Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Controversial Events on Campus: a review & reflection

Last man standing. That was my thought as the workshop "Controversial Events on Campus," hosted by UBC's Equity & Inclusion office, drew toward its close. After nearly two hours of conversation the majority of participants were now seated around the edge of the room leaving a lone woman, the moderator, standing  alongside an elderly gentleman with the two of them facing a small group of young men.  Wow I thought - this is a stark example of the problem.

The workshop had begun with an overview of of UBC policies, ideas of free expression, and the standard discussion of the agenda.  Participants, of which there were around 60 or so, were seated in a big circle and the moderator, Dr. Aftab Efran stood at the nominal front of the room. It wasn't long before she had us all in the middle of the room engaged in what she called a "soft shoe shuffle:" a moving conversation that allows all voices to be heard. The process starts with someone making a statement or asking a question and the group either moves towards or away from the speaker according to each person's agreement or disagreement.  It's a facilitation technique that has the potential to work well with a rather diverse set of perspectives.  I am unclear, though, to the extent that this can actually reconcile differences of perspective when they are deep, profound, and fundamentally antagonist to each other.  That said we all seemed willing to give the process a try.

We compliantly shuffled around the room shifting one way or they other through a range of fairly generic topics. The Ubyssey has a nice review of the topics in their article. As time went on people seemed to become comfortable with floating ideas potentially more controversial or provocative. With these more explicit expressions of perspective the room started to clearly subdivde into one larger, quieter, gender mixed group and then one smaller, louder, predominantly young male group.

At one point one of the young men, in response to a question as to why more people don't speak up, said something along the lines of "they have an obligation to speak if they object. We can't respond to what they don't say."

At which point I spoke about how  amongst the Tsimshian peoples on BC's north coast silence is not quiescence nor agreement. Rather, silence and non-participation is a profound statement of disagreement.  The young man interjected "that's just one culture." Without stating it the young man revealed his own cultural bias - the idea that a certain type of speech is universally dominant in a way that removes it from the notion of being 'culture.' Indigenous protocols and governance procedures are, for him, 'cultural' and thereby particular and (I assume for him) problematic and flawed.

To assert one cultural norm - "speak up or forever hold your peace" - over another without any other reason except a bald assertion this is just the way it is is a profound form of tunnel vision. It is tied to a variant of eurocentric thought (say we cay 'culture'?) that aggressively projects itself as the only civilized way of organizing human societies. It's the same set of beliefs that contributed to european elites expanding globally in one of the largest smash and grab operations the world had ever seen. But it takes a certain kind of blind arrogance to ignore the myriad of ways human beings can (and have) organized themselves.

There has to be something profound to learn from a society that has remained socially stable, healthy, productive, and creative for millennia. I don't mean the Europe that languished on the margins of the old world in relative isolation from the centers of cultural innovation until well into the middle ages. I am talking about the world here, a world within which UBC is located. 

UBC is situated on Indigenous lands. That's a legal fact - title has not been extinguished. No treaties have been signed dealing with the land UBC sits on. The young men from the workshop can complain, can say has history has moved past, they might even point to how Indigenous cultures are primitive and people just need to get over it (and cite a person they mentioned at one point, Frances Widdowson, whose published work equates Indigenous societies to the era of savagery).  The material facts, however, challenge their assertions.  The detailed scientific record documents long lasting societies in which massive cedar frame homes existed in the same place for centuries. It wasn't perfect (tell me a human society that was or is ... ), but it was one way that human beings found to live engaged, creative, productive lives that respected an interplay between collective and individual wellbeing. But our young men appeared unwilling to hear the possibility of other ways beyond their own way of doing things.

As a man, as a father of young men, as a university teacher I feel for the angst these young men expressed during the workshop.  But I am pretty sure they have got it wrong. They seem to feel that other people are getting an advantage over them - by other people I think they mean women and people of colour.  But what they are experiencing is in fact having to compete with a group of people who had previously been excluded from the competition in the first place and in comparison, many of them come up lacking (not all, but enough to motivate a movement).

