the researchers expressed: these are tangible and require immediate attention and action. It is to realize, however, that through conversations and discussions a deeply profound value can be co-created. One thing we have come to know is that there is a deep sense of care and pride for Western. Care should be the foundation for any ethical engagement and the processes of education and research is always that: ethical.”

Vice-President (Research) John Capone said a working group will be struck to address the recommendations raised in the report.