Is there anything you would change at Waterloo?
It’s possible: Despite their long history, universities aren’t immune to change. Digital technologies have fundamentally altered how people relate to factual information. Being resistant to commoditization, our teaching and research costs are mostly in personnel. Increasingly, research spans disciplinary boundaries and is collaborative. Global problems, especially with the environment, are becoming local and urgent. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission charges us to better include Indigenous scholars and ways of knowing. The ever-growing body of scholarship on teaching and learning gives evidence as to how university teaching should evolve.
The university is always adapting and responding to challenges like these. Participation in the distinctive university apparatus called collegial governance affords faculty members influence in that process.
How collegial governance works at Waterloo
The University of Waterloo is organized on a bicameral model. Loosely, this means that our Board of Governors looks after the institution as a nonprofit corporation with an annual cash flow of about a billion dollars, and our Senate looks after the institution as an educational community of about 40,000 scholars (faculty, students, many staff).
It’s not a total separation of interests, however. To manage finances and risk, our Board must know the higher-education sector, its value and values, its trends, and Waterloo’s distinctive roles in it. To manage academic programs and policies, our Senate must promote academic initiatives that show an attractive cost-benefit and risk-reward tradeoff. Tensions are part of the model: autonomy versus dependence, academic freedom versus responsibility, individual versus group ambitions, etc.
Power is largely decentralized at Waterloo, especially between our centre and the six faculties. Students, faculty members, and most academically involved staff are not unionized. Our policy and procedures framework is relatively sparse. If anything can be said to be built into the Waterloo DNA, it is our desire to plan and solve problems without a lot of bureaucratic overhead. One result of this is that the routes to change are not always immediately obvious.
Where FAUW comes in
It can seem daunting to engage with such a complex and amorphous enterprise! The FAUW Board is a supportive environment in which to participate while getting to know the people and issues. I joined in 2007, near the end of a term serving as Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in my department. Although I had experience with advising and administering for undergraduate students, I was otherwise pretty green regarding the University as a whole. Like most newcomers to FAUW, I learned by being the novice member of a team, in my case the Faculty Relations Committee (FRC).
FAUW’s relationship with the University is defined in the Memorandum of Agreement but made operational through FRC. Like a union, we negotiate salary in a highly structured way every few years. Unlike a union, we negotiate almost everything else through discussions that happen every two weeks (September to June) at FRC. That committee has ten representatives, five from FAUW and five from the administration. I ended up serving almost continuously for about eleven years on FRC (spanning two university presidents, seven provosts, and five FAUW presidents) over which period I learned a lot about FRC. The one constant is a need to continue productive conversations.
Trust and respect have to be maintained across different personalities and across issues where interests and passions may align or not. Mostly, the spirit is one of engaged problem solving. Mostly, the solutions involve adapting to change in rational ways. Mostly, we strive to avoid policy or procedure overhead. This arrangement is precious and rather unique to Waterloo, and, in my opinion, serves as an ideal model of collegial governance.
If you have an interest in participating, I encourage you to consider joining the FAUW Board. You need to bring only your regular skills as a scholar and your eagerness to improve the University. I can attest that the work is highly rewarding and worthwhile.
George Freeman is an at-large member of the FAUW Board of Directors and a former FAUW president.