Concerns about efficiency and comprehensive debate keep U of R Board of Governors meetings invite-only
If you’re curious about what goes on at the University of Regina Board of Governors’ meetings, besides reports being received and motions being voted upon, don’t expect more details to come anytime soon.
Last month, the board voted to uphold its current policy of closed-door meetings, striking down a motion that would allow members of the public to attend.
As it stands, section 4.6 of the U of R Board of Governors’ policy manual states that only board members – including the university’s president and chancellor – and members of the public who have been invited to attend can be present at board of governors’ meetings. The policy manual also states that the university’s vice-presidents are “regular attendees,” as is the university secretary, who records the minutes posted to the board’s website.
Outside of these provisions, however, the general public is barred from attendance. As well, board policies bar members from revealing details of meetings – meaning, for example, that board members cannot disclose who voted against the motion to keep the meetings closed, nor can they report how many board members did so.
Across Canada, board policies vary; while several universities, including the University of Calgary, Concordia University, and the University of British Columbia do allow members of the public to attend, some, like Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, and the University of Saskatchewan, have policies closer to ours.
Board member and U of R Students’ Union president Kent Peterson brought forward the motion to change the board of governors’ policy. He believes the board’s policy is “outdated and obsolete,” and said that the URSU executive are “disappointed” with the board’s decision to keep meetings closed. According to him, many decisions of the board are “too important” to discuss behind closed doors.
“[The board’s decisions] have the most important impact on students for a number of reasons,” he explained. “… They decide all of the adminstration aspects and the policy that governs the university, and so a student can be affected by several dozen, really, of their decisions every day, just with their interaction with the university.”
One of the highest-profile recent policy changes was the board’s decision to increase parking fines on campus. After the new fines were the subject of an aggressive URSU campaign and national media attention, president Vianne Timmons agreed to hold a public forum on campus parking issues, the recommendations from which were brought to the board for consideration.
However, as U of R vice-president of external affairs Barb Pollock explains, decisions made by the board often address concerns – like personnel issues, labour relations, and land [clarify] – that require the privacy of in-camera discussions. Because those items can be spread out across an entire meeting, opening meetings to the public could drastically reduce the board’s efficiency.
Moreover, she says, efficiency is not just a matter of saving time.
“When I mean ‘efficiency,’ I don’t mean to save time because it’s only a matter of time,” she explained. “It’s a matter of the fact that if a subject cannot be explored to the degree it needs to be – and I’ll say comprehensively, rather than exhaustively – because of people being in the room, we cause yet another meeting, or we need people to file out, file in … The board is trying to do the right work the right way, and they feel it needs to be done in a closed fashion.”
Pollock added that the desire for comprehensive discussion is one of the main reasons for maintaining the board’s current closed-meetings policy. She explained discussions in an open meeting could be “less freewheeling” – and, therefore, the board’s work would be impeded.
“I want to make this one a hypothetical … [but] let’s say we have a financial issue we have to attend to in the next few years, and we want to talk about all types of ways of minimizing financial responsibilities, and we start talking about cuts, that isn’t the kind of conversation that you have very easily with people in the room who either A) can be affected or B) who don’t the context for discussion.”
As U of R business professor Brian Schumacher points out, the board of governors at the U of R is hardly the only institution that follows this line of thought.
“Generally speaking, there’s justification oftentimes [with boards of governors or directors] to have discussions,” he explained. “If you value your board’s input you want to be able to have them speak frankly. If they feel they cannot speak frankly and they cannot therefore be acting in the best interests of the organization, of the institution, then you structure things such that they can.”
Peterson, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“I want to tell people what my other board colleagues are saying … if [the board members] think their arguments and their statements are valid, I would encourage them to tell students directly,” he said. “Or pass a motion to have open meetings.”
For now, students will have to make do with what the board gives us. Minutes from the December meeting will be published on February 7, after the next board meeting. But outside of the outcome of the vote, what those minutes in particular will reveal about the board’s decision to keep its meetings private is anyone’s guess.