Thursday, November 23, 2017

Update on proposed governance motions

The three motions on governance that I intended to propose (clarifying process of Board approval of Chancellor, advocating a return to electing the Chancellor, and composition of governance standing committee) were brought to last nights standing committee on governance. Things went better than they did with my first attempt when introducing a motion was denied by the chair of the board. The motions were accepted by the chair and placed on the agenda. But. But. But! They went to the closed agenda.

Well.  OK.

I advised the chair and the committee members (as I handed out copies of the 3 motions to the student reporters) that I had already publicized the motions, shared them with some other governors (including emailing them several weeks prior to the meeting to the Board Chair and Governance Chair), and had in fact blogged and tweeted about the motions and my intentions to bring them forward.

"Where does that leave me now that they are being placed on the closed agenda?" I asked.

Someone said (I can't recall whom), "you're welcome to bring them to the Board directly."

But what if in the closed session the committee (of which I am not an official member) the committee voted to hold the motions back, to ignore them, or to study them in a working group, or to selectively do some and not the rest of what was included?

Well, since any discussion, debate, or agreement took place in closed session I can say nothing about what may have transpired.  In fact if, for example, I do not reintroduce those motions in the open Board meeting, I can not tell anyone the reason why.  It might because I am tired of the issue?  Perhaps I heard an argument in closed session that convinced me not to proceed?  Perhaps the committee decided to stop the discussion and tell me it was not a priority issue? Perhaps it is already being dealt with? Perhaps I realized that no matter what argument I made, no matter what evidence I might present, no matter what faculty sentiment on the subject might be, there is no way, under the current configuration, that any fundamental change opening up the inner decision making process of the board is possible. But all that would be speculation and conjecture and I can neither confirm nor deny any of those speculative thoughts. Because the motions were placed into closed session and I am prevented from speaking about anything that may have (or even did not) happen during the closed session.

It's a Gordian Knot of administrative process.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ten months on the job

It’s been ten months since the start of my formal term on the UBC Board of Governors and nearly a year since the BoG elections. 

Colleagues ask me about my experience on the board, what is it like, is it a lot of work, have there been any surprises?  Having been involved in all matters of UBC & community tissues for over two decades I have been both surprised, disappointed, pleased and impressed in equal parts. 

I am impressed by my fellow faculty colleagues on the board - together we bring a lot of differnt levels of expertise.   I am disappointed by the ways in which the board doesn't really take advantage of our collective capacity.   It would seem that we could offer more than the few minutes they entertain us every couple of months in committee or board meetings. We are told our comments are relevant, the evidence, however appears lacking.

I am pleased to get to know my fellow student and staff governors.  It is a bit of a cliche, but having the chance to meet with folks outside of the typical ways in which a faculty member might meet with students or staff is rewarding in and of itself.  I've enjoyed informal coffee meetings as well as our interactions in the formal meetings. 

While my public statement on appointed governors is clear in the abstract (I think our new government should replace all the former Liberal government appointees), I have gotten to know several of them directly and find them individually amazing people.  While we may well disagree over fundamental aspects of what is the best way to achieve the core mission of our institution we do share a general desire to ensure that UBC's best interests are met.  

I have been surprised by what I might call an institutional culture of reluctance.  I am surprised as the University places so much stake on innovation, doing new things, being creatively disruptive, etc.  Yet, in the operation of the Board there is a great reluctance to move beyond their comfort zones of control and authority. A reluctance to actually enable potentially creative disruption how they run things at the board. A reluctance to extend the circle of governance to include those who do not agree with them.  

I've seen the same sort of cultural forms engaged in reserach at the interface between First Nations and government agencies and their corporate allies. Governments and/or corporations will say they are interested in dialogue, with shared governance, with transparency, but in practice they are reluctant to relinquish a modicum of control.  The cost of these lost opportunities is high - it's a shame that at the highest level of our university the same culture of reluctance can be found.

Two issues related issues of these past months have stood out for me: continued concerns with academic freedom and the place of athletics in the prioritization of UBC-V building projects.  

As most of us will be aware the President’s office is currently following up on matters related to freedom of expression (which is related, but not the same as, academic freedom). 

The current focus on the Stadium Neighbhood Planning process – which involves a rebuild of the Thunderbird Stadium and a development of a new residential community- creates an opportunity to open up the discussion of how best to fund the university’s core mission.  

In my capacity of governor I very much wish to hear from my colleagues on the above matters, but more importantly on matters that you consider important and would like to see some action on.   

