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College Quarterly
Summer 1995 - Volume 2 Number 4
Coming to Consensus: Developing Strategic Alliances at an Ontario College Council
by Robyn Knapp

This was the rather grand title of the presentation that five of us from Centennial College made at the ACCC Conference in Victoria in June this year. In reality, we talked about the practical steps that the Council executive, Council members and the College management are taking to develop a Council that is representative, participatory, accountable and relevant within our own college.

These are, of course, real buzz words and we know that we have to check repeatedly to see that we are not just mouthing the platitudes of the day. However, as a result of the changes that we have made so far - essentially within one academic year - we have already seen a dramatic change in interest within the members of our College Council and an increased awareness of the role and importance of the Council within the wider college community. So, we are motivated to continue our attempts to sharpen the focus and role of Centennial's College Council through creating an environment which promotes co-operation and the development of common goals.

The Process

Since 1990, every college in Ontario has been mandated to have a College Council that is composed of internal members of the college and whose purpose is to advise the President on academic issues. However, the commonality among colleges ends there: the size, composition and process of the Council is determined by each individual college. As a result, there are as many forms of College Council as there are colleges. And each College Council has developed according to its own college culture.

At Centennial, the culture that originally defined the Council was not positive; there had been a history of conflict between administration and faculty and even with changes and improvements there was a lingering atmosphere of distrust among the various groups and members representing those groups on the Council. This led to meetings that were characterized by acrimonious debate among the more vocal members and silence among the more vulnerable ones. It led to frustration over the process and disagreement over the advice that was offered to the President. But, probably most importantly, it led to the sidelining of the Council as a college-wide comprehensive forum for developing and offering considered and collective advice to the President.

So, it was time to re-define ourselves and construct a council that was built on co-operation and shared common goals. It was time to bridge the gap between all the partners within the college. In practical terms, if we could forge alliances among all the members, then we could develop a council that promoted communication and consultation within the college and that would provide a forum for staff and students to provide advice to the President.

The Council needed to develop an atmosphere in which such alliances can flourish. We began with the support of the President and Vice-Presidents of the college. Then the Council decided to analyse itself and evaluate its performance over the last two years.

First, we looked at our composition. Were we representative of the college community? Did we provide representation from across the campuses, the academic divisions and the reporting levels of the college? We have 42 members: at least two faculty and two students from each School or academic division, a mix of junior and senior administrators with at least one from each School, support staff representatives, one member from each of the support and faculty unions and representatives from Student Services and Marketing and Financial Services. The President and Vice-Presidents and people who report directly to them also attend.

We decided that the composition was equitable and comprehensive.

Second, to promote the development of trust so that all these members could work together in a college alliance, we made changes in the environment in which the Council operated.

  1. We rearranged the physical environment: the meetings now move from campus to campus; the meeting room is arranged informally with seating in small groups arranged in a semicircle; tea, coffee, sandwiches and cookies are available in the meeting room. Presenters sit with the members and are encouraged to remain and participate in the rest of the meeting.
  2. We moved to change the emotional environment: the composition of each small group changes each meeting; the President and senior administrators sit with various groups; there are no reserved or special seats. The refreshments are available half an hour before the meeting begins to encourage people to mingle and socialize. The atmosphere is deliberately informal and inclusive.
  3. We changed the format of the meetings to encourage participation and ensure that a variety of voices are heard. Procedural rules were changed from the more intimidating and formal Roberts Rules of Order to consensus where possible. We did keep the option of an open vote if members request it. We tried, also, to create an atmosphere of inclusion through using the physical arrangement of small groups. When issues are presented to the council, they are first discussed in the small groups; once consensus or recommendations have been reached there, one person speaks for the group to provide feedback to the council as a whole. Then, discussion and debate occurs within the full council. All information is available to the members with their agenda before each meeting.
  4. We changed the focus of the agenda to ensure that Council members feel that their attendance and participation is important to the operation of the college.

Each meeting, we deal with an issue such as an academic policy, a suggestion, a concept that is still in the formative stage. Council then becomes a college-wide forum to debate the issue and make recommendations that can be used to shape the outcome of the issue. The President is asked to comment on our recommendations at the next meeting. Information items become just that, and are listed towards the end of the agenda.

Ad hoc sub-committees with members from among the various groups in Council are formed to research specific subjects and report to the full Council for further debate. For example, we have set up a sub-committee to address the question of orientation for new members to enable them to develop a rapport with the members and aims of the Council.

Each meeting, the members of the Council are asked to identify issues for future meetings. These are then discussed by the President, Vice-President of the College and the Executive of the Council when developing an agenda.

Finally, we promote the relevance and achievements of College Council within the wider college community. College Council members automatically sit on selected presidential committees. We write a report for the College Newsletter after each meeting. We also report in the Union Newsletter. We advertise the agenda on internal e-mail the day before the monthly meeting. We also invite interested college members to come to meetings and participate in debate and discussion.

Assessment

And what are the results of these strategies? Have we been successful in changing the culture of Centennial's College Council?

Our first assessment was in June at the last Council meeting of the academic year. Members responded to a questionnaire and described an obvious change in the atmosphere in the meetings of the Council and a corresponding change in their interest and participation. From the Council executive's point of view, the meetings are far more lively - and far more interesting.

Conclusion

It is only over the long run, however, that we will know for sure that this attempt to create and promote strong alliances among members who represent such varied and sometimes conflicting interests will result in a unified, cohesive and effective College Council.


Robyn Knapp is the faculty union representative and Chairperson of the Centennial College Council in Scarborough, Ontario. Other presenters at the ACCC were: David Drake, Administrative Staff Representative; Trevor Kortikaas, Student Association Representative; Fidelma Lynch, Faculty Representative; and Eva Sukhdeo, Support Staff Representative.