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.