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you have any ideas, matters, or concerns that you think would benefit from consideration by the Board of Governors or senior administrators.  As an elected faculty governor I would be pleased to hear from you and to bring forward questions on matters before the Board.  As a governor I have opportunities to pose questions and request information on university matters (as long as they are not part of a closed meeting agenda).

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Another Go-around With Motions on Chancellor Selection & Governance Committee

I have again requested that the UBC Board of Governors consider changes to the way it appoints the Chancellor and to support a fully democratic selection process. In addition I have suggested that the governance committee include representatives from faculty, staff, and studnets of both campuses on the governance committee.  Full texts of proposed motions below.

Motion 1: transparent process and criteria for the appoint of UBC’s Chancellor
Whereas the university act assigns the authority to appoint a university chancellor to the university board of governors on nomination by the alumni association, and whereas UBC currently has no explicit Board policy to govern how the board manages its own appointment process.
Be it resolved that the UBC Board of Governors strike a working committee of the Governance Standing Committee (consisting of three faculty reps, three student reps, two staff reps, and the governance committee chair) to develop a transparent and inclusive policy with criteria for the appointment of future UBC Chancellors.

Motion 2: Returning to a democratic process for selection of University Chancellors.
Whereas in 2008 the Government of British Columbia amended the University’s Act to replace the election of the university chancellor by free, fair, and open elections with a closed door nomination and appointment process. 
Whereas the best interests of the University of British Columbia is served through maintaining and improving open, transparent, and democratic governance processes.
Be it resolved that the UBC Board of Governors call upon the Government of British Columbia to return to a democratic process for the election of Chancellor by the entire convocation (which includes faculty and alumni).

Motion 3:  Governance Committee Membership
Whereas UBC-V and UBC-O consist of separate and distinct communities with their unique cultures and histories while sharing a common interest in UBC’s overall wellbeing,
Whereas faculty and students bring an important perspective that is integral to UBC’s core mission of teaching, learning, and research,
Whereas staff (who are currently excluded in the terms of reference) bring an important perspective that is integral to UBC’s core mission of teaching, learning, and research,
Be it resolved that the terms of reference for the Governance Standing Committee be amended to include two student members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V), two faculty members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V), and two staff members (one from UBC-O, one from UBC-V).

Friday, October 27, 2017

Academic Freedom at UBC

UBC has been faced with serious issues of late regarding infringements of faculty academic freedom. The situation became so dire that a special senior advisor to the provost, Neil Guppy (Professor, Sociology) was appointed in 2016.

The events leading up to Dr. Guppy's appointment have been well documented elsewhere.  By way of summary they began with the infringement of the academic freedom of business faculty professor, Jennifer Berdahl, by members of the UBC administration and Board of Governors.  This led to an independent study by the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C. and the subsequent resignation of John Montalbano, the former Chair of the UBC Board of Governors.

Since appointment Dr Guppy has been making presentations on academic freedom.  Most recently he presented at the UBC Faculty Association Annual Fall Meeting.  Observations on the presentation have been posted by one faculty member in attendance.  Part of Dr. Guppy's presentation has included a background paper on the history of academic freedom issues at UBC.  The origin of the current language on academic freedom at UBC is dated, by Dr. Guppy, to a particular event in the late 1970s that involved the attempted disruption of an on campus speaking engagement.

In the briefing paper  Dr. Guppy focusses on the irony of the named speaker being called racist and fascist while he was in fact a law and order reformer. Dr. Guppy does not elaborate upon the matter but instead focusses on the fact a Senate committee was set up to make recommendations to the President. Left unsaid was the fallout whereby a member of the university community (Alan Soroka, a law librarian at the time) was first threatened with being fired and then faced a lesser form of discipline.

Rather than simply being an issue about the academic freedom of a politician from a regime
operating in a manner contrary to human rights provisions this moment in UBC's history also is about the rights of faculty and staff working at UBC to engage in acts of public protest and dissent.

UBC's initial response was to discipline Soroka and used the discourse of academic freedom to do that.  That is, President Kenny wrote a letter of discipline implying that Soroka's employment was in question.  Kenny's letter to Soroka followed the receipt of letters from the University Librarian and the Dean of Arts, both who argued that Soroka had violated Swartz's academic freedom. Neither academic administrator considered that there may be a counterbalancing issue of academic freedom. For the administration the issue of academic freedom went only one direction - the right of a formal speaker to speak. There was no consideration of the right of a dissenting voice to actively protest.

