Last Friday’s Board of Governors meeting ended abruptly even before its open session began. The meeting came to a halt toward the end of its hour-long closed session, when three student governors, undergraduates AJ West and Cameron Monagle and graduate student Erik Chevrier, walked out in protest over a motion to discuss the presence of cameras in the meeting. The representatives said they felt the discussion should have been held in the open session, when members of the audience would have been able to observe. With the absence of the three student governors, the BoG did not have quorum to continue with the meeting.
While the majority of governors already voiced their disapproval of the idea in January when they voted down a motion put forward by Chevrier that would have mandated the BoG to offer live broadcasts, it remains unclear if individuals should be permitted to film the meetings with their own cameras.
The question will likely be brought up again at the board’s next meeting on April 19.
Concordia Student Union President and student governor Lex Gill has gone on record saying that allowing cameras in the boardroom would greatly contribute to upping transparency at the BoG, indicating that as it stands, “the board operates in a way that it’s accountable to no one.”
One person who disagrees with that statement, and who believes that the BoG is “as transparent as it should be,” is Concordia’s interim President Frederick Lowy, who was brought in last year to put out the political fires following the BoG’s ousting of Lowy’s predecessor, Judith Woodsworth. The Concordian recently sat down with Dr. Lowy to get his thoughts on cameras in the boardroom and on what can be done to bridge the disconnect between Concordia’s Board of Governors and the student population.
What was your reaction to the Feb. 10 board meeting ending the way it did? Could something have been done to bring about a different outcome?
Well I’m disappointed. The board is an important part of our operation. It has a job to do, and if it can’t do its job properly, things slow down. The outcome, as you know, was a lack of quorum forcing the meeting to stop. That lack of quorum was caused by three out of the four student representatives [Gill remained in the boardroom] walking out and thereby depriving the meeting of legitimacy. If the students had not walked out, the meeting would have continued, so ask them [about other potential outcomes].
Do you have a personal position on broadcasting board meetings live?
I do. Although cameras are appropriate in courts of law and in parliaments, they are not appropriate at universities. And I know that my opinion is not an opinion that is in the minority. Every single university in Canada, that we know of, does not permit filming or broadcasting of board meetings.
The issue of filming and broadcasting is also related to our ability to keep volunteer board members. Obviously they’re interested in the university to start with because they accept to be board members, but we have to persuade a number of people we want on the board to be on our board, because they have other boards to go on as well. So when there is a concern on the part of some of them that they’re not going to be able to speak freely in board meetings without their words being taken out of context, well, that’s an ongoing problem.
Most of the people who come to the board are not politicians, they don’t choose to be in a public forum. So there are two goods here of positive value: on the one hand, you have the good of transparency, and on the other hand, the good of free speech, so it’s a question of balancing both of them.
But some would argue that BoG meetings are already being recorded, such as by journalists who use tape recorders.
We count on members of the press to be responsible reporters. What they’re likely to do, as they’ve done in the past, is report decisions, but they don’t report who said what, and with what tone of voice, and so on. Those things are private. Unless somebody is actually being interviewed, reporters don’t pick up these kinds of nuances, people taking to each other in an unguarded fashion. Because what we want is for people to be able to talk in an unguarded fashion, rather than to measure all their words and be politically correct all the time.
Then in your opinion, is the board as transparent as it can be?
I don’t think it’s as transparent as it can be, but I think perhaps it’s as transparent as it should be. There’s more transparency than there has been before. And so long as there’s transparency that doesn’t at the same time inhibit people from doing what they’re there to do, then that’s a balance that I think is appropriate. Whether we’ve got the ultimate best, I don’t know. I’m not saying it can’t be improved, and if it can be improved, it should be, but we must find a way to improve without turning off people from becoming board members.
It’s become painfully clear that there is a disconnect between the student governors and most of the rest of the BoG. What can be done to bridge this gap?
We need to continue what we’re doing right now, namely talk to each other. I’m hoping, and other members of the board I’m sure are hoping as well, to talk with student governors and other students about this and work out a way of handling our different opinions. It is in nobody’s interest to see the board come to a halt.
CSU President Lex Gill has said that the “board operates in a way that it is accountable to no one.” What is your reaction to that statement?
I don’t agree with her statement. I agree with her on a lot of things, but that’s not one of them. First of all, board members are responsible to each other. The board is not a single monolithic bloc of people who all think the same. There are sufficient differences within the board to ensure this doesn’t happen. The board is ultimately responsible to the public through its representatives. The board issues reports on its activities each year, its open sessions are open to anybody and anyone who wishes has access to the board’s minutes online.
The board has developed quite a negative image in the eyes of students who have become increasingly frustrated with its operations. How can the board improve its standing among the student population?
I know they’re frustrated; it’s clear that many students don’t hold the board in high regard. That doesn’t mean that board members aren’t trying. In fact, a tremendous amount of them are graduates of our university and have an important stake in the university. The board is changing. The membership, the composition is changing. And I think the board is aware of the problem [negative image among students] and I think they’re trying to fix it. Certainly it’s in everyone’s best interest that not only the board do its job properly, but that it be seen to be doing its job.
This interview has been edited for length.