Monday, August 10, 2015

Time for Democratic Reform of the UBC BoG

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.  Yet the late Friday announcement of former UBC President Arvind Gupta's resignation is a text book example of something that speaks to a lack of independence, an absence of free inquiry, and very little demonstrated responsibility.

While I have no direct knowledge of the situation I can say that the method by which this resignation was announced speaks more the corporate world of mergers and acquisitions then it does to an institution of free inquiry.  The sub-text of the terse late Friday afternoon announcement reads more like the double-speak of Orwell's 1984 then it does of free and informed inquiry and scholarly responsibility.  Instead we are presented with a fait accompli resignation with no indications of the reasons or justifications.

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. Perhaps that has played some role in the unceremonious end of the presidential term of Avrind Gupta.  

I have no special knowledge of the situation.  I have, over the course of the past year had the occasion, through being a member of the University Neighbours Association, to have brief interactions with him and with other members of the senior management team.  I was impressed with my meeting with then President Gupta. I felt that maybe, under his leadership, we might actually see the emergence of something more like responsible government amongst the residential ghetto managed by UBC's Planning department.  Whereas previous upper management types (several of whom who have since departed) responded to my call for greater democratic authority in the UNA area with a blunt "it won't happen," Gupta entertained the idea and ruminated that perhaps change was needed.  What a refreshing change from the constant refusals to relinquish any crumb of democratic authority to residents.

I also heard through various campus networks that Gupta took far more interest in financial matters than any previous university president (and he could understand the numbers).  This was said to cause certain sectors of the university management some degree of discomfort.  Who is to say what the reality was.  One would need to be on the inside and I suspect that there are at least as many stories plus one as there were people involved.

Gupta had the potential to do something here at UBC.  I am sad that his attempt has been prematurely ended. Unlike either Toope or Pipper, Gupta was working his way through faculty meeting with departments to actually speak with us face-to-face.  Gupta articulated an interest in faculty governance, in refocussing the university on what our core mission is supposed to be: research and educating.  Was that threatening to the bloated and constantly growing managerial class at UBC?  Perhaps we will never know.  All that we can say at this time is that the silence of the Board, upper management, and Professor Gupta himself opens the door to much idle speculation and the overproduction of unfounded explanations of what may have really happened. The Board has a social responsibility to open up, be transparent, and honest.  At the moment they risk losing the trust of faculty, staff, students, and the wider public as they play corporate games behind closed doors.