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College Quarterly
Spring 1995 - Volume 2 Number 3
Professional Autonomy and “The Case for Democratic Governance in Canada’s Community Colleges”
by Ralph V. Barrett

In a recent article Professor John Dennison of the University of British Columbia offered a cogent argument “for greater democracy in the governance of colleges.” (Dennison, 1994: p. 25) His main conclusion was that “the adaptation of a more democratic and participatory governing structure for Canada's colleges … can play an important part in the improvement of morale, trust, communication, program quality, and relevance at a time when community colleges face a challenging and uncertain future.” (p. 26) On the other hand, he acknowledges that a major obstacle to “democratic goverance” is that Canadian college faculty do not have “statutory power at the decision-making level.” (p. 27) In Ontario, for example, as Dennison points out, academic councils were created in each college to serve “in an advisory capacity” but the specific terms of reference in relation to decision-making power were left unidentified. While these councils, unlike university senates, do not have statutory powers, Dennison nonetheless consistently argues that colleges are “different from universities only in emphasis” (p. 27) and concludes that “democracy is as appropriate to the community college as to the university.” (p. 34)

In Dennison's view, community colleges are more than training institutions. He summarizes recent studies which document a “concern for general education” among college faculty across Canada. Attempts to deal with the “paucity of general education [have promoted] a desire for curricular reform to address the problem.” (p. 28) As a result, colleges which combine job training and general education are, he says, “educational institutions [and] those who teach in and administer these institutions must be regarded as professionals” (p. 28); they must be given a major role in curriculum development, in professional development and in the democratic goverance of their colleges. For Dennison, the view that colleges are simply government agencies similar to departments of highways has to be challenged. While universities, too, depend on public funding, they are not usually considered government agencies and neither should colleges be so understood. “Rarely,” he suggests, “is there serious debate as to whether university instructors should be regarded as professionals, irrespective of their areas of instruction.”

Even though university faculty are committed to the creation of knowledge as well as to its transmission, Dennison is quick to point out that “most college teachers hold advanced academic degrees and professional credentials”; they are involved in professional research and provide an education for their students which is not simply vocational; accordingly, “to deny them formal authority into decision-making on matters within the realm of their professional competence is difficult to defend on rational grounds.” (p. 30)

Dennison provides a brief but informative review of the main arguments supporting the case for democracy in goverance and the enhancement of formal participatory decision-making in colleges. He cites Michael Skolnik's Survival or Excellence (1985), for example, to support the view that college governance on the industrial model led to grievous inefficiencies, and Walter Pitman's 1986 report to Ontario's minister responsible for colleges which argued that “low morale” in the Ontario colleges could be overcome by a “collegial model of decision-making.” (p. 33) For Dennison, “instructors in colleges are professionals” who are involved in transmitting knowledge, research, and public service and, therefore, “college faculty should participate formally in decision-making activities” such as curriculum design and evaluation and “the selection of qualified personnel at the teaching and administrative level.” (p. 34)

The logic of Dennison's argument is compelling and, while serious experiments in participative management are underway in some colleges, a recent Ontario arbitration board “was compelled to find that a professor does not have final authority with respect to the selection of teaching materials, the determination of areas of study, the designation of methods of evaluation or the choice of mechanisms of delivery of a course of study.” Unlike their university colleagues, community college professors do not possess formal or legal rights to democratic goverance in their colleges. By way of illustration, professors may not, in the absence of administrative permission, select appropriate textbooks for their courses. The extent of their control over the teaching/learning process is ultimately at the discretion of management which retains final authority. It is thus difficult to conceive of professional autonomy in these circumstances, whatever the “rational grounds” that justify it as essential for faculty morale, for the maintenance of a high standard of educational quality, or even for increased efficiency.

The difficulty presented by Dennison's analysis is not in its logic but in its assertion that “those matters appropriate to the bargained contract and those questions of faculty input at the goverance table can, should and must be clearly separated.” (p. 35) Dennison is not suggesting that participation in decision-making can simply be used to overcome management/labour differences which are peripheral to the professional autonomy of college professors; rather, he seems to hold a facile assumption that bargaining, governing and professional autonomy can easily be isolated from one another. As his analysis elsewhere implies, formal authority for faculty participation in decision-making may have to be legislated. At the very least, academic freedom (understood in this context as, for instance, the professor's right to select textbooks) may require clear, precise clauses in a bargained collective agreement if it is to have legal status in Ontario's colleges.


Dennison, J. D. (1994). “The case for democratic goverance in Canada's community colleges,” Interchange, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 25-37.

Pitman, W. (1986). The Report of the Advisor to the Minister of Colleges and Universities on the goverance of the colleges of applied arts and technology. Unpublished manuscript, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Toronto, ON.

Skolnik, M. L. (1985). Survival or Excellence?: A study of instructional assignment in Ontario's colleges of applied arts and technology. Toronto: Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Ralph Barrett teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario.