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).

Activists need to be think carefully of how they activate their dissonance. Simply being rude, engaging in personal attacks, shouting over other speakers in a formal meeting, all detract from the power of their righteous indignation and passion. Activists need to consider the conditions of struggle - is this a normal meeting and is the activist a lone voice? is it a moment of social unrest wherein power is ramping up their own violence? The lone activists hurling insults in a formal meeting is a character (potentially abusive) the organized mass of protesters repulsing state police is moving the struggle forward. One needs to pay attention to the material conditions of the struggle and gauge ones actions accordingly. 

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.