Why Superboards Could Signal the Dismemberment of Alberta’s Higher Education System

January 23, 2021

A recent CBC News article by Janet French highlights the Alberta government’s plan to establish superboards to oversee higher education in the province. It is imperative for Albertans to understand the possible implication that superboards might have on our post-secondary system.

French’s article worth a read. And pay attention to every word.

Similar to California?

Someone asked me recently whether there were other examples of this type of superboard governance that we could refer to get a concrete idea of what it might mean for Alberta. My response at the time was that to the best of my knowledge there were no such similar systems in the Commonwealth.

Canadian higher education shares much in common with its Commonwealth cousins, as it is based largely on the British system of education. It is a long history lesson, but suffice to say that the American higher education system differs from ours in some fundamental ways. Although the Canadian and American systems started out in a similar vein, the American Revolution caused some fundamental shifts that led to a bifurcation of the educational trajectories of both countries. The resulting Constitution of the United States, enacted after the revolution, provides for a far more open and entrepreneurial approach to education.

This is one reason that there are literally thousands of private universities and colleges in the United States that operate with much less oversight or quality assurance than Canadian universities and colleges. Overall, the quality of higher education across Canada is generally more consistent and steady and we do not have the drastic differences in institutional reputation that affect our neighbours to the south. This is also due, in part, to differences in how higher education is governed in both countries. Although Canadian and American universities share much in common in some ways, in other ways, they differ dramatically. One of those ways is governance.

MRU political science professor and political commentator, Duane Bratt sparked a lively conversation about this topic on his Twitter feed. One of the comments that came up is that a unified university system seems to work for the University of California (UC), so maybe it could work here. The UC system includes ten universities such as UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, etc. (As an aside, the University of Calgary’s own president, Ed McCauley, worked at UC Santa Barbara before returning to the University of Calgary in 2011, so he is no doubt well versed on the UC system.)

A system similar to the UC system could be one possible outcome if one or more superboards for post-secondary education in Alberta were to be implemented. However, I would point out that although the University of California has an excellent reputation in many respects, it exists as one institution within a larger state context.

The state of California has some of the most flexible (lax?) laws around the operation of educational entities. Retired FBI Agent, Allen Ezell and his colleague John Bear, write extensively about this in their book, Degree Mills. To paraphrase some of their key ideas, just about anyone can open a business in the state of California and call it a school. This has led to a proliferation of private entities offering so-called educational programs of questionable quality, or in some cases, outright fraudulent credentials. Although the University of California may be a reputable school, it is situated in a state where, without exaggeration, literally hundreds of other alleged universities and colleges dole out parchments with little to no credibility behind them. In my opinion, the larger higher education system that exists in the state of California is not one to which Alberta ought to aspire.

Lack of clarity regarding a possible superboard

In his remarks to the General Faculties Council (GFC) on December 10, 2020 President McCauley commented that the University of Calgary has been advocating for “the continuance of bicameral University governance and autonomy” (p. 2). The minutes of the GFC meeting are a matter of public record and can be found here.

These remarks at GFC, as well as commentary made by our executive leaders since then should not be taken lightly. They signal that our university president, along with other university presidents in Alberta, are concerned about the possibility of the dismantling of the bi-cameral governance model that currently exists at our institutions (i.e., at the University of Calgary, this means the Board of Governors and General Faculties Council) if a superboard to oversee universities is established. This website provides a brief overview of the University of Calgary’s governance and leadership.

It is not clear at the moment how an Alberta superboard for post-secondary governance might be structured or what powers they might have. It is also not clear if there would be one board for universities and another for colleges or if each system would be overseen by its own superboard. Right now there are more questions than answers. What is clear is that the possibility of establishment of one or more superboards to oversee higher education in Alberta poses the greatest potential for change to post-secondary governance that the province has seen in more than half a century – or perhaps ever.

A governance perspective: The potential dismemberment of Alberta’s higher education system

At this point, no one knows for certain what the superboards for higher education might mean. At the risk of sounding alarmist, if superboards are established, the possibility of the bicameral governance structure being dismantled is a real possibility. In turn, this could lead to a radical restructuring of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.

I believe this is something we must pay close attention to. Funding cuts are one thing. The possibility of the dismemberment of our university governance structure is something else entirely. I use the word “dismemberment” here intentionally – and quite literally. To dismember is to sever the limbs from the body. The Board of Governors and the General Faculties Council are our university’s governing bodies. If the university does not have its own governing bodies, it would very likely lose its autonomy and its ability to function in the way it has for decades. This could be the case of every post-secondary institution in Alberta. Without bi-cameral governance, every single one of Alberta’s universities could be crippled in terms of their ability to make decisions for themselves.

