Quebec moving ahead with university governance reform

Proposed law would require 60 per cent of a university’s board members to come from outside the school

The Quebec government appears to be moving ahead with legislation that will change the way every university in the province is run.

Bill 38, currently before the National Assembly would standardize university governance and make universities boards of directors more accountable to the provincial government. It would also require that 60 per cent of a university’s board members be from outside the school and that all boards include an equal number of men and women.

The government began discussing university governance reform in 2008, in the wake of a financial crisis at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

While legislation was first introduced in June 2009, it lingered in committee before dying on the order paper when premier Jean Charest prorogued the National Assembly for one day in February. The day after the Assembly reconvened, Bill 38 was reintroduced.

Now, the law appears to be moving forward once again, albeit slowly. The bill appeared on the agenda of Friday’s legislative session for a second reading. While the session ended before that item was reached, it does seem likely that it will be approved in principle within the next couple days.

Currently, each of Quebec’s universities has a different board structure. For example, Concordia has 40 members on its board, while UQAM’s has 16 members. Each board also has different representation: UQAM’s board includes a representative for local CEGEPs; Concordia and McGill both have representatives of their non-teaching staff on their boards, while UQAM and the Université de Montréal don’t. On the other hand, both UQAM and the U de M have some of their board members appointed by the government, the English-language schools don’t. I could keep going, but you get the idea. The universities like this, they say that they’re each different institutions with different missions, so they should have different governance structures. The province doesn’t agree.

For faculty and students, the most concerning part of the proposed law has been the requirement that 60 per cent of board members come from outside the university. Of Quebec’s six largest universities, Concordia and U de M already have this ratio. UQAM, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and McGill don’t. At Concordia, there have also been concerns that a smaller board would diminish student and faculty representation.

There’s another issue at Concordia, the school is currently in the midst of a review of its governance structure. That process could be rendered completely irrelevant by this law, at a cost of $60,000.

The other big concern, at least at McGill and Concordia, is that under the bill, the province would appoint one member to each university’s board. For schools in the University of Quebec system the province would appoint three board members. For most French-language universities this would actually mean fewer government appointees on their boards.

The propose og law does have some positives though, it includes reasonably strict conflict of interest rules and, perhaps, most interestingly board members would be prohibited from serving more than two terms. There is one caveat to that rule, terms as chair of the board would be counted separately from regular terms; so a board member could serve for six years as a regular board member and another six years as chair. If the bill becomes law, it would see at least eon of the most controversial figures on Concordia’s board forced out quite soon.

There is also an interesting disclosure requirement in the bill, universities would be required to post board members’ meeting and committee attendance records online.

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