Sunday, June 25, 2017

Time to Change up University Boards of Governors' Membership

Almost two years ago I penned a blog post calling for the democratic reform of UBC's Board of Governors.  The context that propelled that post was the hamfisted way in which a off-book clique of the Board of Governors forced the resignation of the then university president. Months have passed, governance promises have been made, new faces have turned up at the board table, but much of what I commented upon still applies today.  Here's the core comment from two years ago:

UBC's vision statement opens with the following: "The University is independent and cherishes and defends free inquiry and scholarly responsibility." It's a laudable statement.   
The UBC Board of Governors is comprised, for the most part, of government appointees.  Unlike under previous provincial governments, all of the current government appointees come from a particular segment of the business world.  They are, I am sure, fine family people, strong advocates of community engagement, and very likely quite personable folk if one were to know them personally.  However, they are all cut from the same cloth.  It is reasonable that the government who pays the bulk of the bill set the policy direction of public institutions.  It is patently unreasonable for a government to so game the system that there is no significant diversity of opinion represented on the Board outside of elected faculty, staff, or student governors.   
We need a rethink on how governors to BC's public post-secondary institutions are appointed.  The governors are to act in the best interests of the university.  However, when the majority of governors come from a narrow band of society their idea of what may constitute the best interests of the university will very likely not be in accord with the actual interests of the university nor with the wider public of the province.  Governors should come from a wide sector of BC society.  They should include regular working people, community activists, union members, doctors, lawyers, and, yes, some business people.  They should not be restricted to major contributors of only one political party, nor should they represent only one small minority segment of society.  Unfortunately, that is the the way our provincial government has structured our university board.
We  have a chance to make an important change to the structure of university boards of governors. The potential change in political governance opens the doors to rethinking how boards are appointed and who should be appointed to them. Even if the same party holds onto government their recent policy flips, if authentic and sincere, should lead them to make changes now as though they were a new government.

A proposal for moving forward:

  1. Immediately replace at least 50% of all appointed post-secondary governors with non-business community minded folks.  People with backgrounds in public education, trade unions, community action groups, and municipal/community representatives.
  2. Introduce legislation to create an arms length 3rd party agency to select and appoint future governors on post secondly boards of governors. This legislation would set criteria for selecting from a broad spectrum of society. 
The structure of university boards have deep structural implications for many facets of university life. Most importantly they shape the hiring processes of senior administrators who subsequently shape the hiring of mid level administration which in turn has implications for academic leadership at the faculty level. A narrowly focused board with it's roots in business and interested primarily in research that can be commercialized tends to foster a leadership culture that focusses on science, technology, and commercialization (falsely referred to as innovation). This kind of leadership may be in the best interest of a small sector of business leaders. It is not the best kind of leadership for a public university.

We have an opportunity to build on the strength of our public institutions by drawing upon the wealth of diverse experience in our province. Let's open the door to real community-based diversity of voice and perspective on our post secondary boards of governors.  Lets draw on the broad wealth of experience of all our citizens!

Friday, June 16, 2017

University Chancellors in BC

For many decades the chancellors of British Colombian universities were selected by election by members of convocation (faculty and alumni). Elections can be messy things - it's hard (but not impossible) for elites to tightly control the behaviour of a large uncoordinated mass.  So a few years ago the BC Provincial Liberal government decided to fix the messiness of an electoral process by delegating the authority of convocation to a small body of people with the time and desire to run the alumni associations of our universities in BC.

There is an important and time honoured practice of convocation selecting the university chancellor. This practice, which tacitly recognizes that our universities are in service to a wider public and explicitly acknowledges the voices of faculty and alumni, is an important counter measure to the rise of corporate managerialism.

Managerialism treats dissent, disagreement, and disruption as problems as opposed to opportunities. Civility and kindness become transformed into technologies of control and suppression. Who can argue against being kind? Who can argue that being rude trumps being civil? But these are words that are deployed in an Orwellian Doublespeak sense - they don't mean what they seem to.  In this context the dissonance, the clatter, the discomfort of dissenting uncivil voices is actually an authentic form of 'kindness' (to stretch an analogy).

This by way of preamble to my concerns with how chancellors of BC universities are selected.

I have two points here: short term, and long term. In the short term it means that in my role as a UBC governor I will place the formal voice of convocation (represented here by the UBC Alumni Association) in a position of priority. It is convocation who should be making the decision (irrespective of current legislation or regulation) and thus I shall defer to them as a matter of principle in the decision of who might best be a university's chancellor (how ever flawed their process or problematic a potential candidate).

In the long term universities need to return to an open democratic selection process whereby individuals are publicly nominated (and all can see who nominated them) and then elected by a vote of convocation at large. I shall begin this process by introducing a motion to the UBC Board of Governors that calls upon the provincial government to amend the legislation in order to reinstate elections of chancellors for UBC and other BC Universities.

