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Louie Villanueva

Board of Governors appointments are important for the province

One of the ways provincial governments shape Alberta is through public board appointments. The highest decision-making body for universities — the Board of Governors —  is an example of one of these boards.

The president is the public face of the University of Calgary, but it’s the Board of Governors that approves everything from tuition hikes to the university’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy. The board rarely makes it into the public spotlight, but they wield enormous power and their composition should be carefully thought out.

Last week, the government appointed former Edmonton city councillor Michael Phair as the new chair of the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta. Former board chair Doug Goss resigned last July.

Goss — a longtime PC donor — was one of a handful of businessmen who urged Albertans not to vote for the NDP in last year’s provincial election. Replacing Goss with the left-leaning LGBTQ activist Phair may be a sign of things to come at the U of C.

The U of C’s Board of Governors consists of 21 members, with a majority of those appointed by the province. Nine of the board member’s terms expire in the next six months. All of these members were appointed by the PCs and many have donated significant amounts of money to that party. This includes board chair Bonnie DuPont, whose term expires this April.

There is little doubt the NDP will seek to scrub the U of C’s Board of Governors of Tory influence — to the extent that’s even possible after 40 years of PC rule. But the NDP should avoid stacking the board with its donors and supporters the way the PCs did. Instead, members should reflect the various parties that have a stake in how the university is run.

When the board approves tuition hikes, including large ones like market modifiers, the two undergraduate student representatives on the board are usually the only members to vote against them. This is unsurprising when the board is stacked with political donors and CEOs for whom a few extra hundred dollars in tuition each year may seem like no big deal.

Tuition hikes impact students more than any other group. Having board members that actually consider what fee hikes mean to an already heavily indebted group is crucial to ensuring the Board of Governors actually does its job of holding administrators accountable.

The importance of the board was highlighted by events of the fall, when the Students’ Union appealed to the Board of Governors to intervene in the dispute between the SU and administration over MacHall ownership that almost wound up in court.

The board declined to intervene in that dispute. Regardless of one’s opinion on the dispute, the scenario demonstrates the crucial role the Board of Governors is often asked to play in determining the university’s future.

The board also initiated the independent review into Elizabeth Cannon’s involvement in setting up the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability while simultaneously sitting on an Enbridge board. Incidentally, it was also the board that allowed Cannon to sit on up to two corporate boards as part of her contract in the first place.

The Board of Governors is important for the future of the U of C. It should be more than a rubber stamp that simply approves whatever administrators put forward. Any new board members need to understand this role and take it seriously.

Fabian Mayer, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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