This is not simply an historical quibble. Across North American and Western European campuses we see a resurgence of these kinds of conflicts.  On campus groups invite speakers known for inflammatory rhetoric, questionable science, or just provocative enough to get a rise out of somebody. And somebody does get their back up. Protests are organized and a speaker here or there is disrupted.

The idea that all speech is equally valued and has a right to exist within a university is problematic at best.  That has never really been the case; it is unlikely that it ever will. Universities, according to the late Bill Reading (The University in Ruins) used be about managing national culture and through that mandate silenced dissenting faculty.  The modern university of excellence, says Readings, has shifted somewhat and has paid less attention to the content of faculty research but have paid attention to faculty criticisms of the administration.  Today's faculty member might not face sanction over published work, but they will be targeted for speaking out against the actions of their university administration or donors or business supporters. The fact is that the narrow domain of 'within the law' forms of Academic Freedom is that it allows problematic types of research while silencing political dissent critical of how the university operates.

Academic Freedom is in reality a small 'c' conservative policy. As it exists at UBC it is framed within the context of what is permissible under Canadian law.
"Central among these rights is 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." [emphasis added] 
It is driven by an ideology of liberal individualism that prioritizes (with modest limits) the right of an individual.   All of this makes the doctrine of academic freedom of limited utility for those who try to use it to critique dominant political systems, university administrators, or to advocate for progressive social change.  It also would not protect a member of the university community from engaging in civil disobedience or even in acts of protest. We need a more aggressive, progressive approach that safeguards university faculty who have the courage of their convictions to stand up to administrators who pander to corporate interests.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Stadium Neighbourhood Plan

Planning for UBC's newest residential neighbourhood is currently underway.  Stadium Place Neighbourhood is being designed to fund UBC Athletics Gameplan stadium rebuild.  Phase One of the Stadium Neighbourhood Planning Process is coming to a close.

Under phase one UBC planners have called for community input:
In this first phase of consultation, we will be seeking input from the entire campus community on living, working, studying and playing at UBC. Your experience can help us understand how this new neighbourhood can improve the campus experience of tomorrow. What we hear from you will guide our planning decisions.
The planners have been roving around campus with pop up booths, hosting workshops, and holding meetings with groups of concerned community members.  They've been doing a fairly intense outreach and publicity campaign seeking input.

Community input is being framed by a set of pre-existing guiding principles and the prior commitment that all revenue generated will go toward the Athletics' Gameplan.  If you haven't yet taken a chance to fill out the online survey (it's over October 22nd). Do so now! The

The draft guiding principles (see figure adjoining) are all quite nice.  They convey very positive values.  As of yet there are no clear explanations of how these principles will be operationalized - but to be fair, that is something that is hoped to emerge from the planning process as it itself develops.

To a great extent these are admirable principles.  Clearly most people want to encourage being "a great neighbour," support "creativity and innovation," or "support affordable housing."  These are important,  laudable principles.

In the context of the university's stated desire to fully and unconditionally support reconciliation efforts with First Nations it seems that the Stadium Neighbourhood planning process brings us to a place where the university could do more than offer ceremonial invocations or erect monumental works of art.  This is a chance for the university to put its money where it's heart and mouth is.

How might this work?  UBC has been using the revenue from land lease sales in the residential neighbourhoods to contribute to the university's endowment fund.   UBC created a private development company, UBC Properties Trust, to manage residential development and major on campus builds.   This has been a very successful venture, economically speaking, for UBC.

In the Stadium Place Neighbourhood land lease revenues have been committed to the Gameplan and the renewal of the current Thunderbird Stadium.  Maybe it's time to try something that might make a real difference. UBC could make a material commitment to back up its good rhetoric on First Nations reconciliation.

UBC could dedicate a minimum of 25% of the revenue from the sale of land leases for something such as a First Nations youth education fund.  As important as football and stadium sports are to UBC’s spirit building, making a material investment in First Nations education will have real, long term benefits for all British Columbians. 

Doing something like this builds upon UBC's work in support of reconciliation and meeting the call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Imagine what a multi-million dollar endowment in support of First Nations' youth education could do for our city, our province, our country.  UBC consistently ranks in the top 50 research universities globally. UBC champions global citizenship.  UBC is a place of excellence.  Think what UBC has to offer First Nations youth for our collective future wellbeing!  Transforming the profits from Stadium Place into lasting legacy of educational opportunity is the perfect way for UBC to honour the reconciliation calls to action, to atone for the university's complicity in the residential school system, and to demonstrate in a concrete fashion UBC's words mean something serious.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Driving the Underground Agenda: parking @ UBC

UBC is trying to move forward with a 200 car underground parking garage tucked into the space between the NEST, Bird Coop, War Memorial Gym, and the Alumni Centre.

