Thursday, September 26, 2019

Universities, Growth, and Social Responsibility

[UPDATED: Nov. 26, 2022]. This commentary was written at a particular moment, in the context of a university leadership more interested in property development, than the academic mission. It was also written in the context of deepening awareness that our climate is heading toward a point of no return. Since then we have also passed through a pandemic. During the pandemic we have had to change our approach to many things. One of them has been shifting to virtual meetings, even hiring online. Using these technologies we can reduce our ecological footprint and reduce our need for physical plant by using online technologies. It's not a replacement of face to face, we need that, be we now know we can get by with less.
Over the course of my term as a governor on UBC's board I have heard a lot of presentations about growth: academic growth, endowment growth, student enrolment growth, reputational growth, and on it goes.  I can't say I am surprised, but what was once opinion is now an observed fact: growth in various 'metrics' is a core feature of governance discourse and the operation of UBC.  I think, though, that the ideology (or, put another way, cultural frame) of our day pervades discussions in such a fine grained way that it may well be difficult for governors and administrators to escape the discourse of perpetual growth. Or, even if they can consider the idea of zero growth, governors and administrators can not imagine the pragmatic possibility of zero growth.

Just this week during the formal meeting of UBC's Board of Governors we heard three public presentations about growth highlighting UBC's Kelowna campus.  We learned about the campus' "robust growth in students, faculty, staff, and research funding, within the context of surrounding communities also undergoing a period of significant development and change."  We further learned about the "significant potential for innovation. ... [and]  thoughtful way[s] that advance implementation of the strategic plan."  This is simply one case among many and is highlighted here for no other reason than it was the primary work of the formal meeting.  One could review the meeting documents of the past two years and, without much effort, find similar discourse.

The reports and formal discussions are filled with terms, phrases, concepts, ideas that resonate with the grand modernist project of late capitalism. Here is a sample (there are more, but we will start with these):
  • Growth: a natural, inevitable process of expansion that indicates success.
  • Innovation: to turn 'knowledge' into 'value' (usually dollar value). 
  • Advance: to add (often through innovation) to a body of practice or reputation that indicates success.
  • Development: that idea of improvement and expansion typically linked to physical plant, but may also include knowledge and innovation.
  • Change: this rendering implies both development and advancement moving in a forward direction; change is positively valued and tied to notions of inevitable growth.

One may well argue with these definitions - I certainly do. My point here is that after careful observation, detailed reading of the board meeting packages, and close listening to what is said during meetings these are in fact the operational definitions used in our university's governance.  This posses a problem if one wishes to effect a 'change in direction.'  Why? Becuase this discourse naturalizes growth via a capitalist lens that renders any solutions not premised on growth impossible to execute, unreasonable, impractical, or even against the university's own best interest  (consider the recent board committee discussion on divestment from fossil fuels). 

There are alternative capitalist approaches to slow or zero growth.  The most famous is E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (see also) approach.  Schumacher argues for a "people centered economics" that would yield a more sustainable world.  Canadian economics professor Peter Victor offers another within the capitalist paradigm view. He calls it "managing without growth." Both of these approaches locate themselves within an ideal of managed, moderate scale, sustainable market economies. 

It would seem reasonable that even an institution that benefits from capitalism might at least consider managing its growth more expeditiously in order to reduce its negative impact on our shared ecological future. But even here it seems hard for the governance structure to pay any serious attention to the idea of managing without growth.  I can personally attest to the bemused responses from developers, planners, administrators, and other governors to the very idea it might be reasonable to throttle down on UBC's unrelenting growth.  When ideas run against naturalized perceptions and beliefs it is rather difficult for adherents to take such ideas seriously (even harder if their jobs depend upon advancing the ideology of growth).

The hard fact of the matter is that with each project, each modest moment of growth, each tiny expansion we are pushing ourselves that much closer to the ecological brink.  With each capital approval we pass at the board, with each new project or program we agree to, with each new digital infrastructure we support, with each small incremental increase in enrolment, we are adding to the ecological harm inflicted on our world and locking in a future none of us on the board or senior management would ever wish to live in personally. Yet we continue with impunity.

