Let’s open up this boardroom


John Cameron Editor-in-chief Last week, we ran an article on the University of Regina Board of Governors' policy of prohibiting public attendance at their meetings. U of R Students' Union president Kent Peterson put forward a motion to make those meetings public, a motion that was rejected – and, of course, due to their internal policies, the board can neither disclose how many members voted against the new policy nor which members did so. Leading up to the Canadian University Press' (CUP) national conference last weekend, I sent out an email across the CUP listserv, notifying other student papers about our board's decision. Several papers responded to the email with letters of support, asking our board to reconsider their decision. We've reprinted them below.

Jane Lytvynenko, news editor, the Fulcrum (University of Ottawa):

Student papers, whether autonomous from the university or not, are made to report not only on events inside the schools, but to keep its governing bodies accountable to students—the university's primary audience, customer, attendee, however you want to put it. As soon as the university starts to keep secrets from students and the student press, the latter should be on its toes. Student papers can't fill their mandate if the university government doesn't let them. Though keeping the meetings private could be perfectly innocent, students deserve to know what goes on behind closed doors. It's the students who pay the university's bills and salaries, and that university has a responsibility to act transparently and responsibly toward them.

Justin Bell, managing editor, the Gateway (University of Alberta):

It's come to my attention that the University of Regina doesn't allow outside members to attend their Board of Governors meetings. To me, this is an unacceptable hampering of the stakeholders (Students, Staff and Faculty) ability to know what's happening at their university.

Universities in Canada are, for the most part, public institutions that could not operate without taxpayers dollars. Therefore it only makes sense to me that meetings be conducted in public and open for the scrutiny of the university scrutiny.
This doesn't mean that there aren't times to go in camera for sensitive issues detailing finances or employee issues. But those should be use sparingly and in the trust that it's important information that can't be revealed to the public for a good reason.
Being open as an organization is not easy. It leaves you vulnerable to criticism and means everyone can see the decision-making process. But in the end, this can only strengthen your organization. Now decisions have to be made with a thought to the stakeholders who are affected.
Arshy Mann, managing editor (web), the Ubyssey (University of British Columbia); Western bureau chief, Canadian University Press:
The Ubyssey has been attending the University of British Columbia's Board of Governor's meetings for years. We even travel to Kelowna every summer in order to attend the annual meeting held at UBC's Okanagan campus. The ability to attend these meetings is absolutely integral to our ability to convey to students what is happening at their university. The BoG is the most important decision making body at the university and if we didn't have the ability to attend these meetings, we would be severely restricted in our ability to understand how important decisions are made. This isn't even getting to the fact UBC (just like the University of Regina) is a public institution and owes it to students to be open and honest about how business is done.
Of course, UBC's BoG often goes in camera for sensitive issues and we completely understand the need to do so. But without the ability to attend these meetings, we would not have been able to adequately report on a number of issues, including land use policy, tuition, transit policy and just about everything else that matters to students.
It's also important to note that many of the stories that we published as a result of attending these meetings often portrayed the university in a positive light. 
Public institutions should always operate with openness and transparency. Universities are no different.
Linda Givetash, editor-in-chief, the Cord (Wilfrid Laurier University):

I have covered issues among various departments of campus administration at Wilfrid Laurier University for four years, and never once experienced being blocked out of meetings or discussions. Allowing media, whether it be student or mainstream, into meetings is imperative in ensuring accountability. Students at the university cannot be unaware of decisions that are being made that will affect their student life and education while at the institution. Without media present when decisions are made, it prevents students and the surrounding community from understanding the issues and the choices the university is making. The university is accountable to the students, staff and faculty that attend and work at the institution, and the student media provides the means to creating dialogue between all parties. The university should not prohibit the fourth estate from fulfilling its role and informing the public. If any level of government were to ban the media from meetings, there would be public outcry. Please take this e-mail as a form of public outcry and change the board's policies to allow for the media – student or mainstream – to attend future meetings.

Alyssa Tremblay, interim news editor, the Concordian (Concordia University):
Though I'm still somewhat new in the Canadian university press scene (I only started contributing to the paper, and going to university for that matter, in September), I have attended Board of Governor's meetings at Concordia and feel that keeping them open to the public goes a long way in healthy environment between the administration and the campus media. 
Covering a story about governance at a university can feel somewhat detached if your only contact with the decision-makers themselves is through secretaries, assistants and PR people. You'll still receive information but without some sort of direct contact, those in charge start to be defined by their titles within the university rather than as people.
At Concordia, our Board of Governor's meetings are open to the public. Seating is limited, but the overall effect is humanizing – you see that the Board is made up of individual people with different ideas and suddenly titles and emails are replaced with real voices and faces. Rather than just reading a press release, you get to see first-hand some of the process of debate and deliberation that goes into each decision. As a result you gain a better understanding of the issues, a clarity which gets passed on to the rest of the university through your reporting.

Keeping these meetings closed to the public ultimately dehumanizes the Board itself in the eyes of the university community. It also, sadly enough, doesn't do the Board members themselves much justice.

The editorial team of the Ryerson Free Press (Ryerson University)

Dear U of R Board of Governors.

Students are the largest stakeholder in your institution. Their publication, the Carillon, provides them with critical access to the deliberations and decisions made by the Board of Governors at the University of Regina. Denying student reporters, or students in general, access to your meetings is un-democratic. The editorial group of the Ryerson Free Press urges you to ensure full and open access to Carillon reporters and students at-large to your meetings and sub-committee meetings to help ensure that you remain accountable and transparent to the students whose interests you are there to reflect.
UPDATE (10:30 07/02/2012): And a letter from CUP national bureau chief Emma Godmere.
[scribd id=80794774 key=key-1c1ewqsxyuld9r9otsv6 mode=list]
Of course, we at the Carillon also appreciate your input in the comments section below.
UPDATE (18:16 07/02/2012): Western bureau chief Arshy Mann was incorrectly identified as the Ubyssey's editor-in-chief; he is, in fact, their online managing editor. We've made the correction and regret the error.

Comments are closed.