Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ten months on the job

It’s been ten months since the start of my formal term on the UBC Board of Governors and nearly a year since the BoG elections. 

Colleagues ask me about my experience on the board, what is it like, is it a lot of work, have there been any surprises?  Having been involved in all matters of UBC & community tissues for over two decades I have been both surprised, disappointed, pleased and impressed in equal parts. 

I am impressed by my fellow faculty colleagues on the board - together we bring a lot of differnt levels of expertise.   I am disappointed by the ways in which the board doesn't really take advantage of our collective capacity.   It would seem that we could offer more than the few minutes they entertain us every couple of months in committee or board meetings. We are told our comments are relevant, the evidence, however appears lacking.

I am pleased to get to know my fellow student and staff governors.  It is a bit of a cliche, but having the chance to meet with folks outside of the typical ways in which a faculty member might meet with students or staff is rewarding in and of itself.  I've enjoyed informal coffee meetings as well as our interactions in the formal meetings. 

While my public statement on appointed governors is clear in the abstract (I think our new government should replace all the former Liberal government appointees), I have gotten to know several of them directly and find them individually amazing people.  While we may well disagree over fundamental aspects of what is the best way to achieve the core mission of our institution we do share a general desire to ensure that UBC's best interests are met.  

I have been surprised by what I might call an institutional culture of reluctance.  I am surprised as the University places so much stake on innovation, doing new things, being creatively disruptive, etc.  Yet, in the operation of the Board there is a great reluctance to move beyond their comfort zones of control and authority. A reluctance to actually enable potentially creative disruption how they run things at the board. A reluctance to extend the circle of governance to include those who do not agree with them.  

I've seen the same sort of cultural forms engaged in reserach at the interface between First Nations and government agencies and their corporate allies. Governments and/or corporations will say they are interested in dialogue, with shared governance, with transparency, but in practice they are reluctant to relinquish a modicum of control.  The cost of these lost opportunities is high - it's a shame that at the highest level of our university the same culture of reluctance can be found.

Two issues related issues of these past months have stood out for me: continued concerns with academic freedom and the place of athletics in the prioritization of UBC-V building projects.  

As most of us will be aware the President’s office is currently following up on matters related to freedom of expression (which is related, but not the same as, academic freedom). 

The current focus on the Stadium Neighbhood Planning process – which involves a rebuild of the Thunderbird Stadium and a development of a new residential community- creates an opportunity to open up the discussion of how best to fund the university’s core mission.  

In my capacity of governor I very much wish to hear from my colleagues on the above matters, but more importantly on matters that you consider important and would like to see some action on.   

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you have any ideas, matters, or concerns that you think would benefit from consideration by the Board of Governors or senior administrators.  As an elected faculty governor I would be pleased to hear from you and to bring forward questions on matters before the Board.  As a governor I have opportunities to pose questions and request information on university matters (as long as they are not part of a closed meeting agenda).

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Another Go-around With Motions on Chancellor Selection & Governance Committee

I have again requested that the UBC Board of Governors consider changes to the way it appoints the Chancellor and to support a fully democratic selection process. In addition I have suggested that the governance committee include representatives from faculty, staff, and studnets of both campuses on the governance committee.  Full texts of proposed motions below.

Motion 1: transparent process and criteria for the appoint of UBC’s Chancellor
Whereas the university act assigns the authority to appoint a university chancellor to the university board of governors on nomination by the alumni association, and whereas UBC currently has no explicit Board policy to govern how the board manages its own appointment process.
Be it resolved that the UBC Board of Governors strike a working committee of the Governance Standing Committee (consisting of three faculty reps, three student reps, two staff reps, and the governance committee chair) to develop a transparent and inclusive policy with criteria for the appointment of future UBC Chancellors.

Motion 2: Returning to a democratic process for selection of University Chancellors.
Whereas in 2008 the Government of British Columbia amended the University’s Act to replace the election of the university chancellor by free, fair, and open elections with a closed door nomination and appointment process. 
Whereas the best interests of the University of British Columbia is served through maintaining and improving open, transparent, and democratic governance processes.
Be it resolved that the UBC Board of Governors call upon the Government of British Columbia to return to a democratic process for the election of Chancellor by the entire convocation (which includes faculty and alumni).