We continue to say UBC is a sustainability leader and build more buildings. We say we are intersted in responsible ecologically sound investments, but we tread carefully becuase of a fiduciary duty to the past, to people who will be dead by the time the climate collapse hits. We continue pretty much as we have been doing while assuring ourselves and those around us that we are leading and doing more than others. Yet it is not enough. 

Oceans are warming. Weather patterns are changing. Sea levels are rising. The time to act slowly has passed. It is time for real action; an end to the status quo.  We need to make amends for the way we have ransomed the future of our children and our children's children for our own immediate gratification.  

Part of doing things differently requires rethinking growth. As we do that we can make some intermediate changes:
  • Divestment from plastic production, tarsands, petroleum transportation of any kind.
  • Place a moratorium on physical expansion on the UBC-V campus immediately until the negative cumulative impacts of new projects are fully costed in terms of their real environmental impact and there are plans to mitigate these impacts.
  • Cap UBC-V student enrolments at current levels and place a moratorium on all new programs and enrolment projects until the negative environmental impacts of any enrolment growth are fully costed in terms of their real environmental impacts and there are plans to mitigate these impacts.
  • Identify and strengthen all current 'sustainability' projects/processes on campus and ensure they are focussed on social/ecological (not fiscal) criteria with clear targets that ensure climate mitigation is their focus (not greenwashing).
  • [Note: I would revise these suggestions today deleting some, adding others. as noted in the top update, this was written at a particular moment in time in response to a foot dragging administration.]

Long term changes would reorient the university away from the concept of perpetual growth toward one of equilibrium with our social-ecological world. For example, rather than using ideologies of competition to attract students we would use a model that emulates the 100 mile diet - attend school close to home. All of this needs to occur with widespread social change. UBC has a place to play, not in climbing global rankings, but in leading real change that ensures a thriving, ecologically sound future for all.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Indigenous Governors Gathering

I had the opportunity to participate in the Indigenous Governors' Gathering last Friday (Sept. 20/19). The event was organized by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training. It was facilitated by Jess Vassey (assistant Deputy Minister, AEST) and Deborah Jeffrey (Executive Director, First Nations Education Steering Committee). Minister Melanie Mark attended the opening and morning sessions of the gathering. This is apparently the first time ever that First Nations governors from the post-secondary education system have ever met as a group.

The power of a meeting like this is that it brings us together to be able to share with, listen to, and support our relatives and to realize that we are not alone in working to ensure that the authority and jurisdiction of First Nations are being paid attention to in the post secondary education sector. It was inspiring to hear Minister Mark speak of her personal experiences and how that motivates her to ensure the government's mandate to build and strengthen First Nations education is addressed by the colleagues and universities of BC. It was powerful to hear the voices of Indigenous governors from across our province. It reminds one that while we share similar histories of colonialism and historic marginalization this is felt and experienced differently across the regions. But it also demonstrates that things are changing and, despite ongoing issues, a lot is improving and that we are sitting at the table of power, shaping our collective future.

Like many in attendance I look forward to gatherings like this becoming a regular aspect of post-secondary governance.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Quandaries as a Faculty Governor

I have been doing some reflecting on the contradictory, overlapping, and entwined roles that faculty end up in when we serve as an elected governor.

As a faculty member I am afforded certain liberties by virtue of academic freedom. I understand that this includes the ability to criticize my employer, (the university and it’s officers) without risk of sanction. I also understand that this includes the ability to conduct research, to teach, to publish and to publicize my research and my opinion (here thinking in the context of legal expert opinion) without harassment or interference from the university writ large. Furthermore there is an expectation of protection from publics wishing to harass one’s academic freedom. This is constrained by the idea of it being limited to action within the law. At UBC a faculty member’s academic freedom is expressed as “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.” 

In recent years the provincial government has enacted laws regulating behaviour within the workplace that might be considered to, in some ways, limit a faculty member’s exercise of academic freedom. There are workplace regulations prohibiting bullying and harassment supported by provincial legislation. There is a suite of human rights and labour laws that structure what one (including one’s employer) can do in the workplace as it relates to interactions with other people.  UBC has also put in place a respectful workplace environment policy that also acts to constrain academic freedom.  These constraints don’t limit the scope of research or opinion. What they focus on is behaviour and the proscription of forms of address that demean or belittle another person.