There is  also an intermediate step that we could take - publicly implement a clear, transparent, selection process that places the voices of convocation front and center.  We can look across the Salish Sea to the University of Victoria who have a very different public policy on selecting their chancellor.  It's not an election, but it is more respectful of convocation than the current UBC procedure.

As the ceremonial public face of our universities Chancellors need to stand with the full respect of convocation. Our university chancellors in BC are currently selected by a narrow clique that is not representative of convocation.  As such the government of our province has diminished the role of chancellor by overthrowing the decades long tradition of convocation democratically electing the chancellor.  It has become a game of privilege rather than democracy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"It wasn't our intent to shut down dissent" post-bog revisions.

Updated, 2:50pm, June 14, 2017. 
So the new code of conduct has been approved by the board. 

I voted for a revised version that removed the most pernicious part of section 4.1 (see below) that directed governors to never publicly disagree with a Board decision. UBC legal counsel said that the footnotes are not part of the code of conduct so that dealt with section 4.2.  There is still the lack of a full public comment period. That said, even though an apparently small change the implications are significant.  There are still potential pitfalls with this code of conduct and the vague terminology around so-called efforts to "undermine" the board.  Today's changes reminded my of one of my late mother's favourite saying: "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day." :) 

Small incremental change toward open, transparent, democratic governance of our public university.

For the record my post form this morning prior to the Board meeting.

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With apologies to those conservatives who enjoy dissent and disagreement this blog post explores the ways in which conservative structures of corporate university governance constantly seeks to silence dissent and disagreement.  The tools used to silence dissent -civility and respect- are ironically often the same ones that some use to encourage diversity and dissent. It just goes to show that it's not the tool that is the problem, it's how it is used.

Civility and respect in the UBC Board of Governor's new draft code of conduct are deployed in a manner that whether by design or accident has the effect of muzzling reasonable dissent and diversity of perspectives.  In two contexts disagreement is silenced: (1) by compelling governors to be silent on disagreement with decisions of the board, and (2) by compelling governors to not speak publicly about UBC policies or practices they disagree with.  There is a sense in which these prohibitions are fundamentally unenforceable given the serious over reach that they entail, but that said we need to carefully consider what the code of conduct lays out and what the apparent intent might actually be. Then we will consider a more effective, transparent, and innovative approach: one that values disagreement as a core feature of innovative and creative democratic governance.

The draft Code of Conduct (that is on the agenda for consideration June 14 - today) can be found here.  I'd like to direct readers' attention to two specific clauses: a bullet point under section 4.1 (Duties) "respect the Board and Board decisions, and avoid speaking against or undermining any decision of the Board, regardless of whether the Governor agrees with or voted for the decision." and footnote #10 under section 4.2 (Expectations) "If a Governor has a concern about University policies, practices or procedures, he or she is encouraged to bring such matters to the Board and should refrain from making any comments in public. Prior to such discussion, members should exercise discretion in any comments which they find necessary to make in public or to any persons who are not Governors.]"  Later in the code of conduct another new section (#8, Failure to comply with the code) grants the board the power to sanction or expel a governor and grants authority to the board to determine whether or not a governor has violated the code of conduct.

With regard to conduct under section 4.1 or 4.2 there is no clear criteria presented to determine what actually might count as disrespecting or undermining a decision of the Board or a policy, practice, or procedure of the University. What we are left with is a rather vague and uncertain set of expectations that (in the absence of clarity) allow for a mechanism to discipline board members reminiscent of early models of democratic centralism (a model of governance that has been found seriously problematic).

Under 4.1 a governor becomes bound to be silent or supportive of a decision of the UBC Board of Governors irrespective of their reasonable decision and consideration of the matter.  According to the draft Code of Conduct to disagree with a Board decision is a form of disrespect.  Really?  I would suggest just the opposite: it is an act of utmost respect to believe that our public university can tolerate diversity of perspectives and that dissent is important in building a creative, innovative, democratic work/learning/research environment.  If the people charged with governing UBC are compelled to silence dissent and reasonable disagreement, what does that say to pre-tenure faculty, to graduate students engaged in challenging research, etc? I suggest it tells them to be quiet to get along - it sets a pattern of corporate behaviours in play that is decidedly unhealthy.

Universities need to provoke discussion.  Universities should thrive on disagreement.  Governance models should encourage openness, diversity of perspective, and spirited engagement.  When we allow ourselves to become afraid of the dissenting voice we turn our backs upon everything that liberal education is supposed to stand for.  Let's not let conservative fear rule our public university.  Let's take the opportunity to celebrate our strength by acknowledging that reasonable people will often disagree - but that doesn't mean the sky is falling.


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.