Friday, April 16, 2021

Roll Call Votes on the UBC Senate

A motion came to UBC-V’s senate Wednesday, April 14th that would have made recording the vote of each senator for each motion a rule of senate. The advocates explained this as a response to concerns with the use of roll call votes this past year. They said that mandating roll calls will make senate more transparent and senators more responsive to their ‘constituencies.’  After a lengthy debate in which mainly student senators said making all votes roll call builds a better senate, and mostly faculty senators saying the status quo was fine, the motion was referred back to the agenda committee for further consideration and consultation.

[One note on senate's organizational structure. I note that many of the student senators discussed senate as though it were a representative government body in which each senator had a duty to a particular constituency.  My understanding of senate, as per the BC University's Act, is that senate is an academic governance body - not a legislative assembly. Perhaps this is hair splitting, but with the mix of appointed and elected senators, the division of categories of senators, it raises a question as to whether or not the notion of a representiare assembly is the correct way to regard senate.  But this is a minor aside to the core issue.]

With regard to the rule change I find it a bit perplexing as to what problem it is trying to fix. From what I have seen this past year roll call voting has been used as a particular tactic when there are motions that elicit strong emotions and arise out strong moral convictions and that a coordinated group of Senators want passed. In these cases, those arguing for the motion expected all of senate to agree with them. When dissent appears, a senator advocating the motion would then called for a roll call vote under the frame of ‘transparency,’ yet it appeared more like a tactic of enforced compliance in which they hoped it would ensure support would go their way; trusting that with the implied threat of having each vote recorded those thinking about voting against the motion would change their mind and vote for it it or be silent. The complaints against roll call being used as a policing tactic won't end when roll call is normalized, their inherent problems simply become engrained in the process.


The rule change appears to deal with concerns over the tactical use of roll cal voting by making all votes roll call, using the technical argument of ‘transparency’ as the rationale and ignoring the tactical deployment of the roll call vote that I have witnessed this past year several times.  This is a neutral change (in terms of ‘democratic’ process), except in so far as it might add time to meetings for counting and recording (though there are very likely technical fixes to bring to bear). What intrigues me about it is how it is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist – at least one that this kind of rule change won’t fix - the use of social media shaming and attempting to imply disagreement is a kind of moral failure.


If there is a concern over transparency of decision making processes then I would think all meetings of senate (except those with reasonable grounds) would be open to the public, that agendas of committees would be publicly available in advance of committee meetings, that minutes would be available, and that we would get meeting materials with enough time to actually read them. But none of that currently happens. Try finding meeting minutes to committees and you will find a patchwork quilt of materials with gaps. You will spend a lot of time looking. Some committees don’t even have publicly discernible schedules. Try, as a member of the university public to attend a committee meeting and you will find yourself rebuffed on several fronts. 

Roll call votes have an interesting history in governance models. An important use of roll call vote would be  when the decision is split and it is hard to ascertain the vote outcome. While nothing in typical rules of order prohibit it from being used in a ‘policing’ manner, each time it has been used this past year has been in the context of emotionally charged debates where the advocates feel they hold the moral authority. The implications is one is racist if one challenges the particulars of an EDI motion or anti-student if the use of proctoring software is defended or extended withdrawal dates questioned. What this has led to, as we can see from some of the discussion Wednesday evening, is silencing of senators who would just rather not get mobbed online.

The current rule allows the assembly itself to decide when to do a roll call (or a secret ballot). The idea behind allowing the assembly to decide when to do a roll call or secret ballot is based on the premise that it is the assembly’s will, not a prearranged procedure, that should decide when to roll call or secret ballot.  There is no easy way to prevent the deployment of political shaming to enforce compliance to popular cultural values. The very idea of a roll call is to force individuals to put their name behind their actions. In contexts of heated debate and high emotions this can contribute to some to either abstain or vote with the outspoken advocates simply to avoid problems. If we wanted our academic governance body to act more representatively then we really should be enable secret balloting as the norm so that individuals can vote their conscience, not be cowed into going with an outspoken cohort that feels it has the moral upper hand. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

President's Advisory Committee for hiring a new Dean of Arts, UBC-V: election.

Update, April 20, 2021. The election is over and I was not among the four elected. Thank you to those who did vote me for, I appreciate your trust!