So that is simply in the domain of being a faculty member. Some rights to research and publicize one’s research and related perspectives plus a capacity to criticize one’s employer without worry of sanction.

As a member of the board of governors it would seem that a new level of rules/legislation comes into play that in some cases might be said to reasonably constrain a faculty member’s academic freedom. I am thinking about the intersection of the university act (act in the best interest of the university") and how that is expressed locally via the code of conduct. How does being a governor materially change my role, what additional responsibilities and obligations and even constraints come to bear upon me? Where is the line between my academic freedom rights as a faculty member and my fiduciary duties as a governor?

For example, during the J. Furlong affair (2017) I was publicly opposed to him speaking, was critical of the university’s action taken first hosting him, then cancelling him, then waffling and hiring him back with an apology to him.  At the time I had been elected to the Board, but had not been formally seated (my term began in March of that year). Taking a public stand on an issue related to the university is kind of action that I would have taken many times previously and have continued to do so since becoming a governor.  I engaged in several media interviews and posted comments about the situation on social media. I also came to know (via a media FOI request) that the administration had been recording and tracking my social media statements as part of their background review of what to do about Furlong.  I subsequently received a threatening letter from an anonymous person (after a news story that named me and my opposition to the talk). I reported the threat to the RCMP and the university. In return I received a strong letter from the president’s office affirming my right to express my views publicly and expressing empathy about the threat.

My point with this story is that as an individual faculty member I criticized my employer, expressed those criticisms publicly, faced personal threats, and received strong support from the university that I was acting within my rights as a faculty member. I would add that my criticism focussed on the university’s role in sponsoring a speaker that for some survivors reinforced a traumatic experience. I made an effort to avoid any personal comments about any of the university personnel or the speaker regarding their character or personalities.  I referenced the voice of survivors or spoke to aspects of intergenerational trauma. I refused to castigate individuals.

I have continued to raise critical points about UBC while serving on the board and consider it appropriate to do so.  I sometimes get things wrong (which I correct as soon as I realize it). Occasionally people will express dislike with how I characterize particular statements or positions (that’s part of the cost of public commentary). I try not to make comments on the nature of a person. I focus instead on documented and observed actions about which I will comment.  

As a governor I gain access in a different way to administrative leadership than I did as a frontline faculty member. It’s not that we don’t send letters of request, complaint, or information to Deans, VPs, the provost or the president. Many faculty do; I certainly did. But UBC’s formal hierarchy is such that with normal functions we follow a line of authority – first our Department Head, then the Dean- and move up levels of authority if supported. But as a governor I am working with members of the university executive in a way that I never would have had access to before.

Prior to being a governor I lobbied the Office of the University Counsel regarding a clause in a UBC journal’s author agreement regarding the retention of moral rights.  I was critical of the agreement. This was a communication and criticism that occurred in my role as a faculty member.  The response that was returned (it arrived some time after my complaint) was formal and specific.  A modest change did occur and that was the end of that.  As a governor I have a fair bit more communication with members of the university leadership. It is reasonable to assume that the only reason I have this kind of communication now is that I am a governor.  If, for example, I email the provost today I presume he thinks it is from Charles the governor, not Charles the faculty member

Being a governor places me into a materially different relation to the operation of the university than I was in as an individual faculty member. I have a duty, a legal obligation, to act “in the best interests of the university.”  This places me in a position of casting votes and making decisions to effect the university’s best interests.  As such I actually embody an aspect of the governing authority of the university. As an individual I can remain critical, but as a governor I have an added obligation to moderate and accommodate to the fact that what I say or do can have real, material impacts beyond a minor change in an author’s agreement to publish.  I can remain a critic but while a governor my critic’s voice also carries traces of the structural power of decision-making. If I am unable to acknowledge that then I cannot be an effective faculty governor.

It is not really clear where the line between my rights as an individual faculty member intersects with my obligations a university governor.  Over the years some faculty governors (perhaps most) have taken a fairly conservative stance on that line and have remained essentially silent during their term of office. They keep their dissent (if they have any) out of the limelight. At other times there are those who push the limits so far they render themselves ineffectual.  Ideally we need to find the place wherein we can work to effect within the current structures of power while also maintaining (if we are so inclined) a principled voice of critique to deploy when and where it is needed. 

I won't claim to having found that magical spot, but it's where I'm heading.  