One of the successes of second wave feminism involved dismantling a lot of the barriers that women faced. My late mother, who was a school teacher, used to talk of how she came out to UBC as a young women to talk with faculty in the horticultural program about studying there (keep in mind this was the late 1940s or early 1950s).  They sized her up and said, without even discussing academics, women aren't good horticulturalists, maybe you should consider becoming a nurse or a teacher? Her experience was not dissimilar among women of her generation.  Second wave feminism attacked those false boundaries. Admission requirements (formal or informal) based on gender are no longer supposed to be tolerated. In this context, and despite the expansion of post secondary opportunities, young men are finding themselves at a disadvantage - not becuase of unfair advantages granted to women, but becuase they just don't measure up now that the special advantage of being male has been removed. 

Now before anyone suggests I selling my gender out or that I might be suggesting no young man is smart enough to make it, let me be clear that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that even as the barriers to women's full participation in post secondary are coming down the messaging to young men hasn't yet caught up. The old message implied that being a boy and a young man gave you something a little bit special. The new message is that being a human being in our various and marvellous forms is what makes us special - not the gender assigned to us.  But while young men are still hearing the old whispers about how special they are, they aren't seeing as many special rewards as they might think they deserve.  In fact some of them rather feel like they are being made fun of, dismissed, rated down and discriminated against: but they are not.

And there we were at the end of the workshop with a half dozen young men stading in a half circle facing down the moderator and one elderly gentleman. It was as though they thought that if they expressed their feelings enough times, if they shifted their circle a bit tighter, if they said it loud enough, then all of us sitting quietly around the outside might somehow change our minds and "say you're right, it's so terrible that your special privileges are being taken away." But that isn't going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Building a better future in the university

a partial manifesto for moving forward.

The struggle for social justice has no intrinsic direction. With every step forward we seem to find ourselves pushed back. In moments of success those who take advantage of the victories at times were those most silent during the struggle. Yet we can maintain hope that it is in the partial victories, the half steps, and the hesitant actions that foundations for fundamental change can be laid. This is a partial manifesto for a better future in the university.

A better future in the university must build upon a better future for the working class.

A better future in the university places improvements for working people at the heart of the movement.

Workers, not customers, not donors, not managers, workers must be at the center of the movement for a better future.

A living wage for all workers is the principal upon which all compensation for labour in the university is to be based.  This means:

  • an immediate freeze on all salaries in excess of 150,000 per year until the lowest salaries all exceed the minimum living wage for Vancouver (currently 42,000 per year).  
  • establish compensation grid for all staff in which the difference between top salary and bottom salary is no more than 3:1.
  • shift from 'funding' graduate students to employing them as full time workers with a living wage represented by a trade union. 

This builds and elaborates a set of comments I previously posted on twitter.

Previous social justice posts.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Calling on #UBC to step up and support our alumna Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014)

29 May 2018

Lindsay Gordon, Chancellor, UBC
Santa J, Ono, President and vice-Chancellor, UBC

Dear Mr Gordon and Dr Ono:

“Pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – UBC’s purpose per Shaping UBC’s Next Century: Strategic Plan, 2018-2028

A UBC alumna, Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014), has been detained without clear charges and without ability to contact her family in Saudi Arabia.  Ms Al-Hathloul is a well-known human rights activist in Saudi Arabia. The nature and timing of her detention strongly suggest that it is part of a crackdown on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

We, the undersigned, are deeply troubled by the following official response to a request that UBC comment on Ms Al-Hathloul’s detention:

“A spokesperson for UBC declined to comment on the case, saying the university has over 300,000 alumni and that it would be ‘inappropriate’ to comment on actions unrelated to their time at UBC.”

As a degree-holder from UBC, Ms Al-Hathloul is a life-long member of UBC Convocation.  In this sense her time in the UBC academic community has not ended.  We as faculty members at UBC (and thus as members of Convocation also) expect and demand that UBC show more concern for the welfare of all members of the UBC community—and certainly those whose human rights are actively being violated.

Moreover, we do not believe and would be entirely chagrined to discover that Ms Al-Hathloul’s human rights work is “unrelated to [her] time” as a UBC student.  UBC endorses human rights in many of policies and statements.  We expect that these values will be instilled in all of the members of our community.  When alumni lead in the effort to advance human rights around the world, we must actively support them.  Otherwise we cannot fulfil what our new strategic plan claims to be our university purpose—the advancement of global citizenship and justice around the world.

We, the undersigned, call upon the President, the Chancellor, and the Board of Governors to fulfil their obligations to Ms Al-Hathloul: to actively and publically demand that she be treated justly in Saudi Arabia and to work to assure that she is so treated. 

