2 Chapter 2: The Governance Structures of Postsecondary Education

A. Session Introduction

The governance system of universities and colleges is different from other organizations and companies – even if both are non-profit, created for public-interest, are service oriented, and even if they have multiple stakeholders and employees with differing and distinct professions and expertise. What makes university governance structure different is the idea of Academic Freedom. Academic Freedom has been differently defined to make a specific point, but it encapsulates the following elements regarding freedom: (a) to decide what to teach; (b) to decide how to teach; (c) to decide what to research; (d) to decide how to do the research; (e) to report research findings; (f) to express their opinions; and (g) to be wrong (Jones, 2014).


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These extensive freedoms constrain many traditional assumptions about management that governance concerns itself. For instance, professors make their own decisions about teaching and research (with important exceptions) which limits the degree to which they can be “managed” in the traditional sense. Furthermore, academic tenure, which is the institutional means to safeguard academic freedom, limits the ability of the management to terminate professors for capricious reasons. And finally, professors can offer their opinions on public matters and even on matters affecting the operation of the university without retribution.

The second manifestation of freedoms leads to academic self-governance. This idea implies that in order to preserve academic freedom, academic decisions should be made by academics and not other seemingly relevant stakeholders. That means not the administration, not individuals and groups who are in governance or administrative posts, neither related ministry folks, and neither the board of governors. The University Act which is the basis of creation of most of the Universities in Canada assigns the responsibility for academics matters to be decided by the academic senate which operates independent of, but at the same level as the governing board.

It is important to note that these set of privileges and responsibilities extend only to tenured faculty members at the university. Other teaching staff who do not have tenured positions, however much qualified, do not have these privileges extended to them. Also, the idea of academic freedom is far more restrictive in colleges.

This implies that the academic decisions that are important to the university cannot be made by the board. The complexity that arises because of this must be understood in terms of freedom that the academic senate has in determining the strategic direction of the university.

With respect to the selection of the President of the University, the board has the responsibility of appointing the president, but the search process includes all major stakeholders. Corollary, the president of the university is held accountable to the Board, Senate, and the academic community of the university. Consequently, the President’s ability to steer university using the executive authority is thwarted and requires him/her to build consensus and focus on the process. In short, the President must be held to a different standard than the CEO of a company.

B. Learning Outcomes

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Understand the bicameral system of governance in Canadian Universities;
  • Understand the limits of what a President of a University can do, and how that differs from the CEO of other organizations; and
  • Distinguish between the governance structures of an Ontario College and an Ontario University

Connection to Practice

Academic Freedom also affects the governance structure of the University and it changes the role of the President, the Board of Trustees, and introduces a level of academic oversight of Senate.

Connection to Research

Why might the college professors have restricted academic freedom?
What is one question that has not been answered that has left you asking more questions about the University Governance in Ontario?

C. Session Resources

Corbett, A., & Mackay, J. M. (2014, August). Manual for effective college governance. College Centre of Board Excellence. Retrieved from https://www.collegesontario.org/colleges-ontario/CO_college_governance_manual.pdf [read Chapter 1 & skim Chapter 2, stopping at page 37]

Jones, G. A., Shanahan, T., & Goyan, P. (2001). University governance in Canadian Higher EducationTertiary Education and Management, 7(2). 135-148. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011333915176

Pennock, L., Jones, G. A., Leclerc, J. M., & Li, S. X. (2016). Challenges and opportunities for collegial governance at Canadian universities: Reflections on a survey of academic senatesCanadian Journal of Higher Education, 46(3). 73-89.