Friday, January 8, 2021

Tracking UBC leaderships' statements on winter break travel.

 Dr. Berman. Director of the School of Population and Public Health. 

January 6, 2021.

Dear SPPH Community,

In light of recent events and news stories this past week, I feel that I need to share with you that I travelled over the holiday break. I recognize now that I should not have travelled, and that many of you have made sacrifices over these past several weeks that I too should have made. I truly regret this decision.


In my position as Director of SPPH, I would like to reaffirm my sincere support for the efforts of our public health authorities and many of you, my public health colleagues, to address this COVID-19 crisis. I would also like to assure you all that in my travel I have and am complying with all requirements for pandemic control and will continue to do so.



Professor and Director
School of Population and Public Health


President Sanata Ono. 

Late last year my elderly mother was taken to hospital by ambulance in her home city of Baltimore. Since my mother and father, who is 93, live alone, I was concerned about their welfare. There is no one in my extended family who lives in Baltimore and was able to provide support for them.

On December 10 I flew to Baltimore for a four-day trip and self-quarantined for 14 days on return, as per health and travel guidelines.

I carefully weighed the decision to travel and out of concern for my parents, made the decision to proceed with the trip. During my trip, I strictly followed COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines, including quarantine rules. I felt it was important to travel at that time. This trip was not a vacation.

As president of UBC, I am grateful to the many public health professionals and researchers, both at UBC and beyond, who are working hard behind the scenes and on the front lines to protect us from COVID-19. I remain committed to doing my part to help bring an end to this global pandemic.

Santa J. Ono
President and Vice-Chancellor


Lesley Cormack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

January 7, 2021

In light of questions about travel in recent weeks and in the interest of transparency, I’d like to disclose that I have been in Edmonton at my primary residence since December 12 and will remain here until at least the end of the month working remotely.

As many of you are aware, I only recently took up my post at UBC Okanagan and this trip has been to prepare my home for sale and to arrange my affairs as I move permanently to the Okanagan.

I’m very grateful for the work and sacrifice of our healthcare professionals and I can confirm that I have strictly adhered to all public health guidelines.


Lesley Cormack
Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal
UBC Okanagan


Dermott Kelleher. Dean, Faculty of Medicine. VP Health.

January 7, 2021

Late last year, I made the difficult decision to travel home in early December to address serious personal and private matters. I did not make this decision lightly. Further, I continued to work from my home in Ireland during this time.

As such, I have strictly followed both the Irish and Canadian government's COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines, including quarantine rules and very strict limits on social interactions. 

Dermot Kelleher, MB, MD, FRCP, FRCPI, FMedSci, FCAHS, FRCPC, AGAF
Dean, Faculty of Medicine
Vice-President, Health
The University of British Columbia 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"If you Aren't Scared Sh*tless, You Aren't Learning"

"It you aren't scared shitless, you aren't learning," the prof said to us.

We all laughed. The prof doubled down, "Learning should shake you, disturb you, confront you and make you sit up and pay attention."

Today that prof would likely provoke a class walk out. Someone would file a complaint. Everyone in today's class would prefer to continue engaging comfortably and unchallenged in their bubbles of learning. But at the time we did sit up, we thought about it, and considered what it meant if the normal experience of learning was to be anxious, worried, or as the prof said "scared shitless." 

Learning takes work.  Learning involves taking risk. Learning forces us to come to terms with what we can't do as much as what we can do. Learning requires us to realize when we need to walk away, even if there are consequences. That's the thing though, we seem to be in a society that wants to live consequence free. That's not totally true, but in the education world it does seem to be a thing in which students and their advocates (teachers, parents, students themselves) accept there are consequences for many things in life except not doing well on an exam or an assignment. 

Education exists in a peculiar ideological world. Success is said to always be possible, second chances are legion, and the primary cause of one not doing well is intrinsically external to the individual.  At the same time, there is a heightened sense the individual is measured by a grade (hence the many claims, that grade doesn't really represent who I am and what I can do or how much work I put into the assignment ...). Grade competition is facilitated by the rhetoric of excellence. The highest grades are considered to measure the best and the brightest. This drives grade accumulation ( the practice of focussing effort on doing what gets a grade, not on learning itself). This also drives the gatekeeping activities of the professoriate who have been charged with measuring who is brightest and most excellent. Yet the grade game directly contradicts the educational ideology of second chances and success for all. 

Throw a pandemic into the mix and it becomes a recipe for ramped up social hysteria and anxiety. We all feel it. Its a chronic noise playing just on the edge of hearing and damn it's annoying. Unlike the normal kind of emergency this knows no real limit or end - its always there.  Even if Dr Henry's marathon was several decades ago, she called the feeling right - after the exhilaration of the start, the pace settles down into a grind, and then a feeling that there is no end descends, finally as the finish seems to appear one gives a bit of a push to stumble chaotically over the finish line.  

In the midst of this pandemic social marathon it makes sense that people are looking for relief from the pressures of accumulating grades. Some people do it by cheating. Others seek to find ways to keep up the standards and revenue.  Some instructors are finding their own in class solutions. Still others are seeking concessions and waivers through more formal mechanisms.  Thing is these are solutions to the wrong problem.

Administrators worries about standards, or instructors concerns about 'covering' the content, or students fears of bad grades, are all linked to a practice of education that is divorced from learning. It's about assigning grades to sort people into appropriate categories; categories that determine their social utility for industry. We in fact have a recent UBC example of a Dean extolling their new arts degree as focused around giving students the skills industry wants.  The shared understanding of education as training plays into debates over administrative processes like when should students be able to withdraw from a class.

Being able to withdraw at any time, up to or past an exam, helps students in the grade accumulation game - it allows them to avoid risk. When a provost argues against such a chance they are arguing for the integrity of the employer oriented sorting program. When a faculty member worries that allowing late withdrawals will skew grades positively thereby inflating class average they too are expressing concern about the integrity of the sorting mechanism. The opportunity to withdraw is seen as key to defining linked but contradictory attributes of excellence and compassion. Excellence demands failure and strict adherence to consistent rules. Compassion, however, tends to follow situational - not procedural- rules. Administrators prefer discretionary mechanisms to incorporate ideas of compassion. Students and their allies demand consistent non-discretionary rules that essentially removes discretion by making the procedure more open. It's the withdrawal equivalent of universal versus income tested social benefits.

There is no simple answer to these issues. But neither is the answer complicated. On the withdrawal issue can simply allow it up to the 12th or 24th week of class - class averages be damned. 

We can also change the message to students about learning being a fun experience - it's actually hard work.   No one just steps out the door and runs a marathon with training (unless they're a character in a movie). Training to run takes real work, planning, and time. Life can get in the way of training, but on race day one either runs or doesn't run, finishes or fails to finish. The time on the clock is what it is. And this can be an excruciating experience. Rather than saying keep going, you can make it, we sometimes need to say perhaps you should sit this one out. Rather than pretending you actually ran the race, accept that this is not the race or the time for you. Try a different race, try a different year.  You'll be a better person for it. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Men, Check Your Privilege.

My father is in his early 90s. That is one amazing privilege to have. He would be the first to say being old isn't easy.  But he is privileged to have lived so long and to have lived when he did. But these aren't the types of privileges folks normally refer to when exhorting men to check our privilege. They're talking about those unspoken sensibilities that permit us to move through our physical, social, and emotional spaces untrammelled by worry, anxiety, fear, or worse.

Check your privilege is about individual acknowledgement of what one might have and how it might advantage one in ways that are not readily obvious to oneself.  Check your privilege speaks to wider structural imbalances, but places the responsibility of changing it onto the individual. Change is thus motivated by individual repudiation of privilege.  It's the equivalent of finding oneself at the front of a line, acknowledging that positionally as privilege, and then walking to the back of the line in order to let those marginalized by front of line privilege to advance more fairly.  Yet the material fact of the line is left fundamentally unaltered. 

