Saturday, March 16, 2019

Making the Case: Recognizing and Assessing Indigenous Scholarship in Higher Education

The follow are my speaking notes for the talk I gave as part of the "Making the Case" presentation, hosted by the Faculty of Education, UBC. This is not a word for word script - but it does cover the essence of what I said!

The experiences that we have, -the things we do, the way we act with and against them- these are all part of what shapes our perspectives. I am speaking about recognizing and assessing Indigenous Scholarship in Higher Ed through the vantage point of three specific types of experiences.

(1) As an Indigenous Faculty member
(2) As a former member of our faculty association executive
(3) As a current member of the board of governors

Each of these kinds of experiences lends it own unique view of the matter before us today. 

Our university Board of Governors is interested in making changes, yet from the vantage point of the top it is often hard for a Board to move with clarity or comprehension as to what actually needs to change. Information is filtered through the presentations of senior administrators. They hear through their chains of command particular pieces of information - but there is no actual direct way to bring the experience of those at the frontline into the board room in a way that might fundamentally shape outcomes. There are signs that show the board is opening to listening.

Our board currently has an indigenous engagement committee.  This is an important place to intervene and submit ideas to. It's membership includes three First Nations members of the Board of Governors - which is itself a notable moment in our history as a university), two First Nations community representatives, and the requisite students, staff, and administrators. Given the structure of board committees it is difficult to get info in that doesn't come via a committee member or a member of the universities top administrators. That said, I urge people to send ideas and suggestions on how to authentically expand Indigenous participation at UBC.  

The board moves in response to the political climate. Under the provincial Liberals, Indigenous issues were not in the top drawer, they were down the priority list. The current political climate is more open. Melanie Mark, Minister of Advance Education and her NDP colleagues have been very clear that advancing Indigenous issues is of critical importance. Hearing that, the university has moved on some issues. It is a rare presentation to the UBC Board of Governors these days that does not include some reference or other (large or small) to Indigenous issues.  But these are all things that can change and unless clear structural changes are made now with the change of political winds so to will the university's top level directions change.

As individuals our vantage points are unique and particular. We understand our specific case and we see decisions made immediately proximate to us. However, even though we often share and compare notes between colleagues across the university the way are units are constituted often means that our particular experiences and advice does not translate across units.  

I have, just the same, noted how the qualitative descriptions of my files for contract review, for tenure, and for promotion have a had a tone that resonates with other Indigenous colleagues across campus and the country, but differing substantially from the tone of files prepared for non-Indigenous settler colleagues.  When it is just one person's file it is simply that, just one person's file. But when the comparisons with others in similar situations turn up with similar experiences, having faced similar criticisms, it becomes apparent that we are looking at something that is structural, not particular. While we might experience it as personal, it isn't - it is systemic and fundamentally discriminatory. 

Over the years I have noted a structure in reports that have had a tone that sometimes seemed to imply surprise that I had done so much, or it conveyed an underlying sense of critical evaluation of the "it isn't quite right but we'll accept it kind," or even the outlining of inadequacies in ways that mirror popular stereotypes of indigenous peoples. When speaking with other Indigenous colleagues I have heard of similar experiences. 

Standing in contradistinction have been the qualifiers used in describing white colleagues’ files. Here one finds a discursive structure  that is qualitatively different. 

This all happens within a technical formal context where the criteria is called 'excellence.' Wherein a publication in a US disciplinary journal is understood to hold quantitatively more of that intangible quantity 'impact' than a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education, for example. Calling out the inherent biases lying under the technical indicator of 'Impact' unleashes several types of responses: confirmation that one doesn't understand how the university works (something that is often said of Indigenous faculty), defensiveness on the part of white colleagues who say we are being aggressive or disruptive or unkind to make such assertions. Technical communications hide the underlying motivations and intentions - they only way to call them out is to violate the rules of decorum and the normative structure of communication. 

I have seen cases where, for example, a white candidate had a slim file, yet the language is celebratory and expansive. An Indigenous candidate went through a similar process with an empirically more extensive file that was described as just meeting the grade. 

These are forms of cognitive bias. They are not overt discrimination.  They occur within the technical language of evaluation and assessment using the criteria’s of ‘excellence.’  I find no overt racialized prejudice, but rather the lurking unconscious forms that require individuals to engage in self-critical review.

This reveals one of the difficulties we have with collegial governance. The first line of decision making and mentoring is in the unit, that is where the documents are assembled, the reports produced, and the 'narrative' of the file created through the discussion of the unit level promotion and tenure committee.