As noted in a commentary from the resurrected blog, UBC Insiders, there is much to question about why such a facility is needed.

The underground parking garage is being brought to next week's (Sept. 20/21, 2017) Board of Governor's meeting for Board 2& 3 approval - the decision that makes the building of the garage a fait accompli.

There is a certain irony involved here.  UBC has been very loudly touting it's 'innovative' sustainability agenda which includes constraining individual car trips off and on campus. Yet here we have a project that's stated mandate is to facilitate and encourage car trips into the ceremonial center of campus.  Somewhere, somehow, some time in the recent past someone came up with the brilliant idea to build an underground garage to encourage cars into campus. The current sell on this presents it as fulfilling UBC's engagement mandate - engagement with off campus communities.

Who are these off campus communities that require a concrete underground parking garage? If we consider the facilities nearby one very prominent 'engagement' space comes to mind: the Alumni Centre.  All kinds of high level 'engagement' activities take place here: Board of Governor's meetings, President's advisory meetings, Alumni executive and related meetings, and donor gatherings.  Is it possible that this multi-million dollar concrete car storage and attractor facility is simply to further this kind of elite level engagement?

How does attracting and facilitating car transport of special off-campus elites really serve the best interests of our public university? How does encouraging cars advance UBC's sustainability agenda? Realistically this does not advance the over arching best interests of our university nor does it contribute to UBC's sustainability agenda.  UBC's management needs to carefully rethink this project. How can the asserted needs of 'engagement' be met through other means? Where is the modelling to see  what the impact on engagement might be in the absence of the underground parkade?

Before this project can be properly considered UBC's management team needs to do a fuller job reviewing their options and the implications of their planning.  We expect a lot from our management team, but aren't they the leaders of a top 50 global institution? Shouldn't we expect more than good, shouldn't we expect beyond excellence in planning and design?

The Ongoing Saga of Trying to Become a Member of the BoG's Governance Committee

One of the core reasons that I ran for a faculty position on the UBC Board of Governors was my concern over governance practices at the board. It had become clear that the board operated with a series of tacit and quasi-secret procedures and (as UBCFA FOI requests have shown) engaged in a bit of after the fact approvals. So with that in hand (and after topping the polls in the four-field election for one of two position) one of the first things I did was ask to be made a member of the governance committee.

The initial process involved a series of emails and then a meeting with the secretary of the board who advised me that I should start with something more fitting to my skills, like People & Community or Learning and Reserach.  These are two committed that, while important to what makes our university what it is, are to a certain extent marginal to the power center of the Board. I countered with suggesting Governance, Property, and the Land Use Planning Committee.  I suppose one should be willing to accept that two out of three aren't: I was eventually placed onto the Property Committee and also the Land Use Planning sub-committee as well as the Learning and Reserach Committee. But silence reigned on the matter of the Governance Committee.

Then in April I had a one-on-one meeting with Stuart Belkin (actually it was a two-on-one as Michael Korenberg, vice chair of the Board, was also there). It was a pleasant get to know you chat combined with a let me set out the rules to me chat. Toward the end of of meeting I brought up membership on the governance committee to which Mr. Belkin replied he would take it under advisement. 

That sat until late August when it seemed to be the time to ask again. To make a long story short, not yet a member of the committee.  But I can sit in on the meetings if I like as long as I can find the off schedule meeting notices for a committee that seems to meet 'virtual' more often than not with items decided through a consent agenda (complicated way to say committee doesn't seem to actually meet face-to-face). 

What follows is the current email exchange on the matter.

Sept. 10, 2017
Dear Mr. Belkin,

When we met near the start of my term on the board you stated you would take under advisement my request to be a member of the Governance Committee.  As of this date I have yet to hear from you regarding that specific request.

In the absence of your reply I wish to again put my offer to join that committee on the table. I note that the list of board committee members was circulated current as of Sept. 1, 2017 for information.  This item was sent on the consent/information agenda. Perhaps you might take this opportunity to clarify how committee assignments and where one might find the written policy and procedures for the Board to appoint members of the standing committees.

With regards,


Sept. 12, 2017
Dear Charles:  

Thank you for your letter concerning your wish to be appointed to the Governance Committee.