Seventeen faculty members have put their names forward to be elected to one of four spots on the hiring advisory committee.  I am one of those seventeen.

This is my official statement as submitted to the UBC elections folk:

Charles Menzies (hagwil hayetsk) is a professor in the department of Anthropology. As a researcher his work focusses upon Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in laxyuup Gitxaała (north coast British Columbia) and North America ( ). Charles has also served as a member of the UBC Faculty Association Executive, the UBC Board of Governors, and is currently an elected member of the UBC-V Senate (

Short and to the point.

I thought about what one might say in such a statement. There are many possibilities. 

One could focus on all of the administrative positions one has held (or currently holds). I am not an administrator.

One could focus on all the academic accomplishments in one's career. That doesn't strike me as relevant to representing colleagues in the selection of a new Dean.

One could highlight the values that I hold and would apply to the selection of a new Dean. That seems more apt, but not what I did.

Instead I presented three things. My name and role at UBC. A summary statement of my research. A listing of my public, elected service roles at UBC.

I stand on a record of community-based service. I might also have mentioned my role as an elected resident director of the UNA for four years.  From my time as a member of the UBC faculty association executive to being an elected governor on UBC's board my pressing interest has been in transparency and open democratic processes.  On the faculty association I was part of the change that resulted in all committee chairs being elected, not appointed. At the UNA I pushed for the end of appointed voting directors. I ended up on board of governors after having been part of the UBC Clean movement that called for open meetings and democratic procedures. Grassroots, democratic, and participatory are values I am proud to uphold.

While I was an elected member of the board of governors I was involved in hiring processes for several senior administrators now working for UBC. It was an illuminating experience to observe the ways in which corporate head hunting firms structure the fields of choice.  In those discussions it was important to have the diverse student and faculty voices that often stood apart from the more corporate directions of administrators. Selecting a Dean will require a diversity of people at the table. As an Indigenous British Columbia (Gitxaała Nation) and a social justice activist I bring a particular perspective that is unique among my fellow candidates. 

Right now the University Administration is trying to get approval through Senate and the Board of a revised hiring process for Deans that would encode a process that is more focused on obscuring, than it is on opening. There is an important place for confidentiality in hiring processes. Deans, though, are public academic leaders who will serve a large constituency. It is more important that the process of hiring them is open, transparent, and democratic then it is secretive and out of sight.

As a member of the hiring committee I would be a voice for all of us who desire more openness in UBC policies and practices, a person who will place social justice at the center of the process, a colleague who understands that those of us from the grassroots have an important voice that needs to be heard among the administrators who inevitably will populate this committee.

I trust that you can count me as one among your four choices.

Friday, March 19, 2021

UBC-V boots Proctorio off of Campus.

I have never used these kinds of invigilation software for any of my classes. They violate civil liberties. They invade personal privacy way more than is acceptable.

I can also appreciate the problems for instructors who have been assured by the entire management system at UBC that these systems are okay to use, until they're not okay. There is no real support for the few faculty using these systems to make a change that won't cost them large investments of time that they likely don't have. It is unreasonable to say to them -'too bad, should've known better.' [I essentially heard people say words to the effect during the debate in senate]. But UBC should never have been using this system in the first place. There is no way that the university should be enabling such a massive violation of civil liberties with this kind of surveillance.

Cheating is embedded in the culture of capitalism, but most people follow the normative rules and punishing the majority for the willful violation of a minority does not strike me as warranted.

I am fortunate to be able to teach in a discipline where I can create examinations that do not require tight controls or lock down. My approach is that the exam questions should be evident from the course outline and lecture/seminar discussions. I have found over the years that even when I permit fully open book exams and provide students with questions in advance, the resultant output still conforms with the faculty of arts grading guidelines.

No one likes an exam (well, almost no one), not those taking it, not those writing it, not those marking it. I am not sure exams are even a necessary evil. However, as long as we run industrial scale courses scaled up to the hundreds or thousands of students exams will be a necessity. What we really need to see happen is a banning of giant courses. If we had student enrolments at a human scale we would be able to assess and evaluate knowledge acquisition directly. We would have no need of testing students over and over again. But I can dream and run my classes as humanely as I can manage given the constraints under which I work.