Collegial governance is important to maintain, but it is also important in what goes wrong for indigenous faculty as this is the first and most crucial level of support and evaluation. The underlying cognitive bias, the feelings of defensiveness settler colleagues often succumb to, play a significant role in this process.

As a former member of the faculty association executive I have had opportunities to observe cases that have gone wrong. I can say nothing about any particular case. But I can say, based on my experience and my observations from other universities, what I think is going wrong on a general level. There is a fundamental problem where many colleagues accept it would be a great idea to do more about Indigenous issues, but when confronted by Indigenous colleagues often find us lacking, disruptive, troublesome, or just not team players (unless of course we say nothing critical).  By the time a situation ends up in a grievance I think that we have all failed and, to a great extent, missed an opportunity to make a real difference.

When I consider the situations I have seen here and elsewhere in Canada I note that each case is always unique. That said, there are commonalities. For example there is often a record of attempts to provide mentorship, persistent lack of formal approved scholarly accomplishments, and then a process of social marginalization for the Indigenous faculty member. There are other things, but these three strike me as the most relevant as they reveal a key ingredient of the problem.

Mentorship, even when provided, is often in a coded form that doesn’t necessarily assist a junior Indigenous colleague. The mentor's assumptions about cultural similarities, misunderstanding of how one's intergenerational history of colonial displacement might shape how one responds to certain forms of support/criticism (and the list goes on), can turn 'well intentioned' mentoring into a record of the Indigenous faculty member 'not taking advice well.'

Often in cases gone wrong the record documents a persistent lack of scholarly accomplishments.  Perhaps the record will indicate that there was an attempt to mentor the candidate, but that they paid little heed. Perhaps the unit lead will have documented meetings with the candidate in which they review and explain what the candidate needed to do.  Not recorded in any of these records will be the sense of marginalization, despair, sense of not belonging, and the feelings of inadequacies.  There is sufficient scholarship to show that a lot of these sorts of feelings arise out of a colonial culture of Indigenous displacement - to a certain extent our wider colonial society is designed to render incompetent Indigenous peoples. White privilege and settler entitlement act sub-textually and below the level of technical communication and formal process to subvert and undermine Indigenous colleagues. It takes a a rather unique, obstinate, brilliant kind of person to stand against these sorts of pressures. But wouldn't it be better if the university as a whole stood up against the flaws (of colonial systems), acknowledged that they existed, and excised them from the body politic? 

Self-preservation is important in all of this.  I have two things to say on the topic. 

Firstly, self-preservation can mean withdrawing from the core functions of one's unit (which can have negative consequences for our careers, but positive implications for our wellbeing). It can mean seeking out support outside of one's department (but if there aren't a lot of Indigenous faculty around, or they are displaced across a giant campus, that might not be possible). It can mean deciding one has to leave, to find a place that is better able to support oneself as an Indigenous person. 

Secondly, self-preservation also leads to a realization on our part that we are going to have to be better workers than our non-Indigenous colleagues if we are going to meet their evaluation criteria of us.  As a kid I recall a fishermen's union organizer telling me that in order to make a difference I had to be a good worker so when the bosses fire me they at least have to fire me for my political organizing, not for being incompetent. There’s something to that. While we argue and advocate for changes, we also have to figure out how to comply with the current standards so we can be here to work to change the terms. 

Dealing with collegial governance requires changes in the overall structure and I would advocate for embedding such changes in our collective agreement. 

From my vantage as a former executive member of the faculty association I strongly advocate for the following:  

(1) Our association needs to create the space for an Indigenous caucus that is external to management and supportive of our role as individual faculty. There has, from time to time, been an Indigenous Academic Caucus. What is required is a structure that can support, enable, and maintain the autonomous space for Indigenous faculty as workers to gather. Some past caucuses blurred the line between administrative functions (i.e. becoming a conduit to pass information from management to faculty & staff) and autonomous self-organization.   
(2) Provisions for equity representation on the executive has to managed (and created) to ensure proper attention to supporting Indigenous faculty.
(3) We need to negotiate protections of Indigenous faculty and support for increasing Indigenous faculty into our collective agreement.
(4) We need to change the criteria for evaluation to include a wider range of work that respects the different ways in which Indigenous scholars do 'work.'  