In carrying out the responsibility of appointing Board members to committees, I am bound as Chair by a number of considerations: the size of each committee as stipulated by the general principles the Board has followed for some years; the inclusion of representatives from both campuses; representation of the different constituencies that make up the Board; and a fair distribution of committee responsibilities among all members of the Board.  Acting under these guidelines, I have made appointments that I think will best ensure that we meet the goal of effective committee operation during the current Board cycle.

As you know, our practice is to permit any Governor to attend any committee meeting, with the exception of Audit, Employee Relations, and the Executive; so there will be opportunities for you to contribute to discussion concerning governance, should you wish to do so.  I am sure you will agree that, no matter on which committee Board members are asked to serve, it is of the utmost importance to the University that we work together on every issue to advance the University's best interests.  



Sept. 12, 2017
Dear Stuart,

I appreciate you taking the time to clearly lay out the reasons by which
you decline my request to serve on the governance committee.

While I respectful disagree with you analysis, I nonetheless appreciate
your consideration in providing me with a reply.

With warm regards,


Sept. 15, 2017
Dear Mr. Belkin,

I was just reviewing in detail the recently posted package for next week’s
board meetings and noticed a small item that perhaps you can clarify for

In your email below you say "As you know, our practice is to permit any
Governor to attend any committee meeting, with the exception of Audit,
Employee Relations, and the Executive; so there will be opportunities for
you to contribute to discussion concerning governance, should you wish to
do so.”  

However, at page 812 of the September board package the explanatory note
reads “All Board members are welcome to attend meetings of the Finance
Committee, the Learning & Research Committee, The People, Community &
International Committee, and the Property Committee; only Committee
members vote at Committee meetings.” The absence of the Governance
Committee from the list of committees with which all board members are
welcome implies that even if I were to wish to attend the Governance
Committee meetings I am not permitted to do so.

This has been the driving reason why I have continuously asked to be made
a member of the committee so that I have unambiguous access to
participate. The apparent contradiction between what you have said in your
email and what is printed on the list of committee memberships creates a
sense of ambiguity that would render it uncomfortable for me to attend,
given the I may well be asked to leave.

Is one additional, different voice really that much of a worry to you? I
was elected by my peers, in fact topping the polls significantly in a
field of four for one of two positions.  Issues of governance were front
and center in my run for election and clearly the overwhelming majority of
colleagues who voted saw that as a matter of critical importance. That
said, I appreciate (but disagree with) your assessment that none of that
counts in terms of how you will allocate people to committees.
Nonetheless, I will ask yet again that you reconsider your decision and
especially so given the ambiguity between your comment about me being
welcome to participate and the printed information that excludes all but
members of the committee from attending Governance Committee meetings.

With warm regards,

Charles Menzies

Sept. 15, 2017
Hi Charles:  I take responsibility for that omission of "Governance Committee".  It was not the intention.  Stuart is correct that any member can attend Governance Committee.  



Monday, July 24, 2017

Notice of Motion (2): That UBC Board of Governors request BC Gov't reintroduce Chancellor Elections

As part of supporting the expansion of transparent, effective, and democratic structures in the post-secondary sector I am planning to introduce a motion at the upcoming September Board of Governor's meeting whereby UBC's BoG formally requests that the provincial government reintroduce elections for Chancellors of BC's public universities.

I trust that my fellow governors will agree with me that the best way to respect convocation (which includes faculty and alumni) is to hold elections at large for the post of Chancellor.  The behind closed door corporate approach that was introduced in 2008 by the former Liberal Government does not serve convocation well and tends to bring forward Chancellors less likely to be supported by vast segments of convocation (recent UBC Faculty concerns and the debacle at UNBC being clear examples of past problems).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Updated: Request to place item on #UBCBoG agenda: selecting the next chancellor.

Dear Stuart,

I would like to have an item placed on the upcoming agenda and would appreciate your direction for how best to do this.

I would like to have initiated a process to develop a more transparent, effective, and inclusive board policy on the selection and appointment of UBC’s Chancellor.  You may have read my blog posting a while back on this issue, if not: for your reference:

I assume that the proper place to introduce this motion would be the governance committee. However, if it is best to introduce it at the full board meeting in September, then that is what I shall like to do.

My motion would be:

Whereas the university act assigns the authority to select and appoint a university chancellor to the university board of governors, and whereas UBC currently assigns the primary decision making process to the UBC Alumni Association.
Be it resolved that the Board of Governors strike a working committee of the Governance Standing Committee (consisting of three faculty reps, three student reps, two staff repos, and the governance committee chair) to develop a transparent, effective, and inclusive policy with clear and understandable criteria for the selection of future UBC Chancellors.

