I recently had the pleasure of participating in a panel at the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) Council of Chairs of Ontario Universities (CCOU) conference. It’s always a pleasure to speak at this conference and to “virtually see” so many familiar and friendly faces and it’s a valuable learning opportunity for Ontario’s board leaders and members. This blog is based on some of my remarks at the conference:

What is institutional autonomy and why is it important for universities?

One of the questions my co-panellists Sheldon Levy and Robert Siddall were asked was ‘what is institutional autonomy and why is it important for universities?’.

What do we mean by institutional autonomy?

We all understand that autonomy means sovereignty, self-government or self-rule but when we talk about it in the university context, we are particularly focused on university independence from political and partisan control.  Based on my experience working with university boards, board members understand that it’s valuable for universities to run themselves – it’s intuitive that we want to control and direct our institutions.  But it’s also important for all of us to understand the context of the role of universities within society.

What’s the relationship between institutional autonomy and democracy?

As a society, we’ve been struggling with the relationship between universities and government for over a hundred years.  Many of you will be aware that there have been a couple of key reviews of university governance in Canada – the first goes back to 1906 and it was triggered by the fact that the Ontario government at that time was directly interfering with the autonomy of the University of Toronto.  The government of the day was getting involved in operational decisions including faculty appointments.  Just pause for a minute to think about what that could mean – think about who politicians might want to appoint as faculty to universities and what that might mean? Think about who they might not want to promote from Assistant Professor to Full Professor.  There’s a great book by George Fallis called Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy and I think this quotation illustrates the point:

The university [not only continues] the process of building democratic character [in its students] – [democratic character being “the ability to think carefully and critically about problems, to articulate one’s views and defend them before people with whom one disagrees” ] but the fundamental democratic purpose of a university is protection against the tyranny of ideas. Control of the creation of ideas … subverts democracy. As institutional sanctuaries for free scholarly inquiry, universities can help prevent such subversion.  Fallis goes on to call universities “sanctuaries of nonrepression”.

In the day to day, we often lose sight of the fact that universities have this higher social purpose – or we are tempted to reduce the description of the purpose of universities to providing education so that students get jobs. But universities mean a lot more to society and university leaders are the guardians at the gates of those sanctuaries.

Autonomy and the Role of the Board: Back to 1906 – in recognition of the fact that political and partisan involvement in the operations of the University of Toronto was problematic, a royal commission was formed called the Flavelle Commission.  The outcome of that commission was to reinforce the importance of institutional autonomy.  The Commission saw the dangers of political partisan interference in university governance and advised that “the powers of the Crown in respect to the control of the management of the University of Toronto should be vested in the Board of Governors” (which at that time was all chosen by the Lieutenant Governor in Council so still somewhat problematic for autonomy).  It is really important that boards of universities understand that you are a stand-in for the Crown – your role is to protect the public interest and act in the best interests of the university.

With respect to control and accountability …

There are many examples of governments moving to controlling institutions. From dictating that universities should have freedom of speech policies when most already had them (although the right in Canada is freedom of expression), to creating universities with specific policy mandates in their legislation, we are seeing Ontario governments move into control territory and the challenge of the Laurentian situation is that it opens the door to more control. Universities really need to shift the discussion from control to accountability. Inside institutions, we need to understand government as a key stakeholder to whom we owe accountability but we need to maintain control over our own strategic direction, decision-making and operations. Although government funds are declining as a proportion of total university revenue, government still gives a lot of money to universities and this gives rise to expectations and interference on the part of government.

Studies have shown that governments don’t really understand universities and that universities frustrate government. Governments don’t understand why it’s important that they respect university autonomy and so at a minimum those of us in the sector need to be really clear on it and act accordingly. What does that mean? Those of you who’ve read my book or heard me speak on this before, know that I believe that improved governance is the way to retain control but increase accountability and promote trust in key stakeholders. Through a commitment to good governance, universities demonstrate to government and all stakeholders that “we’ve got this” – we understand our role in society, we understand that we have to act transparently and with accountability.


I’d like everyone to take away two key things:

  • Democracy is under threat around the world. Autonomous universities are key institutions to healthy democracies. Board members and university leaders have crucial roles to play in maintaining university autonomy.  An understanding of the importance of the role of universities to society should infuse everything that boards of universities do.
  • Universities have to assert their autonomy while being fully committed to accountability through more effective governance. A commitment to accountability and transparency is the path to autonomy.