Striking the right balance
As I write this column near the end of November, the world is assessing the full impact of the financial meltdown. Coming seven short years after the Enron scandal, the crisis certainly has prompted thought as to how our financial systems can be structured to create both checks and balances and the flexibility to foster prosperity.
At Canada’s universities, we are also reflecting on the best balance between accountability and nimbleness—in another context. From British Columbia to Newfoundland, governments have started to impose onerous regulations in a well-meaning attempt to create increased accountability. Here in Quebec, the mismanagement of major construction projects in a sister university, which led to millions of dollars in cost overruns, has prompted the tabling of new legislation.
The proposed bill, which was set aside following the provincial election call, lays out structures for the composition of university boards of governors and their committees, structures designed to standardize good governance across Quebec universities. It also, unfortunately, unveils highly prescriptive reporting measures that attempt to micromanage universities. In fact, the bill will make it more difficult to recruit top-notch board members.
The preoccupation with governance isn’t unique to Quebec, of course. Post-Enron, thoughtful organizations— private, public or non-profit—are taking a good hard look at their governance structures. What’s clear is that the best governance reform looks at the end goal: ensuring boards provide strategic direction and effective oversight. But how we get there has to take into account the varied mission, history and culture of organizations.
Let me be clear: universities embrace absolutely the need for good governance, transparency, accountability—and performance. For example, at the beginning of my tenure as Principal, unprompted by the government, I undertook, with the Board of Governors, McGill’s own governance reform. We cut our board membership from 74 to 25 members, restructured our committees to enhance oversight and took uncommon measures to orient our board members in their responsibilities. At McGill, we also believe that strong results are ultimately the most accountable use of the support we receive from all our partners, which include government, but also you, our alumni and friends.
Government, universities, taxpayers, alumni and research partners alike all agree on the ultimate goals. But we have two paths to get there. We can fall back on the safety of prescribing reams of reports, of micromanaging our universities, of throwing glue into the gears of innovation. Or, we can look at the problem as an opportunity to see how we can inspire and reinforce great performance at each of our universities. Rather than imposing one-size-fits-all legislation that sets bureaucratic procedures in stone, we can take a careful look at how the principles of good governance apply to the specific mandate, culture and history of each institution of higher education and set individual benchmarks to promote excellence.
Is this really going to work, you ask? The world is moving toward tighter regulation of institutions—why not universities? Certainly the key preoccupations are the same—balancing accountability with the need for innovation and progress—but higher education is a very different sector.
First, if universities move towards becoming an arm of government, they risk losing the autonomy that, among other things, allows them to critique government and policy directions, to foster public debate from a neutral ground, to pursue leading-edge innovation, and to attract and compete with the best. Second, universities don’t want a homogeneous approach. Instead, we require accountability frameworks unique to each institution to nurture performance, not bog it down.
The issues that drove the proposed Quebec legislation happened in the Université du Québec system—the group of universities most highly regulated and controlled by the provincial government. So, the prescriptive approach, while it may make officials and often taxpayers feel as if something concrete is being done, just doesn’t work. In many parts of the world, governments are moving away from micromanagement. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, most OECD countries now share a “vision of tertiary education policy … in which detailed administrative direction is diminished, institutional autonomy widened, and accountability mechanisms strengthened.”
There are two diverging roads before us, one leading to individuality and excellence (with accountability), the other to homogenization and bureaucracy that will hinder growth. At McGill, we aim to choose wisely, for which road we travel by will, indeed, make all the difference.