We need to start thinking about how to reconfigure the 'line' not have the people at the front bumped to the back.  This is hard to do. It requires all of us compelled to stand in the line to act together in ways that will feel unsettling. It means taking on trust that we can create a better way to line up.  But this isn't where current cultural politics has been taking us. Instead we are focussing more and more on individualist experiences, emphasizing personal responsibility over social action, and in so do merely replicating late capitalist culture of individual choice. 

Capitalist cultures prioritize ideas of self-reliance, choice, and individualism. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said there is no society, only individuals. Here is the exact quote: 

“…there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” 

This effectively encapsulates the core values of capitalist culture. Individuals, defined as men and women who form families are primarily responsible for their own care. Individuals most attend to themselves first. Then individuals have a have a duty to look after one’s neighbours. This is a case and an explanation of why there are no societal effects or issues of structural beyond individual dynamics. The crux of the matter when facing social inequality, according to this cultural expression, is a failure of individual responsibly to look after one self. 

Thatcher's summary of capitalist culture stands at one end of the social spectrum.  Many who support the 'check your privilege' perspective may consider themselves totally opposed to Thatcher's view of the world.  However, if one steps away from the partisanship of 'no society' and 'check your privilege' one can appreciate these views as being part of the spectrum of the pro-market and pro-individual autonomy culture of late capitalism.  Individual choice and autonomy is a key element of capitalist culture and is shared by both right and left wing elements. It's encapsulated by key words like freedom, choice, autonomy, experience, identity, and self-actualization.

While Thatcher would suggest the man or women at the front of the line earned their place. The left cultural activist would say that same individual was unfairly advantaged and needs to step out of the line to let others more deserving, due to their experience of oppression, to step forward. Both Thatcher and the activist would agree the solution is individual and underplay the existence of any underlying societal structure like social class that might create societal effects.  Both Thatcher and the activist would argue line placement is the result of individual attributes - drive and initiative for Thatcher, identity for the activist.  For Thatcher the problem is the lack of drive embodied by the end of liners. For the cultural activist it's the unfair identity privilege of the front of liners. In both cases the resolution is individual. There are differences, of course. Thatcher version would advocate for policies that facilitate individual advancement based upon merit removing potential restrictions on market mechanisms. The left cultural activist would advocate for policies that undermined unfairly gained identity privilege so that individuals can achieve based upon their own merit. Neither of them, however, are actually arguing against class power or for the transformation of capitalism itself. 

My father continues to enjoy the privilege of having been a working class man who made a life for himself in BC's resource extraction industry. His entire capacity to exist as he does today is an outcome of what gets called privilege. He was a man during a period in BC's economy where he was able to work in the relatively high paid resource industry - an industry with few openings for women. His transit through this world occurred in the post-world war two economic expansion. Rising prices, rising wages, rising global integration made it possible for many industrial working class men to, if they were so inclined, save money and invest in productive property - for him this meant a fishing boat. Then the ecologists came with their ideas of the tragedy of the commons. Who would have predicted that a pro-capitalist resource management ideology of privatization would create an ostensible pension plan for the men who happened to own boats and fishing licenses in the 1960s and 1970s when these men started to retire in the early 2000s. This is all privilege as understood by the 'check your privilege' ideologists.

Checking privilege in this case doesn't solve anything. It doesn't address the contingency of life and lack of strong social supports for working class people. It doesn't address the fact that privatized and for-profit elder care creates a system akin to prisons. It doesn't alter the fact that home care is provided by mostly older women with a life of labour and no adequate pensions or immigrant women trying to create a better life for their families. Checking privilege fundamentally ignores large scale social inequalities created by capitalism reducing 'progressive' action to individuals engaging in acts of self admonishment. 

We need to move beyond the pro-capitalist identity politics of our day. The time has come to transform popular protests to acts of social solidarity set to undermine the real problem privilege - class privilege.  We need to move toward elevating all people to the same real freedoms of life lived well. To do this we need to remove the profit motive from education, healthcare, and the provision of core human services. We need to, as it were, remove the need for line ups fundamentally: its time to put people before profits.