At the university administrative level the following mechanisms and processes should be put in place:

(1) Our university needs to put in place mechanisms that can undermine the cognitive biases they (as non-Indigenous humans) share with the front line faculty and unit heads.
(2) Ensure structured funded mechanism for culturally safe and aware mentorship (from undergrad through faculty tenure stream & promotion).
(3) Put real funds in place to recruit and retain faculty and do it in a way that values and respects where we are (at UBC-V: on Musqueam land; at UBC-O: on Sylix land) and the Indigenous neighbours up and down the coast and into the interior. The University's central administration has made tactical allocations for priority projects in research and faculty hires in the past, it should do more of this on the Indigenous file.

We are standing at a moment in time when we should be able to make real, lasting changes, that authentically respect and advance Indigenous colleagues and relations with Indigenous peoples. The time to act is now.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Is there any good reason for tuition fees?

I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective.  University administrators have long argued that, due to the inadequacies of government funding, there is no choice but to charge tuition fees. These administrators have phrase their support of fees and fee increases as a reluctant necessity of life; something that any reasonable person would understand. But there is something more important that tuition fees allow these same administrators: it allows them a form of flexibility that they would not have if they relied directly upon government funding.  This fiscal flexibility is, it would seem, the more fundamental reason that administrators have long supported tuition fees. With regular increases.

Tuition fees are not the only non-government funding that university administrators seek out. Large dollar donors are also high the list of admin wants. The plus 5 - that is, more than 5 million dollar donor- is especially valued. Donors, rather like governments (but without the political oversight) come with wishes and desires. They have their own pet projects and their own vanity that requires being assuaged.  Donors create a climate in which the university can both break free from a democratic government’s policy framework and create a culture of venerating people for their wealth, not their merit.  But this takes us away from the question, “is there any good reason for tuition fees?”

There must be other, better, reasons for tuition beyond simply making up for a lack of government funding.  

There is the market idea that a student is purchasing a commodity - an educational certificate and the accompanying experience. This argument translates education into a transaction between the university as vendor and the student as client mediated by a cash for certificate exchange.  If we were to follow this Milton Friedmanesque logic to it’s end tuition should be allowed to float to the level the market can bear. Advocates of this argument say criticism of tuition is misplaced. They argue that by allowing tuition to rise to it’s appropriate market price a social decision can be made to allocate some of the surplus toward funding meritorious students who lack their own resources. The contemporary variant of this argument says that this way diversity can encouraged (wherein they assume people of colour more likely to be impoverished than the supposedly non-diverse white student). This view combines a paternalizing idea of charity with market moralism - that is those with more deserve more, the unfortunate bright student should be helped up so that they might also become a ‘success’ and join the ranks of the deserving wealthy.

While the Freidmanesque view provides the underlying logic of tuition fees, in actual practice fees have long been tied to a mid-range compromise between market ideals and social expectations.  That is, tying a belief that a student (as a user or consumer) is obligated to pay some portion of their education to the expectation that post secondary should be reasonably accessible to any citizen. This is what justifies holding fees for a category of insider lower than for a category of outsider. This is what justifies the current NDP governments waiving of fees for youth who were wards of the state.  But is this pragmatic balance between a users obligation to contribute with a societies expectation of accessibility really a good reason for keeping tuition fees?  What is the principle that we, as a society, demonstrate in this model of paying for post secondary education?

Contemporary society, more than at any time in the past, expects productive members of society to have some degree of post secondary education. Rare is the job that does not require a certificate or degree be it trades, technical, academic, or professional.  We live within a certificated society and our transforming workforce requires highly educated participants.  Is there not a societal obligation and responsibility to provide our youth and young adults with the appropriate educational background in a way that will not beggar them? I think there is. 

It’s time that we simply abolish tuition fees across the post secondary sector.  Our university leadership can play an important role in facilitating this transformation. They are the ones -from BCIT to Emily Carr to UBC- who have been loudly announcing the benefit, the need for a highly educated workforce ready to move bravely into a new wave of economic transformations.  Post secondary education is now, more than even a necessity.  We no longer expect people to pay for public K-12 education. That argument was settled long ago when it became clear that a high school education was a requirement for an effective labour force; today the first level of post secondary is ever bit as necessary as high school graduation was for our parents.

I will be doing my part of December 4th by voting against tuition increases at UBC. I will also be advocating that our Board of Governors and our university’s president, Santa Ono, explicitly, publicly, and loudly, calls on the government to begin the process of abolishing tuition fees across our post secondary system.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The BoG's Housing Working Group

Recently UBC's Board of Governors set up a working group to develop housing strategies to provide some solutions.  After it was set up several months ago everything seemed to go silent.  As of this post neither of the two UBC-V elected faculty governors are on the housing working group. So I wrote to ask the BoG Chair where things were at on that front and letting him know that if it wasn't clear to him, I would be intersted in serving.