When people hear that I study ethics and integrity in higher education, they often think that I study matters related to student conduct. Although that is true, it is not the entire story. The word “integrity” comes from the Latin, integritas, meaning to integrate or to make whole. A breach of integrity means that something that was previously whole has been compromised. In my opinion, the establishment of a superboard to govern higher education in our province could represent a direct threat to the integrity of our university system.

These superboards have not yet been formed, but now is very much the time for advocates of higher education to pay attention and become educated. At the very least I recommend spending some time on the Alberta 2030 Initiative website to find out more about some of what is planned for post-secondary education in Alberta.

I encourage you to learn as much as you can about how and why bi-cameral governance is a hallmark of Canadian higher education and how the autonomy it provides to individual institutions promotes ethical governance and decision-making in a variety of ways. Governance work is not values-free and nor is it agnostic. As Jenny Ozga so eloquently points out in her book, governance and policy work can be a form of advocacy. The very values that the University of Calgary – and other post-secondary institutions in Alberta – hold are lived out not only in the decisions that we make, but through the structures and systems in place that allow us to make those decisions in the first place.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary or anyone else.


A leader’s job: How I handle complaints from a volunteer board

July 23, 2012

Sarah Eaton - leadership blogThis year, I took on the role of President for a non-profit board that I sit on. I have sat on boards before and held the position of President before. At that time, I was in my early 30s. Now, a decade later, with a completely different board, it feels very different. I feel less “attached” to the position itself, but feel a deeper responsibility to lead wisely.

I often ponder the Native American concept about considering the impact our decisions we make today will have on the people living seven generations in the future. This shifts my perspective from the idea of trying to balance everyone’s input and views today to a more complex model that also considers the long-term impact of our decisions, into a future that we can neither know, nor predict.

The decisions we make today are not just about us as a board. Our decisions are not even about our members. They are about both the elected directors and the members we represent; and not only those who are involved today but those whose lives may be impacted in the future. Our leadership decisions impact not only our work today, but also the future.

I recently had a board member come to me with a complaint. He seemed angry and insistent that his ideas be heard and implemented immediately.

As a younger leader, I may have gotten angry with another board member insisting that I do something a certain way. Or I may have caved into his insistence and done what he wanted without thinking it through, in an attempt to keep the peace.

Now, I think that my first job is to listen. Instead of being emotionally involved, I am curious as to what he has to say. I am wondering about his point of view, his insights and his concerns. I did not promise that I would agree with him and I also promised that I would not ignore him. I promised to listen.

After I have listened, I have said that I will do one of the following:

  1. Address the concerns in a fair and just manner (take action).
  2. Explain why the concerns cannot be addressed in the exact manner that the complainant would like (give a clear explanation that is solidly grounded in evidence).
  3. If I lack adequate expertise, then take the concerns to either a governing body (i.e. the rest of the board) or a specialist with more more depth of experience (e.g. staff, outside consultants, etc.) who can offer guidance, provide additional knowledge and/or propose a course of action.
I take a strength-based approach to my leadership work. That means that I start with the assumption that everyone brings strengths, talent and expertise to the table.

Starting with that assumption changes the leadership game. It means that rather than reacting immediately, that I take the time to consider the strength that the individual brings to the situation. This often means setting my own opinions and feelings aside. I may be angry or frustrated, but I still have a job to do.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. I means that others are trusting us to be wise and fair.

I believe that as leaders, our first job is always to listen. Then ask questions. Then think seven generations ahead. Then either seek more advice or take action.

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Letting them shine: Working with multi-organizational coalitions

April 3, 2012

A colleague and I were recently asked to facilitate a workshop for a large, multi-organizational coalition that included government, educational and non-profit stakeholders. The coalition includes over 25 organizations who have all joined forces to promote a particular aspect of education.

As facilitators, we were warned that the groups were having difficulty agreeing on a structure for their coalition network and that different stake holders came to the table with different values, philosophies and areas of expertise. Yet, they all wanted to work together. Their lack of consensus was causing concern among some members.

Traditional model of governance

The coalition had a leadership team comprised of senior members of some of the major organizations. The group had been working hard to define what the structure of their coalition would look like. Here is what they came up with:

Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Elaine Eaton, Sarah Eaton, facilitator, speaker, keynote, presenter

Characteristics of the traditional organizational structure

Org charts like this show the typical structure of a traditional organization. This chart could work for a business, a non-profit organization or a public sector organization. The characteristics that define them are fairly uniform:

  • Top-down model (Leaders are at the top)
  • Clear hierarchy
  • Orderly
  • Rigid
  • Governance-focussed
  • Straightforward and easy to understand

Why traditional models do not work for coalitions

In the traditional model there is an underlying assumption that all members who belong to the organization share the same values and that those who are lower down in the pecking order are less qualified, experienced or powerful than those at the top.