Dr Ono is quoted in Shaping UBC’s Next Century as saying “This is our time to inspire.” In this matter UBC has been anything but inspiring, anything but just.

  • Alan Richardson, Professor, Philosophy
  • Nassif Ghoussoub, Professor, Mathematics
  • Charles Menzies, Professor, Anthropology
  • Sima Godfrey, Associate Professor, French Studies
  • Ayesha Chaudhry, Associate Professor, 
  • Judy Z. Segal, Professor, English
  • Anthony Paré, Language and Literacy Education
  • Jennifer Berdahl , University of British Columbia, Sauder School of Business
  • John Stockie (UBC Alumnus), Simon Fraser University, Mathematics
  • Carla Nappi , University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Don Baker, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Siobhan McElduff, University of British Columbia, CNERS
  • Miranda Burgess, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Michael Krisinger, University of British Columbia, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
  • Tal Jarus, University of British Columbia, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Department, Faculty of Medicine
  • Brian McIlroy, University of British Columbia, Department of Theatre and Film
  • Adam Frank, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Sheryl Adam, University of British Columbia, Koerner Library
  • Stephen Guy-Bray, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Sebastian Prange, University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Juliet O’Brien, University of British Columbia, Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies
  • Alfred Hermida, University of British Columbia, School of Journalism
  • Stephanie van Willigenburg, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • S Dollinger, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Miguel Mota, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Maureen Ryan, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • T’ai Smith, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • Bruce Rusk, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Thibault Mayor, University of British Columbia, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Michael Smith Laboratories
  • Elyse Yeager, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Hotze Rullmann, University of British Columbia, Department of Linguistics
  • ND Ruse, University of British Columbia, Dentistry
  • Patricia Badir, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Tai-Peng Tsai, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Carolyn Gotay, University of British Columbia, School of Population and Public Health
  • Alan Mackworth, University of British Columbia, Department of Computer Science
  • Joshua S. Mostow, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Sam Rocha, University of British Columbia, Department of Educational Studies
  • Ross King, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Joseph Stemberger, University of British Columbia, Department of Linguistics
  • Christian Schoof, University of British Columbia, Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Michael Zeitlin, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Ignacio Adriasola, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • Judith Paltin, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Kellogg Booth, University of British Columbia, Department of Comupter Science
  • Thomas Kemple, University of British Columbia, Department of Sociology
  • Alla Sheffer, University of British Columbia, Computer Science
  • Richard Froese, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Gordon Slade, University of British Columbia, Department of Mathematics
  • Sunera Thobani, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies & Social Justice Institute
  • Joy Dixon, University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Nathan Hesselink, University of British Columbia, UBC School of Music
  • David Kirkpatrick, University of British Columbia, Computer Science
  • E. Wayne Ross, University of British Columbia, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Kurt Huebner, University of British Columbia, Institute for European Studies
  • Tina Loo, Department of History
  • Jessica Wang, Department of History
  • Andrew Rechnitzer, Professor, Mathematics
  • Michael Tenzer, Professor of Music
  • Suzana K. Straus, University of British Columbia, Professor of Chemistry
  • Susanna Braund, CNERS, UBC
  • Bill Winder, French, Hispanic and Italian Studies, UBC
  • Stephen Petrina, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, UBC
  • John Roosa, Department of History, UBC
  • Bruno D. Zumbo, Professor & Distinguished University Scholar, Department of ECPS, UBC
  • Stefan Taubert, Medical Genetics, UBC
  • Anne Gorsuch, Professor, Dept of History, UBC
  • Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, UBC
  • Jennifer Love, Professor, Chemistry, UBC
  • Sven Bachmann, Assistant Professor, Mathematics
  • Alexei Kojevnikov, Associate Professor, Department of History, UBC
  • Cristina Conati, Professor, Department of Computer Science, UBC
  • Scott Anderson, Associate Professor, UBC Department of Philosophy
  • Mark Mac Lean, Department of Mathematics, UBC
  • Rik Blok, Lecturer, Integrated Sciences, UBC
  • Lisa Matthewson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, UBC
  • Jude Walker, Assistant Professor, Educational Studies, UBC
  • Ed Perkins, Department of Mathematics, UBC
  • Katherine Bowers, CENES, UBC

We have this letter on two blogs and there are signers adding their name here.  I will add names to this copy as well, as time permits. 

Colleagues are invited to send me their names if they wish to be included as signatories to this letter.