Universities well managed

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2013

Stuart "Kip" Cobbett is the Chair of McGill's Board of Governors.

By Stuart H. (Kip) Cobbett

When it comes to quality, we rarely get more than we pay for.

Quebec universities are the exception to this rule, posting exceptional performances year after year, despite being underfunded by millions of dollars in contrast to other Canadian universities. Quebec universities issue each year more than 70,000 diplomas and make an important contribution to the economic and social development of Quebec. According to SECOR, the activities of McGill University alone generate annual economic impacts of $5.2 billion for Quebec, which represents $13 for every one dollar the Government of Quebec invests in McGill.

In 2012, McGill was ranked 18th in the QS world rankings, and 34th on the Times Higher Education list. In order to appreciate this performance, it is important to realize that the American public universities that place among the top 50 in the QS generate total revenues approximately double those of McGill. And our university not only holds its own among these prestigious institutions, but it often manages to outrank them.

Today, our universities face criticism from some who accuse them of bad management. This is an unfounded claim that reflects a poor understanding of the nature of the academic world in the 21st century. McGill is an organization that has complex and changing needs, including student services, advanced research facilities, databases and software and infrastructure management. McGill has an operating budget of $715 million and (including the affiliated hospitals) research awards achieved through competition totaling $510 million. McGill owns one of the largest real estate holdings in downtown Montreal. McGill also has 50,000 people working and studying at its two campuses, making its population larger than that of many cities.

An organization of this scope and complexity requires superior stewardship at the hands of exceptional managers and faculty, whose salaries and benefits must be comparable with those offered by other Canadian universities with a similar mission. However, the competitiveness of salaries paid to McGill faculty has been falling compared to Canada’s other top research universities outside Quebec.

The proof of good management is performance. Last December, the Standard and Poor’s rating agency confirmed McGill’s AA- rating, which is higher than the Quebec government’s rating. Considering the very real handicap of underfunding, adding poor management to the mix would make the level of success that Quebec universities reach absolutely unattainable. McGill’s multi-year budgeting has also won awards from both Quebec’s CIRANO group and the Government Finance Officers of North America.

At McGill, the Board of Governors has the mandate of overseeing the sound governance of the University. We approve the strategic and budgetary orientations, and we ensure respect for the decision-making processes, with strong accountability.

Following best practices, the Board was significantly reduced in size in the early 2000s, decreasing from 74 members to the current 25, plus two non-voting representatives.

The members of the Board are professors, students, teaching assistants, university staff and citizens from outside of McGill. The majority of its members serve as unpaid volunteers. External members are experienced leaders from solid and reputable organizations, chosen for the special and necessary expertise they bring.

Like all other universities in Quebec, McGill is subject to no fewer than 50 provincial laws. Each year, the government requires the University to submit its financial statements (audited by a recognized accounting firm – Deloitte & Touche), its annual report and reports related to the remuneration and benefits paid to the members of its senior management.

The management of Quebec’s universities is scrutinized meticulously and, in many respects, to a greater degree than anywhere else in the country. In its Cahier thématique pertaining to the governance and funding of universities, the government itself recognizes this fact: “The information supplied by the academic institutions is abundant and diversified. Their administrative services compile a large range of data, mainly for the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science et de la Technologie (Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology). The Ministry’s use of this information could be improved.” The OECD has made strong representation that good governance with strong accountability, allows universities to be perform and serve society better than excessive regulations (such as we have in Quebec), which impede quality.

The performance and the reputation of Quebec universities attest to the talent, energy and enthusiasm of their students, staff, professors and researchers, and to the contribution of its highly qualified administrators. It is high time that they receive the means they badly need. There is no time to waste.

Stuart H. (“Kip”) Cobbett is Chair of McGill’s Board of Governors.

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