I look forward to your reply,


Update, July 22, 2017.  Letter from Board Chair

Monday, July 17, 2017

Open Letter to Premier Designate, John Horgan - replace the appointed BoG members.

Dear Premier Designate,  John Horgan

I write as a dedicated public servant charged with educating our youth and doing my bit to advance our collective understanding of our world. I am a faculty member at UBC and a proud BCer honoured to be able to work in my home province. Our universities, however, have become less like universities and more like private companies. This process has accelerated over the last 16 years.  I write to you to ask that your party show the courage of your convictions and take back control for the public good of our public universities and colleges from the small business cartels that have been placed at their helm these past few years.

The right has learned that in the context of regime change one must act decisively. Hit hard, hit fast, and make it comprehensive. With the exception of some early 20th century transitions the left has often tried to placate it's enemies or opponents by going slow. But history has shown that the shock  treatment the right has perfect is the best path for change. Decisive actions are called for.

Over the course of the past 16 years appointments to university and college boards of governance have become more and more a system of rewarding Liberal Party supporters.  From failed candidates to campaign managers to funding bagmen, the key criteria to be appointed to a post-secondary board by the provincial government seems to have been how much time, energy, and money one gave to the Liberal Party.  While it is a government's prerogative to appoint whomever they want, the Christy Clark Liberals seem to have taken that prerogative to new heights.

If your government is to act in accord with your principles you will act quickly and change over the appointed members on BC's post secondary boards of governors within a few short weeks of being sworn in. This is a critical action.  The post secondary sector is an important economic, political, and social force in the province.  We educate the majority of our youth, provide opportunities for life long learning and are major economic drivers in the regions of the province. Leaving the Liberal Party in control of these important public institutions has the potential to be a fatal tactical error.

The time is now to bring forward a broad, diverse, and accomplished new group of community members to drive our public post secondary institutions forward. We need to bring on board community organizers who have worked to solve homeless and affordable housing issues.  We need to have the voices of organized labour sitting at the governance table. We need neighbourhood organizers who have been involved. in their communities. Corporate lawyers, realtors, and CEOs should not dominate the governance of our public post secondary system.  We need appointed governors who actually fulfill the terms of provincial legislation, represent a broad spectrum of society, and place the public interest ahead of private profits.

Those currently invested in their appointed positions on BC's post secondary boards of governors may not go quietly into the night. I very much assume they too are wondering what the plans are. Well placed governors are likely putting out feelers to your government-in-waiting.  Some, with clear and explicit Liberal ties, may realize they are likely on the way out.  A few may even preemptively resign to make the transition easier. But there may well be those who have much personal prestige and capital who may not wish to leave and may consider using their social and political networks to try and hold on.

I urge you not to be swayed by worries about continuity on boards of governors; do not be beguiled by friendly corporate CEOs who advise going slow. The expertise and capacity is already on our boards in the form of elected student, staff, and faculty governors.  Do not be held back!  Replace the BC Liberal appointees on post secondary boards of governors immediately. To leave things as they are will be to retreat from a critical social and economic arena of struggle and to allow the Liberals to govern the province from the wings.

Our public post secondary system is a great one. With your direction we can exit the cul du sac of of profits-first governance and bring back community-centric universities and colleges.


Charles Menzies

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Time to Change up University Boards of Governors' Membership

Almost two years ago I penned a blog post calling for the democratic reform of UBC's Board of Governors.  The context that propelled that post was the hamfisted way in which a off-book clique of the Board of Governors forced the resignation of the then university president. Months have passed, governance promises have been made, new faces have turned up at the board table, but much of what I commented upon still applies today.  Here's the core comment from two years ago:

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.   
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.
We  have a chance to make an important change to the structure of university boards of governors. The potential change in political governance opens the doors to rethinking how boards are appointed and who should be appointed to them. Even if the same party holds onto government their recent policy flips, if authentic and sincere, should lead them to make changes now as though they were a new government.

A proposal for moving forward:

  1. Immediately replace at least 50% of all appointed post-secondary governors with non-business community minded folks.  People with backgrounds in public education, trade unions, community action groups, and municipal/community representatives.
  2. Introduce legislation to create an arms length 3rd party agency to select and appoint future governors on post secondly boards of governors. This legislation would set criteria for selecting from a broad spectrum of society. 
The structure of university boards have deep structural implications for many facets of university life. Most importantly they shape the hiring processes of senior administrators who subsequently shape the hiring of mid level administration which in turn has implications for academic leadership at the faculty level. A narrowly focused board with it's roots in business and interested primarily in research that can be commercialized tends to foster a leadership culture that focusses on science, technology, and commercialization (falsely referred to as innovation). This kind of leadership may be in the best interest of a small sector of business leaders. It is not the best kind of leadership for a public university.

