Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reflections on Governance @ UBC

I was first elected in 2017 following a tumultuous period in UBC's governance history.

The new university president handed in his resignation. A government appointed governor tried to interfere with the academic freedom of a senior endowed chair (one the governor had funded).  The board appeared to be holding secret meetings all over campus (and when they were confronted by the press they darted in the opposite direction in one notable case). Faculty held a vote of non-confidence (which passed by a landslide). Faculty even held a demonstration and then marched into the board room.  At the same time the overall reputation of UBC was taking a hit through a series of poorly handled cases of sexual assault and harassment allegations.  It was a tough time for the university.

I'm not the typical kind of colleague who puts their name forward for the role of governor.  Look back over the history and you will mostly find senior, older, white men with many notable distinctions, awards. They have been academic leaders (in administration and illustrious research). They have received awards like the Order of Canada.  I feel humbled to stand in their shadows. But what many of the men who have held this position don't have is a perspective that is fundamentally different from the business leaders most often appointed by governments to the board. 

As a First Nations faculty member who has focussed most of his career on research with communities from the north coast of BC I've had little interest in being more than a front line faculty.  It's not that I haven't cast an eye around once or twice wondering about differnt roles in academic leadership.  But I tend to do things more in line with our union (serving in the past on the faculty association executive), with my residential community (being an elected director of the UNA), or when my children were in school serving as an elected member of the district parents advisory council.  I also contribute technical work and support to my home community on the north coast when called upon.

That tumultuous period leading up to the 2017 faculty BoG elections lead me to consider that a different kind of faculty voice then we have normally seen was required. 

I've written on this blog about my early interactions with then board chair Stuart Belkin (major donor to UBC and strong provincial Liberal party supporter).  I even penned an opinion piece suggesting all of the Liberal appointees should have been turfed out and replaced when the NDP become government.  That first year it didn't seem to matter what I tried to do my efforts were thwarted.  The  marginalization was annoying. 

One important change that did come with the new provincial government was a change in board chair. Michael Korenberg, appointed by the previous government, became chair.  Under his leadership we have seem a lot of changes, clarifications and improvements in process.  We may occupy different parts of the political spectrum, but we share an interest in opening up the processes of governance to greater transparency and ensuring that processes by which the board operates are democratically effective and responsive to all the communities we serve which includes not only the immediate university community BUT ALSO the people of the province of BC.

A defining and important change in committee structure and redirection of the Board's focus involved the establishment of the Indigenous Engagement Committee, chaired by BC's Chief Treaty Commissioner and UBC Governor Celeste Haldane.   I co-chair this committee and it includes Musqueam and Syilx  representation.  This last point is important to consider. Whereas in the past board committees, working groups, or ad hoc committees were restricted to governors only, Korenberg has acknowledged something that First Nations people have long advocated for and has opened the structures of the board to community representatives to acknowledge the authority and jurisdiction of First Nations, but also and just as importantly to add in the expertise that might be lacking if one were to restrict themselves to only seated governors. 

Bringing in expertise to ensure effective governance and processes has not been restricted to Indigenous Engagement Committee. The time limited working groups of the board have also benefited from this approach.  On the Housing Working Group we have, for example, a faculty rep who lives and breathes the problems facing faculty, especially new faculty at UBC. On the Academic Renewal Working Group we have members of the UBC Senates (selected by the senates themselves) which acknowledges the legislated shared power between Board and Senate. In each of these cases the people charged with the operational responsibilities (senior administrators) sit side by side with the committee members.

I'm often impatient with the pace of change. At the same time I think it is important to acknowledge when changes have been made that answer to criticisms we have had.  The board is changing, new government appointed governors have come onboard and we are seeing how their input is helping shape new directions. The provincial government has placed important goals in front of us regarding Aboriginal education and the board is picking up the challenge to support UBC in doing more by building on the strengths we have in areas like aboriginal medicine and First Nations education in the Faculty of Education.  We can see improvements have been made. I am looking for even more improvements as this year develops.

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