Motion 3:  Governance Committee Membership
Whereas UBC-V and UBC-O consist of separate and distinct communities with their unique cultures and histories while sharing a common interest in UBC’s overall wellbeing,
Whereas faculty and students bring an important perspective that is integral to UBC’s core mission of teaching, learning, and research,
Whereas staff (who are currently excluded in the terms of reference) bring an important perspective that is integral to UBC’s core mission of teaching, learning, and research,
Be it resolved that the terms of reference for the Governance Standing Committee be amended to include two student members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V), two faculty members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V), and two staff members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V).

Friday, October 27, 2017

Academic Freedom at UBC

UBC has been faced with serious issues of late regarding infringements of faculty academic freedom. The situation became so dire that a special senior advisor to the provost, Neil Guppy (Professor, Sociology) was appointed in 2016.

The events leading up to Dr. Guppy's appointment have been well documented elsewhere.  By way of summary they began with the infringement of the academic freedom of business faculty professor, Jennifer Berdahl, by members of the UBC administration and Board of Governors.  This led to an independent study by the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C. and the subsequent resignation of John Montalbano, the former Chair of the UBC Board of Governors.

Since appointment Dr Guppy has been making presentations on academic freedom.  Most recently he presented at the UBC Faculty Association Annual Fall Meeting.  Observations on the presentation have been posted by one faculty member in attendance.  Part of Dr. Guppy's presentation has included a background paper on the history of academic freedom issues at UBC.  The origin of the current language on academic freedom at UBC is dated, by Dr. Guppy, to a particular event in the late 1970s that involved the attempted disruption of an on campus speaking engagement.

In the briefing paper  Dr. Guppy focusses on the irony of the named speaker being called racist and fascist while he was in fact a law and order reformer. Dr. Guppy does not elaborate upon the matter but instead focusses on the fact a Senate committee was set up to make recommendations to the President. Left unsaid was the fallout whereby a member of the university community (Alan Soroka, a law librarian at the time) was first threatened with being fired and then faced a lesser form of discipline.

Rather than simply being an issue about the academic freedom of a politician from a regime
operating in a manner contrary to human rights provisions this moment in UBC's history also is about the rights of faculty and staff working at UBC to engage in acts of public protest and dissent.

UBC's initial response was to discipline Soroka and used the discourse of academic freedom to do that.  That is, President Kenny wrote a letter of discipline implying that Soroka's employment was in question.  Kenny's letter to Soroka followed the receipt of letters from the University Librarian and the Dean of Arts, both who argued that Soroka had violated Swartz's academic freedom. Neither academic administrator considered that there may be a counterbalancing issue of academic freedom. For the administration the issue of academic freedom went only one direction - the right of a formal speaker to speak. There was no consideration of the right of a dissenting voice to actively protest.

This is not simply an historical quibble. Across North American and Western European campuses we see a resurgence of these kinds of conflicts.  On campus groups invite speakers known for inflammatory rhetoric, questionable science, or just provocative enough to get a rise out of somebody. And somebody does get their back up. Protests are organized and a speaker here or there is disrupted.

The idea that all speech is equally valued and has a right to exist within a university is problematic at best.  That has never really been the case; it is unlikely that it ever will. Universities, according to the late Bill Reading (The University in Ruins) used be about managing national culture and through that mandate silenced dissenting faculty.  The modern university of excellence, says Readings, has shifted somewhat and has paid less attention to the content of faculty research but have paid attention to faculty criticisms of the administration.  Today's faculty member might not face sanction over published work, but they will be targeted for speaking out against the actions of their university administration or donors or business supporters. The fact is that the narrow domain of 'within the law' forms of Academic Freedom is that it allows problematic types of research while silencing political dissent critical of how the university operates.

Academic Freedom is in reality a small 'c' conservative policy. As it exists at UBC it is framed within the context of what is permissible under Canadian law.
"Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion." [emphasis added] 
It is driven by an ideology of liberal individualism that prioritizes (with modest limits) the right of an individual.   All of this makes the doctrine of academic freedom of limited utility for those who try to use it to critique dominant political systems, university administrators, or to advocate for progressive social change.  It also would not protect a member of the university community from engaging in civil disobedience or even in acts of protest. We need a more aggressive, progressive approach that safeguards university faculty who have the courage of their convictions to stand up to administrators who pander to corporate interests.