We have an opportunity to build on the strength of our public institutions by drawing upon the wealth of diverse experience in our province. Let's open the door to real community-based diversity of voice and perspective on our post secondary boards of governors.  Lets draw on the broad wealth of experience of all our citizens!

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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"It wasn't our intent to shut down dissent" post-bog revisions.

Updated, 2:50pm, June 14, 2017. 
So the new code of conduct has been approved by the board. 

I voted for a revised version that removed the most pernicious part of section 4.1 (see below) that directed governors to never publicly disagree with a Board decision. UBC legal counsel said that the footnotes are not part of the code of conduct so that dealt with section 4.2.  There is still the lack of a full public comment period. That said, even though an apparently small change the implications are significant.  There are still potential pitfalls with this code of conduct and the vague terminology around so-called efforts to "undermine" the board.  Today's changes reminded my of one of my late mother's favourite saying: "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day." :) 

Small incremental change toward open, transparent, democratic governance of our public university.

For the record my post form this morning prior to the Board meeting.

With apologies to those conservatives who enjoy dissent and disagreement this blog post explores the ways in which conservative structures of corporate university governance constantly seeks to silence dissent and disagreement.  The tools used to silence dissent -civility and respect- are ironically often the same ones that some use to encourage diversity and dissent. It just goes to show that it's not the tool that is the problem, it's how it is used.

Civility and respect in the UBC Board of Governor's new draft code of conduct are deployed in a manner that whether by design or accident has the effect of muzzling reasonable dissent and diversity of perspectives.  In two contexts disagreement is silenced: (1) by compelling governors to be silent on disagreement with decisions of the board, and (2) by compelling governors to not speak publicly about UBC policies or practices they disagree with.  There is a sense in which these prohibitions are fundamentally unenforceable given the serious over reach that they entail, but that said we need to carefully consider what the code of conduct lays out and what the apparent intent might actually be. Then we will consider a more effective, transparent, and innovative approach: one that values disagreement as a core feature of innovative and creative democratic governance.

The draft Code of Conduct (that is on the agenda for consideration June 14 - today) can be found here.  I'd like to direct readers' attention to two specific clauses: a bullet point under section 4.1 (Duties) "respect the Board and Board decisions, and avoid speaking against or undermining any decision of the Board, regardless of whether the Governor agrees with or voted for the decision." and footnote #10 under section 4.2 (Expectations) "If a Governor has a concern about University policies, practices or procedures, he or she is encouraged to bring such matters to the Board and should refrain from making any comments in public. Prior to such discussion, members should exercise discretion in any comments which they find necessary to make in public or to any persons who are not Governors.]"  Later in the code of conduct another new section (#8, Failure to comply with the code) grants the board the power to sanction or expel a governor and grants authority to the board to determine whether or not a governor has violated the code of conduct.

With regard to conduct under section 4.1 or 4.2 there is no clear criteria presented to determine what actually might count as disrespecting or undermining a decision of the Board or a policy, practice, or procedure of the University. What we are left with is a rather vague and uncertain set of expectations that (in the absence of clarity) allow for a mechanism to discipline board members reminiscent of early models of democratic centralism (a model of governance that has been found seriously problematic).

Under 4.1 a governor becomes bound to be silent or supportive of a decision of the UBC Board of Governors irrespective of their reasonable decision and consideration of the matter.  According to the draft Code of Conduct to disagree with a Board decision is a form of disrespect.  Really?  I would suggest just the opposite: it is an act of utmost respect to believe that our public university can tolerate diversity of perspectives and that dissent is important in building a creative, innovative, democratic work/learning/research environment.  If the people charged with governing UBC are compelled to silence dissent and reasonable disagreement, what does that say to pre-tenure faculty, to graduate students engaged in challenging research, etc? I suggest it tells them to be quiet to get along - it sets a pattern of corporate behaviours in play that is decidedly unhealthy.

Universities need to provoke discussion.  Universities should thrive on disagreement.  Governance models should encourage openness, diversity of perspective, and spirited engagement.  When we allow ourselves to become afraid of the dissenting voice we turn our backs upon everything that liberal education is supposed to stand for.  Let's not let conservative fear rule our public university.  Let's take the opportunity to celebrate our strength by acknowledging that reasonable people will often disagree - but that doesn't mean the sky is falling.

Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day Reflections on UBC's Board of Governors

May Day, International Workers' Day, may seem an incongruous vantage point to begin a reflection on my first impressions of being a UBC Board of Governor's member. In reality, however, it is a surprisingly apposite vantage point.

International Workers' Day had it's roots in the north american labour movement's struggle for the eight hour day.  It has since come to be a day in which working people globally stand up against the intrusion of minority elites into the lives of the majority, a day to call out the injustice of privilege and cronyism, a day to celebrate the capacity of everyday working people to build a better world together.  Reflecting upon the meaning International Workers' Day helps to clarify what we need to do to take back control of our public institutions: our universities, our schools, our hospitals.

My first impression of the board has been just how closely the board is allayed with the provincial government and the small provincial economic elite.  Prior to joining the board I was publicly critical of how appointments were made and the lack of social and ideological diversity on the board. Being there shows me how connected folks are within BC's small world of the economic elite. I have enjoyed meeting my fellow board members.  They each come with delightfully differnt business backgrounds.  They are all earnest and sincere in their desire to serve. Yet they all come from a special club within which the members need only refer to members of the circle by their first names. They cross paths with each other in all manner of events (social, neighbourhood, and political) not simply those tied to the business of UBC. As an anthropologist it's apparent that I am observing members of a sub-culture accustomed to shaping their terms of their world.

Another thing that I am seeing is the very real presence that donor's have in the shaping of (if not UBC) then BoG priorities and sentiment. For example, during the April Committee meetings we had a presentation in public session from a group of UBC Athletics Donor/Supporters.  Their message was very clear - expand and rebuild sport facilities. They were also quite direct in laying out the value and quantity of their donations. Their ongoing political mobilization and attraction to athletics has driven the rebuild of sporting facilities up the capital project priority list past needed core academic facilities.  The role that donors play in shaping outcomes on campus is a problem. Why should the simple fact of having wealth grant one a bigger place at the table or to bend a pubic institution to one's personal desires?

Of course anyone can ask to speak to the BoG and anyone is welcome to write a letter to the board. Yet not all requests are granted nor are all letters heard by the full board. The deciding factor, I very much suspect, lies in the social/moral weighting that is granted by the Board to the presenter of means.  For example, a group of university residents wrote to the BoG about a deal UBC worked out with the province over the costs of fire services in the residential areas. Their letter never made it to the board.  As of this writing I am not even aware of whether the residents received a reply to their letter or not.  Perhaps after they published their letter in the Campus Resident a reply may now be forthcoming. This raises a question about how issues make it to the board and who is listened to.

One other piece of miscellany. Innovation. So sad to learn that the big idea behind this term is not so exciting as I had thought.  Innovation for the initiated is simply the application of research discoveries (primarily STEM) to money making ventures.  I think that we in the social sciences call that commodification of research.  In the business world it's called innovation and it seems to be one of the big ideas that motivates discussions around the Board table.

Very soon after my official term on UBC's BoG started I jokingly told my partner that two of my initial assumptions about the board had been confirmed but that I couldn't tell her about either of them. To do so would be to break the confidentiality hobbles placed upon governors.  I was only half joking.  I can't say which of my two assumptions were confirmed as they both refer to items that were placed on a closed agenda (one of which subsequently became public but not in a manner that would really allow me to identify it).  I've posted before (in the abstract) about the way in which using closed meetings and confidentiality processes shut down real discussion but this was an empirical example. The board plans to study it's governance practices further.  One can only hope that the result will be more transparency and democratic openness.

Elites seem to create intriguingly bifurcated worlds of operation for themselves. Their internal networks and social webs are often open and inclusive (that is, inclusive of folks of like mind and like wealth). At the same time they guard the perimeter of those networks with a ferocity that borders on frightening to the uninitiated.  Leaderships of major organizations seem to do this as well (as the recent UBC/Furlong FOI shows).  What they don't seem to understand is that their internal bubble reinforces ideas that reinforce the same ideas that , well you get the picture.  They are stuck in a bubble of internal self-congratulations. They see critique from outside their bubble as threatening. Before they even consider it elites often respond with ferocious intensity to discredit, shutdown, and exclude external voices.  This is not a good way to run a public institution (it's likely not a good way to run a private corporation either).

We really need to initiate transformative culture change in the Board.  To do that will require shaking up the nature and structure of board membership. We need to bring in more people from outside the privileged circle of our rather provincial economic elite. Here's hoping that change is on the horizon.