Collegial governance: What is it, and why is Memorial University an 'odd case'?

Members of Memorial University's faculty association are on Day 2 of a strike, with picket lines set up around campuses in St. John's and Corner Brook. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)
Members of Memorial University's faculty association are on Day 2 of a strike, with picket lines set up around campuses in St. John's and Corner Brook. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)

As striking Memorial University workers hold out on the picket lines for a second day, one of their biggest demands may be a mystery for most of the general public.

The members of MUN's faculty association say they want assurances on "collegial governance" before they'll sign any deals to get back to work. But what does that mean?

"Most people are used to being in workplaces where they have a manager who is their boss and tells them what to do," said MUN associate professor Robin Whitaker. "Universities work in a different way."

Memorial is governed by two bodies: the senate and the board of regents. While faculty are represented on the senate, which makes decisions on academic matters, it has no seats on the board of regents, which makes decisions on property, revenue, business and other affairs.

And that sets Memorial apart from other universities in the country, according to Peter McInnis, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

"It's a bit of an outlier in the respect of affording a faculty a seat at the table for larger strategic decisions," he said. "We've been studying this across the country, which is why we can say Memorial is a bit of an odd case."

Canadian Association of University Teachers
Canadian Association of University Teachers

So what difference would it make if faculty were involved at the board of regents level? McInnis said you need to look no further than the appointment of Vianne Timmons as Memorial University's president in 2020. He said there was no meaningful avenue for faculty members to participate in the selection of a new president with a $450,000 salary.

"We've got a case where Vianne Timmons was just simply announced to the faculty and the students as the new president," he said.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

McInnis said there has been significant turnover at Memorial over the past couple years, and collegial governance could be a way to retain staff. If faculty are more involved in decisions that shape the future of the university, they are more likely to want to be part of that future.

"But for the most part, they're shut out of these kinds of decisions," McInnis said.

"It's a wide-ranging but really vital aspect of our work," said Whitaker, who is also a vice-president with CAUT and past-president of MUNFA.

Whitaker also referenced the decision to drop the Ode to Newfoundland from convocation ceremonies to be more inclusive. It was a decision made at the upper echelons of the administrative level, with no input from faculty — many of whom strongly opposed it.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

"I'm from here, I went to MUN," Whitaker said. "I really care about us being the best we can possibly be. We've seen lots of instances lately where governance has gone awry at Memorial. The Ode is a great example everyone's familiar with. But less familiar to people — we have half our senior administration in a temporary position. So they're hamstrung. We think there are better ways to select and maintain administration, so we can do the jobs we want to do. We want to be back at our jobs."

Memorial University says it's asked the province to amend provincial legislation to allow the faculty association a seat on the board of regents. While that will take time, Whitaker said there is nothing stopping the university from adding a line to the collective agreement asserting the role of faculty association members within collegial governance. And, she said, they want more than one seat on the 30-member board.

The university also refuted the suggestion that faculty had no meaningful way to be part of the hiring of Timmons' hiring, noting four academic staff members, elected by the university senate, were on the presidential hiring committee.

"Academic staff members have a role in hiring committees across the institution, including their peers and all vice-presidents," said MUN in an email to CBC News.

Other groups watching strike closely

The Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association isn't the only group involved in a labour dispute right now. Staff at Cape Breton University walked off the job Friday, and staff at St. Mary's University in Halifax have overwhelmingly voted to strike.

The Lecturers' Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland is also without a contract. Their agreement expired in August 2020, and negotiations have yet to take place.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Allison Coffin, former provincial NDP leader and a per-course instructor at MUN, said they've been waiting for administration to take the first step.

"We're trying. We've just not received anything back from the administration," Coffin said. "They have not come to the table, they have not set the bargaining dates. I hesitate to go any further beyond that, but we've been in a bit of a purgatory situation."

Because she's not a MUNFA member, Coffin has no choice but to cross the picket line each day to go to work.

"It's a bit of a moral dilemma for us as well, in addition to the stress associated with making sure our students get the best education they can."

Coffin said the lecturers' union is watching the faculty association negotiations closely, since most of the same issues will apply in their own negotiations — especially the issue of collegial governance.

She said staff members need more seats at the table on important decisions, especially when it comes to finances. Coffin said members of the lecturers' union are among the lowest paid per-course instructors in Canada.

"We want to be a world-class institution, but to do that we need to not only invest in going to luxury hotels and encouraging partnerships with exotic places," she said, referencing Timmons's controversial decision to hold a forum with Norwegian officials at the high-end Fogo Island Inn. "It's investing in the faculty, investing in the students, investing in the infrastructure, making that teaching environment world class. And this is where the rubber hits the road."

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