Controversial University Governance Bill Passes Second Reading

Created 24 February 2012 00:02

Proposed legislation that would limit the role of certain faculty and staff members in university, college and institute governance jumped its second hurdle on February 20th when it passed Second Reading in the BC Legislature.

There was never any doubt that Bill 18 — Advanced Education Statutes Amendment Act, 2011 – would pass Second Reading, given the Liberal government’s majority in the Legislature. The NDP opposition nonetheless put up a spirited fight, with 10 speakers, lead by NDP Advanced Education Critic Michelle Mungall, criticizing the governance provisions of the bill during almost six hours of debate.

The two biggest problems in the legislation are the provisions to exclude certain faculty and staff members from membership on the Board of Governors of a public post-secondary institution, and the mechanism that would allow elected members of Boards of Governors to be removed from their positions.

If Bill 18 becomes law, faculty and staff members who are on the executive committees of their respective associations or unions and who are involved in either negotiations with the university or adjudication of grievances, would be prohibited from serving as a faculty representative on the Board of Governors.

The government argues that this provision is necessary to prevent faculty and staff association leaders from using a position on the Board of Governors to influence negotiations between their association and the university. Faculty and staff association leaders have responded by pointing out that the conflict of interest provisions for members of Boards of Governors already deal with such situations.

The Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamamoto, is nonetheless intent on pushing forward with these exclusions. She has cited a case at an unnamed university where the faculty representative on the Board of Governors, who was also part of the faculty association’s negotiating team, allegedly refused to abide by the Board of Governors conflict of interest provisions.

In response, faculty and staff association leaders have provided numerous examples where members of their executive committees have been effective members of Boards of Governors, absenting themselves from discussions where they might be in a conflict of interest.

The provisions of Bill 18 that would enable the removal of the elected members of Boards of Governors are equally contentious. If two-thirds of board members agree, they can recommend to the Lieutenant Governor General in Council (aka the provincial cabinet) that an elected member be removed from the board.

Due to the composition of the board, this means that, except in the case of UBC, the board members appointed by government have the necessary number of votes to remove any elected board member. Moreover, this power to recommend removal does not apply to appointed board members.

The government has argued this provision is necessary because although it is possible for the appointed members of the board to be removed by government, there is no equivalent provision for the elected members of the board.

Faculty and staff association leaders have responded that the proposal does not provide for due process for removal, that the threshold for removal is too low, and that it is inappropriate for elected members of the Board of Governors to be removed by any process other than recall by their constituents.

Of particular concern is that Bill 18 provides no criteria as to what constitutes just cause for removing an elected member of the board. Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan argued in the Second Reading debate that “cause” was well defined in law and need not be further articulated.

NDP MLA Leonard Krog, who is a lawyer, argued that “cause” is not defined in law as it relates to government board appointments and is left open to interpretation by a Board of Governors or even by the provincial cabinet.

Other NDP MLAs contended that election to a university Board of Governors was no different than election to the BC Legislature and that there is no similar board-ranging provision that would allow MLAs to be removed from their positions.

The Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC (CUFA BC) has been in discussions with the Ministry of Advanced Education about possible amendments that would allow the provincial government to achieve its goals while respecting the principles and traditions of governance at BC’s public post-secondary institutions.

Although no amendments have yet been put forward by government, comments from Minister Yamamoto during Second Reading indicate that amendments may be forthcoming during the Committee Stage of debate on Bill 18. However, given the tone of the Minister and government MLAs during the Second Reading debate, it’s not clear that any amendments would address the most contentious parts of the proposed legislation.

The date for the Committee Stage debate has not yet been set.