Setting resolutions at the start of the new calendar year is a long-standing tradition for many in the Western world, whether it’s resolving to improve upon habits or setting quantifiable goals. Even if you’re not in the practice of setting New Year’s Resolutions, the start of the new year represents an opportunity to re-focus on things you might like to advance and improve as someone involved in university governance.

This blog is about the kinds of New Year’s Resolutions I believe might have very positive outcomes for the effectiveness of Canadian universities.  In the spirit of making this manageable and achievable, I’m suggesting three:

Resolution 1:  Boards will commit to fostering integrated governance.

One of the prevailing themes in my work with universities in 2023 is that university governance is a complex system.  However, few universities take the time to look at the system and understand if it is working well – either as a whole or by specific components.  Are the sub-systems aligned and supportive of integrated governance? Is the system functioning as it should or are there elements that require attention and overhaul?

Understanding and approaching governance as an integrated system requires a mindful and holistic approach to how authority is delegated throughout, and how those with authority are held accountable for its exercise.  It requires understanding why parts of the system exist, how they work as an integrated structure, and how changing any element within will affect the system.  It calls for detailed analysis to understand the system, monitor the system’s health, and respond as needed to repair or improve it.

One area that has needed attention for many years is the role of the senate and the senate’s relationship with the board.  Many universities seem to have settled for mediocrity in this area because it’s hard to foster good relations.  Universities that succeed in the future will pay attention to ensuring good integration of board and senate and to fostering the health of this crucial relationship.

Call to Action: University boards should request at regular intervals a “health check” of the university’s governance system and resolve to improve areas identified as critical to fostering integrated and effective governance.

Resolution 2: Boards will make university culture a priority to enable progress in equity, inclusion and reconciliation work.

“Culture can be defined as the ways people in the organization behave and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those behaviors (i.e., “the way we do things around here”) … [a]t many organizations there is a gap between the existing culture and the “desired” culture — the culture needed to support and advance the company’s goals and strategies.” 

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All boards are facing many demands from many different stakeholders to advance equity.  I recently worked with a board to help them understand and think about the board’s role in ensuring good university culture.  The first step is understanding that boards have a role in understanding where the gap is between the existing culture and the one that will support getting where the university needs to go.

Call to Action: University boards should make consistent efforts to understand university culture and demonstrate their commitment to ensuring accountability of those delegated with responsibility for advancing their university’s culture.

Resolution 3: Boards will ensure independence in setting workplans.

Too often university boards rely on administration to set the board agenda.  This effectively means that the board is looking at the work the university is doing, but not necessarily at what it’s not doing or should be doing, or at things that are not going well. This approach may also foster complacence, a loss of board member engagement, and a sense that the board is rubber stamping.  It also means the board may not be doing its job in ensuring effective oversight of the institution.

Establishing annual board workplans should involve the board chair, the president, and the senior governance leader. The board chair’s role in preparing the draft plan should not be reactive or complacent but rather, proactive, curious and analytical.  The board chair should go into the discussion with a strong sense of the board’s role, areas of importance to the board, the mission, vision, values and strategic plan priorities.  The draft work plan should flow into committee work plans and the board should have an opportunity to comment on the drafts. All of this work is fundamental to the university taking advantage of the board’s expertise and adding value.

Call to Action: The board chair needs to become a more active contributor in the development of board agendas, annual workplans, and reviewing draft committee plans.

These are three “thought-starters” to help strengthen and progress university governance in 2023. I’m sure you can identify specific others and resolve for yourself to champion them as you work to progress governance within your organization.