Saturday, September 21, 2019

Quandaries as a Faculty Governor

I have been doing some reflecting on the contradictory, overlapping, and entwined roles that faculty end up in when we serve as an elected governor.

As a faculty member I am afforded certain liberties by virtue of academic freedom. I understand that this includes the ability to criticize my employer, (the university and it’s officers) without risk of sanction. I also understand that this includes the ability to conduct research, to teach, to publish and to publicize my research and my opinion (here thinking in the context of legal expert opinion) without harassment or interference from the university writ large. Furthermore there is an expectation of protection from publics wishing to harass one’s academic freedom. This is constrained by the idea of it being limited to action within the law. At UBC a faculty member’s academic freedom is expressed as “the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.” 

In recent years the provincial government has enacted laws regulating behaviour within the workplace that might be considered to, in some ways, limit a faculty member’s exercise of academic freedom. There are workplace regulations prohibiting bullying and harassment supported by provincial legislation. There is a suite of human rights and labour laws that structure what one (including one’s employer) can do in the workplace as it relates to interactions with other people.  UBC has also put in place a respectful workplace environment policy that also acts to constrain academic freedom.  These constraints don’t limit the scope of research or opinion. What they focus on is behaviour and the proscription of forms of address that demean or belittle another person.

So that is simply in the domain of being a faculty member. Some rights to research and publicize one’s research and related perspectives plus a capacity to criticize one’s employer without worry of sanction.

As a member of the board of governors it would seem that a new level of rules/legislation comes into play that in some cases might be said to reasonably constrain a faculty member’s academic freedom. I am thinking about the intersection of the university act (act in the best interest of the university") and how that is expressed locally via the code of conduct. How does being a governor materially change my role, what additional responsibilities and obligations and even constraints come to bear upon me? Where is the line between my academic freedom rights as a faculty member and my fiduciary duties as a governor?

For example, during the J. Furlong affair (2017) I was publicly opposed to him speaking, was critical of the university’s action taken first hosting him, then cancelling him, then waffling and hiring him back with an apology to him.  At the time I had been elected to the Board, but had not been formally seated (my term began in March of that year). Taking a public stand on an issue related to the university is kind of action that I would have taken many times previously and have continued to do so since becoming a governor.  I engaged in several media interviews and posted comments about the situation on social media. I also came to know (via a media FOI request) that the administration had been recording and tracking my social media statements as part of their background review of what to do about Furlong.  I subsequently received a threatening letter from an anonymous person (after a news story that named me and my opposition to the talk). I reported the threat to the RCMP and the university. In return I received a strong letter from the president’s office affirming my right to express my views publicly and expressing empathy about the threat.

My point with this story is that as an individual faculty member I criticized my employer, expressed those criticisms publicly, faced personal threats, and received strong support from the university that I was acting within my rights as a faculty member. I would add that my criticism focussed on the university’s role in sponsoring a speaker that for some survivors reinforced a traumatic experience. I made an effort to avoid any personal comments about any of the university personnel or the speaker regarding their character or personalities.  I referenced the voice of survivors or spoke to aspects of intergenerational trauma. I refused to castigate individuals.

I have continued to raise critical points about UBC while serving on the board and consider it appropriate to do so.  I sometimes get things wrong (which I correct as soon as I realize it). Occasionally people will express dislike with how I characterize particular statements or positions (that’s part of the cost of public commentary). I try not to make comments on the nature of a person. I focus instead on documented and observed actions about which I will comment.  

As a governor I gain access in a different way to administrative leadership than I did as a frontline faculty member. It’s not that we don’t send letters of request, complaint, or information to Deans, VPs, the provost or the president. Many faculty do; I certainly did. But UBC’s formal hierarchy is such that with normal functions we follow a line of authority – first our Department Head, then the Dean- and move up levels of authority if supported. But as a governor I am working with members of the university executive in a way that I never would have had access to before.

Prior to being a governor I lobbied the Office of the University Counsel regarding a clause in a UBC journal’s author agreement regarding the retention of moral rights.  I was critical of the agreement. This was a communication and criticism that occurred in my role as a faculty member.  The response that was returned (it arrived some time after my complaint) was formal and specific.  A modest change did occur and that was the end of that.  As a governor I have a fair bit more communication with members of the university leadership. It is reasonable to assume that the only reason I have this kind of communication now is that I am a governor.  If, for example, I email the provost today I presume he thinks it is from Charles the governor, not Charles the faculty member

Being a governor places me into a materially different relation to the operation of the university than I was in as an individual faculty member. I have a duty, a legal obligation, to act “in the best interests of the university.”  This places me in a position of casting votes and making decisions to effect the university’s best interests.  As such I actually embody an aspect of the governing authority of the university. As an individual I can remain critical, but as a governor I have an added obligation to moderate and accommodate to the fact that what I say or do can have real, material impacts beyond a minor change in an author’s agreement to publish.  I can remain a critic but while a governor my critic’s voice also carries traces of the structural power of decision-making. If I am unable to acknowledge that then I cannot be an effective faculty governor.

It is not really clear where the line between my rights as an individual faculty member intersects with my obligations a university governor.  Over the years some faculty governors (perhaps most) have taken a fairly conservative stance on that line and have remained essentially silent during their term of office. They keep their dissent (if they have any) out of the limelight. At other times there are those who push the limits so far they render themselves ineffectual.  Ideally we need to find the place wherein we can work to effect within the current structures of power while also maintaining (if we are so inclined) a principled voice of critique to deploy when and where it is needed. 

I won't claim to having found that magical spot, but it's where I'm heading.  

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