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.

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