I like reading the Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) blog even though most of it is about education administration. Their recent post is about “Carleton’s Loyalty Oath” and basically outlines how Carleton University’s Board of Governors is struggling to address the behaviour of one professor on its board. To the blog’s eye, they’re behaving like “goons” and thugs. The issue surrounds Root Gorelick as the university faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors (BoG). He represents the faculty and feels he should blog to the community about the discussions, his positions, and even his objections to Board decisions.
Yet part of being part of ANY board (co-op, school council, parliament, NGO, business, etc.) is joint responsibility. You individually contribute to joint discussions, you exercise your personal voting powers, but you make collective decisions. And once a group makes a decision, the members of that group collectively made that decision. It’s even part of your legal responsibility in some cases. And the short version is that if you cannot abide by the group’s decisions, you resign as a member of the Board. That’s the job. Since Gorelick hasn’t come to heel at the Board’s insistence, the Board is revising the Code of Conduct to make it a formally recognized duty.
While the HESA blog finds this overkill, and likely to “reduce transparency”, I find the opposite. If the history of Board governance shows anything, it is that when one member violates group confidentiality, the risk goes way up that MORE will be done in secret. The blog (and Gorelick) equate transparency as only being about reporting “out” on discussions, but there are two elements that are far more dangerous if curtailed.
First, if Board members have a “safe space” in which to discuss things openly among themselves, they are more likely to do so. If they know instead that every word they say may be blogged about tomorrow, then they won’t. That has been consistently proven again and again. It is why the informal rule of “group responsibility” exists in all boards. They need to know they are “in this together”, working together for the common good. And if one member falters in a single decision, the others won’t hang them out to dry. If it is “open season”, then board members consistently stop working together and default to formal positions. Zero risk-taking on any issue. Everybody represents only their clear constituency, with no room for compromise or shared positions.
Second, and far more dangerous to any Board, is that people will not BRING issues to the table if they think they’ll immediately go public. They’ll hold them back, they’ll try to “manage” risks or scandals or problems until there is nothing for the Board to do but a post-mortem. Every Board functions the same way — they want things to come early, so they can exercise their governance role and give early direction. But if the administration knows that it will risk early disclosure by one member, nothing controversial will come to the board. Instead, it’ll come either only after it has been “handled” or it’ll get completely buried.
Like the HESA blog author, I too am a Carleton alumni, and in Public Policy. But I support them getting a rep from faculty that has a clue how governance actually works rather than running around as a self-appointed Chief Executive Grumpy Pants.