By - Wayne Linklater 20/08/2015

VUW - Know Your MindWhen the staff and students of Victoria University were asked how they would like members on university’s governance council to be selected – democratic election, or appointment by the council or some other select group – 71% supported elections (450 staff and 700 students responded to the survey). Selection by election was also the most supported option amongst the ~1000 alumni that responded to the survey.

New Zealand’s other leading universities: Otago, Lincoln, Canterbury, Auckland and Massey, have retained positions on council for academic and general staff members, and a student member, under the new rules (see text box below) and those positions are elected.

Despite these outcomes, Victoria University is proposing not to support democratically elected staff  representatives on the university council. Instead the appointment to council, without peer-election, of two ‘academic experts’ is proposed. Moreover, general (administrative, service and technical) staff will not be represented. Very soon the old, sitting council will debate and vote on its new structure. Why would the council choose to be undemocratic?

Less debate

Elected representation on university councils, of course, can be uncomfortable to some. One member of council complained to me that debate, such as about course fee rises gets ‘out of hand’ and that more selected than elected members might tone down debate.

univeristy governance txt boxI am unsympathetic with complaints by governors about political debate. Debate, rowdy, sometimes disrespectful and uncomfortable, is why democratic processes produce robust governance and government – a few thousand years of western tradition and several hundred years of revolution and practice have taught us that. For learned gentlemen to now be considering abandoning that tradition is strangely unappreciative of our history and culture. If you can’t stand the heat you shouldn’t be in the kitchen.

Not like a business!

In my conversations with other current, appointed members of council they have drawn comparisons with the boards of other organisations, especially businesses, and expressed the opinion that it is extraordinary that the governance board should include employees, i.e., academic and professional (general staff). But this is not extraordinary.

What is extraordinary is that a member of a university council does not understand why university councils include staff members – being fundamentally different from other organisations that have employees and employers. At universities the institution and its academic employees have freedoms – academic freedoms under the Education Act 1989, especially Section 161. University councils have represented that freedom and sought to protect it in governance with elected members.

Democracy doesn’t deliver skills or diversity?

Still others have critiqued the democratic election of staff to councils as failing to provide the diversity and skills required and recommended appointments instead. I too am unsympathetic with such a view because it assumes, in the classically arrogant vision of the already influential, that the contemporary elite know what skills and diversity are desirable to represent others. It is oxymoronic to claim that elections do not represent us.

If democracy is not delivering an appropriately skilled, diverse or representative council then the problem lies with the administration and leadership of the democratic process, not the democratic principle itself. Universities need politically astute leaders who drive more, not less, engagement by staff in the universities future. Universities achieve amazing things, first and foremost, because of their talent – people, staff.

Please, be careful

The danger for those deciding on changes in university governance is the belief that they know better – the conceit of the elite and already powerful to destroy democratic governance – democalypse – because they believe strongly in their own insight and fore-sight. History, of course, would tell us otherwise but in the best traditions of the liberal, new-right agenda from the fortunate ‘this time it is different’.

Electing representatives – democracy – is how we make sure governance is robust, freedoms are protected, and debate and engagement by all staff is encouraged. It is strange that a university, of all institutions, would be threatening to abandon that exemplar tradition. There are better ways to achieve good governance without tossing democracy.

Postscript (31 August, 2015): The earlier proposal for select appointments to council was abandoned at the eleventh hour and Victoria University’s Council passed motions for the general election of two academic staff and two students to council – a major victory for those who worked to maintain democratic representation on the council. In so doing, Victoria University achieved a better outcome than other universities and an improvement on its previous council structure. The number of elected representatives increased, there are minimum requirements for women and Māori, and a nominations panel will be established that I suspect will increase levels of democratic engagement. Congratulations to all on a sensible outcome. One blemish and emerging challenge for the new structure will be growing the engagement of professional (general) staff in elections for council because professional staff are no longer represented on council. Nevertheless, they are represented on the appointments panel and also able to vote in the election of academic staff to council. In this way, if organised, professional staff may exert influence over the nominees put forwards and, as the largest number of staff on campus, ensure their favoured candidates are elected. The new structure of Victoria University’s governing council provides an opportunity to increase participation in council elections from a greater diversity of stakeholders – well done.