Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day Reflections on UBC's Board of Governors

May Day, International Workers' Day, may seem an incongruous vantage point to begin a reflection on my first impressions of being a UBC Board of Governor's member. In reality, however, it is a surprisingly apposite vantage point.

International Workers' Day had it's roots in the north american labour movement's struggle for the eight hour day.  It has since come to be a day in which working people globally stand up against the intrusion of minority elites into the lives of the majority, a day to call out the injustice of privilege and cronyism, a day to celebrate the capacity of everyday working people to build a better world together.  Reflecting upon the meaning International Workers' Day helps to clarify what we need to do to take back control of our public institutions: our universities, our schools, our hospitals.

My first impression of the board has been just how closely the board is allayed with the provincial government and the small provincial economic elite.  Prior to joining the board I was publicly critical of how appointments were made and the lack of social and ideological diversity on the board. Being there shows me how connected folks are within BC's small world of the economic elite. I have enjoyed meeting my fellow board members.  They each come with delightfully differnt business backgrounds.  They are all earnest and sincere in their desire to serve. Yet they all come from a special club within which the members need only refer to members of the circle by their first names. They cross paths with each other in all manner of events (social, neighbourhood, and political) not simply those tied to the business of UBC. As an anthropologist it's apparent that I am observing members of a sub-culture accustomed to shaping their terms of their world.

Another thing that I am seeing is the very real presence that donor's have in the shaping of (if not UBC) then BoG priorities and sentiment. For example, during the April Committee meetings we had a presentation in public session from a group of UBC Athletics Donor/Supporters.  Their message was very clear - expand and rebuild sport facilities. They were also quite direct in laying out the value and quantity of their donations. Their ongoing political mobilization and attraction to athletics has driven the rebuild of sporting facilities up the capital project priority list past needed core academic facilities.  The role that donors play in shaping outcomes on campus is a problem. Why should the simple fact of having wealth grant one a bigger place at the table or to bend a pubic institution to one's personal desires?

Of course anyone can ask to speak to the BoG and anyone is welcome to write a letter to the board. Yet not all requests are granted nor are all letters heard by the full board. The deciding factor, I very much suspect, lies in the social/moral weighting that is granted by the Board to the presenter of means.  For example, a group of university residents wrote to the BoG about a deal UBC worked out with the province over the costs of fire services in the residential areas. Their letter never made it to the board.  As of this writing I am not even aware of whether the residents received a reply to their letter or not.  Perhaps after they published their letter in the Campus Resident a reply may now be forthcoming. This raises a question about how issues make it to the board and who is listened to.

One other piece of miscellany. Innovation. So sad to learn that the big idea behind this term is not so exciting as I had thought.  Innovation for the initiated is simply the application of research discoveries (primarily STEM) to money making ventures.  I think that we in the social sciences call that commodification of research.  In the business world it's called innovation and it seems to be one of the big ideas that motivates discussions around the Board table.

Very soon after my official term on UBC's BoG started I jokingly told my partner that two of my initial assumptions about the board had been confirmed but that I couldn't tell her about either of them. To do so would be to break the confidentiality hobbles placed upon governors.  I was only half joking.  I can't say which of my two assumptions were confirmed as they both refer to items that were placed on a closed agenda (one of which subsequently became public but not in a manner that would really allow me to identify it).  I've posted before (in the abstract) about the way in which using closed meetings and confidentiality processes shut down real discussion but this was an empirical example. The board plans to study it's governance practices further.  One can only hope that the result will be more transparency and democratic openness.

Elites seem to create intriguingly bifurcated worlds of operation for themselves. Their internal networks and social webs are often open and inclusive (that is, inclusive of folks of like mind and like wealth). At the same time they guard the perimeter of those networks with a ferocity that borders on frightening to the uninitiated.  Leaderships of major organizations seem to do this as well (as the recent UBC/Furlong FOI shows).  What they don't seem to understand is that their internal bubble reinforces ideas that reinforce the same ideas that , well you get the picture.  They are stuck in a bubble of internal self-congratulations. They see critique from outside their bubble as threatening. Before they even consider it elites often respond with ferocious intensity to discredit, shutdown, and exclude external voices.  This is not a good way to run a public institution (it's likely not a good way to run a private corporation either).

