Better Boards, Better Universities

One of the most influential—yet least understood—groups of decision-makers at Canadian universities is the board of directors. Today, the membership of these boards represents an array of professional backgrounds that include government, the non-profit and private sectors, and higher education itself. But with this diversity of experience comes the task of ensuring that board members have a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing their universities. Every day, board members confront new concerns about issues that can include student wellbeing, the school-to-work transition, and campus safety, in addition to the ever-present fiscal pressures that universities face. In this world of constrained (and sometimes shrinking) resources, board members know that the future of their universities, and of Canadian higher education, can depend on the decisions they make.

This is the challenge that the Canadian University Boards Association (CUBA) seeks to address. Formed in 1987, the association supports effective governance in higher education by providing board members with resources, professional networks, and a forum for exchanging vital perspectives and information. One of the primary ways that the organization fulfills its mission is through its annual conference, which will be hosted by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario May 2-4, 2019.  

Building Perspective

“This conference brings board chairs and professionals from across the country together to share knowledge and experience, to discuss emerging issues facing post-secondary education globally, to learn about best practices in university governance, and to develop key connections with others facing similar issues,” says Lon Knox, University Secretary at Queen’s University. “The opportunity to share experiences with and learn from others is critical to ensure that a university remains equipped to manage current challenges, but also emerging issues that others are currently experiencing and to learn about strategies and tactics being employed to meet them.”

Knox believes that university boards bring unique value to higher education, as the multiple perspectives of their members make them well-equipped to strike an appropriate balance between addressing long-term financial responsibilities, investing in the student living and learning experience, and ensuring that researchers and scholars are supported in the creation of knowledge.

Understanding The Challenges of a University Board

Marion Haggarty-France, University Secretary at the University of Alberta, agrees that providing a means for Board Chairs and governance professionals “to step away and completely focus on the issues facing Canadian boards is critical to the success of Canadian higher education.” She notes that the CUBA conference is the only national opportunity for this group to assemble and connect.

While some might see boards as removed from the day-to-day operations of the university, Knox contends that members “are often quite involved with the life of the university outside of the boardroom. Board members are often alumni or parents of students or graduates and have a great affinity for, and deep understanding of, the institutions which they govern. They are involved in dean’s advisory councils, campaign cabinets and mentorship programs for young graduates.” Haggarty-France adds that engaged board members take advantage of opportunities to meet with and hear from prominent researchers and students, most often those in student leadership positions but those in other roles as well, and “strive to understand how the work of their university is changing lives.”

Learning From Others

As mentioned, though, fulfilling this mission requires board members to be educated on the global, national, provincial, and regional trends impacting higher education as a whole, and the future of the universities they serve. That’s why CUBA invites Canada’s university board leaders and professionals to attend its annual conference in Kingston next year.

“This event offers a unique opportunity,” adds Haggarty-France. “It is a chance for board members and related officials to forge the ties and gain the perspective that will help them make the best decisions not only for their universities, but for all of higher ed.”

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