In a coalition, every member organization may have a structure like this. Or they may be a “flat organization” with very little hierarchy. In any case, in a coalition, you are bringing together collective wisdom and knowledge for a common purpose. A traditional model of governance does not work because a “pecking order” is unproductive. Members who are not at the top may feel confined and undervalued, when in fact, they have a great deal to contribute. Members at the top of the coalition may feel frustrated because they do not have all the answers and they sense disengagement from those who are lower down in the organizational structure. The result can be feelings of disempowerment, frustration, anger and ultimately, disengagement from the work that everyone has come together to do.

In addition, members may feel pressured to surrender their current organizational culture in order to become part of the new coalition. Members may feel that their identity as an organization is challenged.

The Constellation Model

We presented a different model for the member organizations to consider. This model was developed by Surman & Surman (2008). It captures the complex nature of multiple stakeholders working together based on shared interests and assets.

Constellation model of Social Change, Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Eaton, facilitator

At the top of the model is a “magnetic attractor”, or the purpose that caused all the groups to come together in the first place. This essentially becomes their guiding star, or in less “fluffy” language, their guiding principles. The larger group’s shared purpose is what guides them and drives their actions, defining how they will work together.

This model is light on governance. There is no separate legal entity or incorporation. Instead, action-focussed work teams called “constellations” take on the responsibility for moving certain pieces of the work forward. There is no obligation for a group to exist indefinitely. Once their work on a particular area has been completed, the constellation may be phased out, giving way to new constellations. This “phasing out” is seen as a natural progression of the work, rather than a source of anxiety. It does not mean that the foundation of the larger organization has been shaken in any way.

Instead of a traditional leadership team at the top, there is a stewardship group that serves to empower the various constellations. Their job is to set a strategic direction, monitor the coalition’s overall health. Then, it turns over the energy and power to the working groups. Each group takes the lead on a particular project or set of actions. The general terms of reference for the stewardship group are “as little process as possible”.

This model also includes a third-party secretariat whose job it is to coordinate the overall efforts of the project and troubleshoot problems. Surman and Surman point out that:

“When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically… (create) a secretariat within the partner who has the most capacity. This is seldom an ideal solution. Placing the coordination function within one of the partners permanently alters the power dynamic of the group. One partner takes power. The others defer responsibility and lose energy.”

In this model, the secretariat is responsible to both the stewardship team and the constellations.

Characteristics of the Constellation Model

  • Defining traits of this model are:
  • Organizationally complex
  • Lightweight governance
  • Messy
  • Exist through lightweight agreements between members
  • Fiscal and legal responsibility moves around depending on which partner is leading a constellation
  • Leadership and power are shared among members

Our process

We challenged the groups to consider the constellation model in more depth. We asked them which aspects of it resonated with them and how.

We did not tell members that their current structure was wrong or that they needed to change it. We simply presented the constellation model as a tool for further discussion.

Results

  • The group was able to engage deeply in a productive conversation about governance, leadership and structure.
  • Members gained insights into why a traditional organizational structure might not work for them.
  • Individuals who were feeling anxious and undervalued suddenly felt that they had options.
  • The group was able to acknowledge that a structure can be “messy” and still work.

Just as constellations in the sky may seem messy to the untrained eye, each functions well on its own. Sometimes stars burn out… and that is OK. In fact, it is normal and does not mean that the universe is falling apart. There is a natural ebb and flow to all work and process.

As facilitators we were astounded at the depth of conversation and levels of engagement. We brought the constellation to the table as a tool to generate dialogue. The unexpected result for us was a sense of relief, mixed in with excitement. Members felt that they had a better understanding of how many organizations could work together effectively without giving up their own identity or culture.

References:

Here are some of the resources that we drew upon in order to prepare for and deliver the workshop:

Byers, R. (2011). “Models and Elements of Collaborative Governance” from @ A Glance: A Resource of the Healthy Communities Consortium.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.

Koch, J. (2005). The Efficacy of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in the Educational Context. (Master’s Thesis).University of Calgary, Calgary.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications.

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J. L., Dobrowolski, S., & Puntenney, D. (2005). Discovering Community Power: A Guide to Mobilizing Local Assets and Your Organization’s Capacity. from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University: http://www.abcdinstitute.org/docs/kelloggabcd.pdf

Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Surman, T. (2006, March 15, 2012) Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership. Retrieved from http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/files/event/attachments/Constellation%20Model%20Description%20June%209%2706.pdf

Surman, T., & Surman, M. (2008). Listening to The Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change. Social Space. Retrieved from http://socialinnovation.ca/sites/default/files/Constellation%20Paper%20-%20Surman%20-%20Jun%202008%20SI%20Journal.pdf

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.