Dear Michael,

I am concerned by your silence on the housing working group that you announced at an earlier meeting.  

Perhaps you expected me to clearly state my interest in being part if it, but I did assume that as a faculty member who has been a resident on campus throughout my time at UBC and who has been active in all areas of this issue that I would have been asked to join the working group. 

So – in the event that it has been my lack of self-advocacy that explains the lack of an invitation to participate on the working group please hear me know – I wish to be involved on the housing working group.

I look forward to your response.

With warm regards,


I sent the above email twice, separated by several weeks.  Only after this most recent dispatch did I receive a response.

Dear Charles:

Thank-you for your email. 

While we appreciate your interest in being a member of the Working Group (which is not a committee or subcommittee of the Board, but rather an advisory group), we have (based on past commentary from him and a meeting that Sandra and I attended in which he participated) decided that Christopher Rea would be invited to join the Working Group, an invitation he has accepted.  We also extended an invitation to Max Holmes of the AMS to join, and he (too) has consented.

As you will recall, you strongly urged me to appoint you to the Presidential Search Committee for the new VP External.  When we were determining who should be on the Working Group, we took into account the fact that you were/are representing the Board on that Search Committee.  From records that are regularly updated to me as Board Chair, I note that you missed two of the first three meetings of that Search Committee and, in fact, we had only one Governor in one meeting and that person attended by conference call. 

You will be welcome to make submissions to the Working Group.  It has no autonomous decision-making power, and will be returning to the Joint Property/Finance Committee meeting with any recommendations it may wish to submit.

I trust that you understand.  By the copy of this email sent to her, I will make sure that Shelley Milne (our Interim Board Secretary) knows that you (and all Governors) are to be given access to materials developed for the HAP Working Group.



You will note that the approach the chair takes is to (1) inform me who he has selected and then (2) point to what he sees as deficiencies  in my capacity to serve (ever so politely, I would add).  Reminding me that I asked to be on a hiring committee and then noting (with out consideration of the reasons) absences from that committee. To be clear he does not explicitly link absences from the hiring committee as the reason, but the subtext is there. 

My reply follows. It is not one of my more temperate or politic responses. It is, though, honest and heartfelt.  Despite some overtures to the contrary, if anything, the current board and administration continues the tradition of discretionary, closed door, decision making processes that caused so many colleagues such grief and heartache and lack of faith in the governance practices of the Board previously.

Dear Michael,

So let me make certain I am understanding what you are saying, including the subtext. Because I said that I wished to be on a vp external search, and since my UBC work related activities took me away from being able to attend said meetings, and since I was never consulted by the people organizing the meetings as to my schedule (much of which was preset before the vp committee was set up), your determination is that I should not be included on the housing working group.

This is all very intersting but actually has no direct bering on whether a faculty member (who has direct and long term understanding and experience of UBC’s housing issues, having been at UBC and lived at UBC for 22 years now) should be included in his role as an elected governor on the housing working group.

So actually. No. I do not understand your explanation. Nor do I find your rational based in any real, empirical evidence, except that you would rather not have me participate on that committee.  That is, of course, within your total discretion. But let’s not demean our collective intellects by implying –as you have-  that because I was chairing a national SSHRCC grant adjudication in Ottawa and presenting a Keynote address to an International Indigenous Research Conference in Auckland, hosted by the Maori Centre of Research Excellence, that I was in someway not reliable enough to sit on a advisory ad hoc committee of the board to provide input into the housing needs being experienced by university faculty.


And then the reply comes back. It is gracious.  [Though, the academic in me can't help pointing out that, despite to below declaration, there is always a subtext - it's just that calling it out essentially violates the technical language of managerialism which asserts that communication is simply what is said, nothing more..].

Dear Charles:

Thank-you for your explanations as to your absence from the Search Committee meetings.  It is my hope that you will be able to be present for the remaining meetings of that Search Committee.

There is no subtext re the Working Group.  We feel that the interests and views of faculty will be taken into consideration, and that Christopher Rea (with whom I told you in Kelowna that we had met) can and will be an important member (and a faculty member) of the Working Group.  I see that you have cc’ed Nassif.  I advised Nassif that it was my intention to add Christopher Rea to the Working Group membership back in September.  To the extent that you wish to provide input/be heard on matters considered by the Working Group, that will be welcome (as I have welcomed your input on any matters about which you feel a desire to speak).