(August 20, 1998 Gazette)
The Board of Regents chamber is a very cozy room. Tucked away in a corner of the second floor of the Arts and Administration building, the exclusive meeting place of Memorial University's highest governing body is full of hardwood furniture and plush c hairs. It is the undisputed centre of university governance. About eight times a year, the board members meet here to make decisions about university affairs and to discuss the future of Memorial.
Just a few hundred yards away is the Thomson Student Centre. There the cafeteria's mall-like appearance and Spartan dinner-stools are in stark contrast to the comfortable board chamber. It is the undisputed centre of student activity. Everyday, thousan ds of students meet here to make decisions about their affairs and to discuss their futures.
Though they are a mere five-minute walk from each other, these two rooms are separated by a much deeper chasm. For the last two years, it's one I've tried to bridge.
In July 1996, I began a two-year term as one of 30 voting members of the Board of Regents. In that time I witnessed many changes to the board, including a new chair and a dozen new members.
Most of the regents are appointed by the government of the day, including the two student representatives. Many regents have little or no experience with the concept or inner workings of a university. Some are leaders in the private sector accountant s, lawyers, senior executives of large corporations, and business owners. Many are also friends and relatives of current provincial cabinet ministers. Patronage of this type angers much of the university community. However, the nature of these appointment s does not necessarily make these individuals unsuitable for the board room; but neither does it automatically afford them the knowledge and experience to govern Memorial (or any university) effectively.
The 1990s have been difficult times for universities across Canada. As governments cut education transfers to postsecondary institutions, administrations and boards struggled to maintain the quality and scope of the services that students, faculty, sta ff, and the public have come to expect.
This has not been an easy time for the boards of Canadian universities. Memorial is certainly not an exception. Boards are dealing with the increasing militarization of faculty unions and, in Memorial's case, the splintering of the faculty into active political groups. Further, articulate and organized student groups regularly demand tuition cuts or freezes and even, unrealistically, free tuition.
Faced with these competing interests, the essential detail for a board to operate effectively, minding the sacred university principle of collegiality, is an extensive knowledge of all aspects of the university community. The most effective members hav e often been those that represent Memorial's alumni and those who have previously served the public sector. As long as the University Act states that no full-time employee of the university can serve on the board (except members of the senior administrati on), the university community will never be comfortable with its governance. Top-down secretive decisions will always create suspicion, regardless of how well intentioned or how open its members believe the decision making process to be.
In this context, student representation on the board is valuable for the university and enriches the perspective of some of the regents. The only university perspective available in board debates is that of the senior administration. Administrators bri ng their own biases to the table just as any faculty or staff members would. Often board members ask the students what the "buzz" around campus is on any one particular issue.
The demand for proportionally increased student representation on the board has many implications. If I was a student leader, I would focus on a clearer selection process for the current student representatives. Having articulate, intelligent, and reas onable people without political agendas is far more important in the board room than the number of votes. The board as it exists now is too large. Should the number of students increase, the total number of board members should not increase.
Arguments for increased representation on the board by interest groups or stake holders are often refuted. Members of an appointed body should not be accountable to specific interest groups, i.e., CSU, GSU, MUNFA, NAPE, and CUPE. That system is reserve d for elected political bodies and if the Board of Regents became such it would not be able to govern as a university board. Members must learn to balance conflicting issues in the face of competing interests.
The place for these groups may well not be in the board room. A revision of the board's committee structure, however, could provide a better forum where members of such groups can articulate and vote on specific issues. While this happens to some exten t now, the committees are not given the independence, the power or the profile that they could be granted. A committee's debate and discussion are often repeated in the board room.
I have had an opportunity that too few students get to experience. Seeing the university operate from the most senior aspect of decision making has been the best "course" I have taken at Memorial. I understand and sympathize with the frustrations of on e of the lowest paid faculty in Canada. This must change if Memorial is going to attract the best researchers and teachers. I have learned to not take personally the negative comments about the board in my classes and on my papers. I have also been confro nted by students who have accused the student regents of "selling out."
In spite of criticism, I believe that this board is a generally well-meaning group of individuals who are looking forward to guiding the university through a difficult period in its history. However, there is still too great a distance between the aver age board member and the realities of day-today life at Memorial University. This limits the regents' ability to understand the full impact of their decisions on the institution at its most basic level.
Fortunately this is a problem that can be solved. The board chamber is only a few hundred yards away from the biggest hub of daily student life. That distance has to be crossed, if not physically, then at the very least, mentally.
Amy Wyse's two-year term as a student representative on the Board of Regents ended last month.