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reflections on Governance @ UBC

I was first elected in 2017 following a tumultuous period in UBC's governance history.

The new university president handed in his resignation. A government appointed governor tried to interfere with the academic freedom of a senior endowed chair (one the governor had funded).  The board appeared to be holding secret meetings all over campus (and when they were confronted by the press they darted in the opposite direction in one notable case). Faculty held a vote of non-confidence (which passed by a landslide). Faculty even held a demonstration and then marched into the board room.  At the same time the overall reputation of UBC was taking a hit through a series of poorly handled cases of sexual assault and harassment allegations.  It was a tough time for the university.

I'm not the typical kind of colleague who puts their name forward for the role of governor.  Look back over the history and you will mostly find senior, older, white men with many notable distinctions, awards. They have been academic leaders (in administration and illustrious research). They have received awards like the Order of Canada.  I feel humbled to stand in their shadows. But what many of the men who have held this position don't have is a perspective that is fundamentally different from the business leaders most often appointed by governments to the board. 

As a First Nations faculty member who has focussed most of his career on research with communities from the north coast of BC I've had little interest in being more than a front line faculty.  It's not that I haven't cast an eye around once or twice wondering about differnt roles in academic leadership.  But I tend to do things more in line with our union (serving in the past on the faculty association executive), with my residential community (being an elected director of the UNA), or when my children were in school serving as an elected member of the district parents advisory council.  I also contribute technical work and support to my home community on the north coast when called upon.

That tumultuous period leading up to the 2017 faculty BoG elections lead me to consider that a different kind of faculty voice then we have normally seen was required. 

I've written on this blog about my early interactions with then board chair Stuart Belkin (major donor to UBC and strong provincial Liberal party supporter).  I even penned an opinion piece suggesting all of the Liberal appointees should have been turfed out and replaced when the NDP become government.  That first year it didn't seem to matter what I tried to do my efforts were thwarted.  The  marginalization was annoying. 

One important change that did come with the new provincial government was a change in board chair. Michael Korenberg, appointed by the previous government, became chair.  Under his leadership we have seem a lot of changes, clarifications and improvements in process.  We may occupy different parts of the political spectrum, but we share an interest in opening up the processes of governance to greater transparency and ensuring that processes by which the board operates are democratically effective and responsive to all the communities we serve which includes not only the immediate university community BUT ALSO the people of the province of BC.

A defining and important change in committee structure and redirection of the Board's focus involved the establishment of the Indigenous Engagement Committee, chaired by BC's Chief Treaty Commissioner and UBC Governor Celeste Haldane.   I co-chair this committee and it includes Musqueam and Syilx  representation.  This last point is important to consider. Whereas in the past board committees, working groups, or ad hoc committees were restricted to governors only, Korenberg has acknowledged something that First Nations people have long advocated for and has opened the structures of the board to community representatives to acknowledge the authority and jurisdiction of First Nations, but also and just as importantly to add in the expertise that might be lacking if one were to restrict themselves to only seated governors. 

Bringing in expertise to ensure effective governance and processes has not been restricted to Indigenous Engagement Committee. The time limited working groups of the board have also benefited from this approach.  On the Housing Working Group we have, for example, a faculty rep who lives and breathes the problems facing faculty, especially new faculty at UBC. On the Academic Renewal Working Group we have members of the UBC Senates (selected by the senates themselves) which acknowledges the legislated shared power between Board and Senate. In each of these cases the people charged with the operational responsibilities (senior administrators) sit side by side with the committee members.

I'm often impatient with the pace of change. At the same time I think it is important to acknowledge when changes have been made that answer to criticisms we have had.  The board is changing, new government appointed governors have come onboard and we are seeing how their input is helping shape new directions. The provincial government has placed important goals in front of us regarding Aboriginal education and the board is picking up the challenge to support UBC in doing more by building on the strengths we have in areas like aboriginal medicine and First Nations education in the Faculty of Education.  We can see improvements have been made. I am looking for even more improvements as this year develops.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Being an Effective Activist: A Twitter Essay

From being an untenured junior faculty, though that mid zone of associate, and to becoming a full - I have been consistent in taking decisive, consistent, and outspoken views. One might disagree with my actions, but you can't deny I have acted while others remain silent.