We really need to initiate transformative culture change in the Board.  To do that will require shaking up the nature and structure of board membership. We need to bring in more people from outside the privileged circle of our rather provincial economic elite. Here's hoping that change is on the horizon.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Governing Governors and Information - the closed door meeting

My term on UBC's Board of Governors began formally March 1. But this is the week the pedal hits the metal. Starting with a couple one-on-one meetings today with the president and the chair of the BoG I enter a two week period of formal BoG meetings. Many of them are closed, in camera, or confidential in some manner or other.

Along with the majority of my colleagues last year I lost confidence in the Board.  Two thirds of faculty voted for a non confidence motion of the BoG. The BoG's descent into a spiral of closed door, in camera, off book, and poorly documented meetings caused us to worry that the best interests of our public university was not being served.  Following last year's vote statements were made saying that clarity and improvement would come.  What's actually happened?

Following faculty's vote of no confidence in the UBC BoG the Office of the University Counsel started a policy review process that resulted in a draft revised policy being presented to UBC's BoG in September 2016. This document was then presented for consultation to the wider UBC community and revisions (such as they were) were brought to the February 2017 UBC BoG Governance committee which ultimately decided to recommend the Board defer a decision to implement until a review and discussions with a private consulting firm.

It is true that large institutions move slowly. It is equally true that important changes require careful consideration. It is always useful to ask experts what they think. Yet at the end of the day one is left with a uneasy feeling that we are turning into that age old place that follows a denial:  delay and defer.

What is the deal with secrecy and the fear of publics that large institutions seem to be governed by? Is it a cultural thing? Is it structural? Is it some kind of psychological anxiety issue?  Having only just joined the Board I have no specific insights as to what is happening here that sets me apart from any of my fellow colleagues who share my concerns with the lack of transparency in governance at UBC. Like them I can only hope that things are going to improve and, as my term continues on the Board trust that I will be able to actively engage in ways that will push the 'innovation envelope' on open transparent democratic governance at UBC.  Based upon my experience with governance bodies connected to UBC and our community I can offer some thoughts on why closed door meetings and off-book discussions contribute to a culture of anxiety, fear, and ultimately undermine principles of social justice and equity.

Having a broad definition of subjects suitable for closed door meetings seems to arise from a desire to control (1) access of information and, (2) actions of board members.

This has analogues in the business world and it's dealings with First Nations where Impact Benefit Agreements (IBA) are set up under extreme confidentiality provisions. Scholars examining these agreements note that confidentially clauses contribute to two situations. First, it undermines First Nations' leadership by lending the appearance of advancing their own self-interest. More importantly, it decisively slants the balance of advantage toward the industry proponents who control all of the information flow.

Closer to home the manner by which UBC administers its residential neighbourhoods also reveals some of the pitfalls of poorly defined procedures on what should constitute a closed meeting. Over the past couple of years UBC and the Province were in 'quiet' discussions about the fires services contract between the province and Vancouver. The details aren't relevant to this matter.  The long and short of it involved a download of costs of 1.5 million dollars from the province, to UBC, and then to residents living in UBC administration zone. UBC Admin got to a point where they figured they needed to bring in residential advisors.  They did so through the device of a closed meeting where even the agenda was not made public to most participants until the doors were closed.

Of course there are matters that require some degree of privacy and confidentiality - but they are truly rare matters.  It should not be normal procedures for matters to be placed in a closed agenda and a closed meeting.  There must be a clear procedures that defines what can or can't be done behind closed doors.  Most important there needs to be provisions that all actions taken behind closed doors be made publicly available in a reasonable period of time. The guiding principle should be stand in the sun for all to see. Without such open and democratic practices meeting rules become techniques to control information and to constrain participants, especially control over those who may hold dissenting perspectives.

I have already been surprised to be informed, in an orientation meeting, that if a matter is placed on a closed agenda one can not speak about it publicly, even if some of the materials are in fact in the public domain or even if one is already aware of the matter through a mechanism that was not a closed door meeting.  I can't believe or accept that such an interpretation is right - even if it may be procedurally correct.

Public institutions like UBC should lead, not follow, when it comes to open transparent democratic governance procedures.  Let's create a democratic innovation ecosystem! What is there to fear from public scrutiny in governance?  Ultimately nothing unless one has something to hide.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Act as a Reasonable Person in the Best Interests of the University

The very first listed duty of a member of the UBC Board of Governors "act in the best interests of the University and with a view to advancing its welfare" (clause 3.1.1) and that furthermore each member shall "exercise the care, skill and diligence that would be exercised in the same circumstances by a reasonable person having both: the knowledge and experience that may reasonably be expected of a Governor; and  the knowledge and experience of the specific Governor" (clause 3.1.4). 

Each member is expected to sign an acknowledgement of these duties and to agree to be bound by the code of conduct.  My form is shared alongside this post.  You will note that I appended a note to the effective that in my viewpoint the reasonable person doctrine does not mean that I am compelled to agree with the recommendations or decisions of the majority


To me there are two very important underlying issues: (1) how does one decide what constitutes the "best interests of the university" and (2) in what manner might the the legal doctrine of acting as a "reasonable person" be a way of compelling consent against one's better judgement. These are interesting guiding principles that, while based in law, are also social constructions that can reasonably be interpreted and understood in a manner of differnt ways. 

It has been my observations of the past few years that the idea of what is in the best interests of the university has been collapsing into a fairly narrow band of economic terms tied to a very restricted idea of fiscal responsibility. As an outsider to the BoG (I don't take formal office until March 1, 2017, it has seemed that more general social values are being displaced by a limited idea of fiscal responsibility and revenue generation. Universities at their best are places in which ideas can forment. Such ideas are not necessarily directly translatable into income generating enterprises. I am very much concerned that the best interests of our public university is not being served by the language of profit, innovation, and spinoff. Universities have a place in generating pure knowledge untrammelled by industrial interests and ideas that can spur free thinking, critical insight, and civic mindedness. If innovative solutions to societal concerns is at the heart of our university then we need to through off the narrow blinders of cost/benefit ideas of what is in the university's best interest.

The idea of a reasonable person is a legal fiction, it is a kind of average person. The code of conduct modifies the notion by adding a reference to the specific knowledge that a governor may hold by virtue of being a governor and the specific and individual knowledge that a specific governor may hold due to their own personal history and experience.  This creates a threefold set of criteria for being 'reasonable:' (1) a normative criteria, (2) a secret knowledge criteria, and, (3) a personal life history criteria. Ultimately this creates code of behaviour in which there is really no clear single right response.  Ultimately, the expectation is that any decision I make needs to be clear, transparent, and that the basis for arriving at a decision be made available to those who ask.  It tells me that my decisions can not be made simply because someone tells me it's the right decision.  It tells me that my decisions on the board must be made by me acting free from the influence of other board members and that I should be able to explain how I arrived at my decision.

I am looking forward to having the opportunity to share my unique personal and professional experience as a UBC faculty member, a native British Columbian, an Indigenous scholar, a parent, a partner, a resident of  UBC's administrated residential neighbourhoods, and a person as I participate in shaping the policy and operational concerns that will ensure UBC's best interests as BC's flagship research university thrives and advances.  I shall do this by acting publicly, transparently (within the bounds of the code of conduct) and by continually advocating for greater democratic transparency in all board operations.


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Update: for reference my COI form. Note that my only COI is the fact that I am a faculty member.  BoG procedure automatically excludes me from the standing committee that deals with employee bargaining.