Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Student Governors call out lack of #UBCBoG Transparency

UBC-V student governors took to twitter November 30th to call out #UBCBoG's lack of transparency.  December 5th's full meeting of the board has a mere one hour of public discussion. 

Over the past three years the current board has winnowed down public meetings from a day and a half to one hour. They have shifted much of the decision making into committee of the board, which are restricted to small subsets of the full board and few of those decisions make it on the floor of the whole board for discussion. 

Link to full thread.

Link to full thread.

Not since the Board forced a university president to resign has it hid behind closed door in camera meetings so extensively. That moment resulted in a faculty vote of non-confidence in the Board of Governors. The closed door actions of the board motivated me to run for election to the board in 2016. Over the 2017-2020 term the board had it's own little Prague Spring and more issues ended up in open meetings, more discussion was held, and the administration faced closer scrutiny for its decisions. But it didn't last.

Under the technocratic guises of efficiency the current board leadership has essentially removed the possibility of public scrutiny from the boards' own actions and, consequently, from the actions of the university administration. But it goes beyond that. They have also used an expansive definition of conflict of interest to exclude faculty and student governors from key committees and important decisions

UBC is a public institution. As such it has obligations to the people of British Columbia that differ from typical Non-government organizations or private corporations. An environmental or civil society NGO is only beholden to its board and funders. A private corporation to its shareholders. But a public university has an obligation far more profound, it needs to be responsible to the entire province. It is not sufficient that unelected government appointees are informed. That is not sufficient to carry out the duty to the people of BC. 

UBC's Board of Governors needs to take UBC's own publicity materials to heart, be bold, be innovative, be open.

Read UBC's guide on writing boldly at this link.

Our Board of Governors needs to reestablish open, transparent, and democratic practice that serve the best interests of the university. That is not achieved by locking themselves behind closed doors. Governors are there becuase it is presumed they have something important to say. That they bring a particular expertise, knowledge. or life experience to the table. To sit quietly behind closed doors seems unbefitting of a research university that is supposed to lead boldly.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Campaign: week one

I extend my thanks to those colleagues who have already voted, and to those who let me know they were supporting me. I always feel honoured to be trusted by colleagues who offer me support. I also appreciate those colleagues who may disagree with me, may not wish to support me, and find the way to share positively our differences. What makes a university work is our ability to ensure and maintain support for a diversity of perspectives in the engagement of research and teaching.

Voting remains open until December 8th at 4pm. 

Here are the instructions to vote:

To Vote  

  1. Go to:
  2. Click “CWL login” on the right hand side to login with your CWL credentials
  3. Click “Vote” next to the “UBC Vancouver Faculty Representative - Board of Governors (2022-2023 Triennial Elections)”
  4. Vote for your preferred candidates (up to 2) by clicking on the box next to the candidate’s name
  5. Click on “Submit Vote” then click “ok” to confirm your submission before logging out

Polls will be open via WebVote from the morning of Thursday 24 November 2022 until 4 pm on Thursday 8 December 2022.


I have enjoyed the chance to talk with colleagues over this past week about issues that are important to us and to our university. Two related issues have come up:  housing and campus growth. The current Campus Vision 2050 also shines a spot light on these questions.

I am a proponent of restricting campus development in ways that focus solely on the university's academic mission. That means orienting housing developments in the residential areas in ways that allow those faculty (and staff & students) who want to live on campus to be able to do so.  The university has restricted its faculty housing to rental or leasehold, but there are many other housing options that could be included in the mix (co-housing, coops, shared equity, etc). I have been a campus resident since being hired at UBC. My family and I know only too well the difficulties of Vancouver housing.  Our family of four spent our first several years in an 800 sq ft apartment on Osoyoos Crescent, another half dozen years renting from UBC's Village Gate Homes. We now live in one of the few co-development housing projects built by UBC in Hawthorn Place. The Board is a place where we can actively make a difference in housing supply on campus, but  we need clear strong support from governors to do this. Having faculty representatives who understand this is important in making the case at the Board. As we move forward with Campus Vision 2050 we need to ensure university-connected housing is the priority.

We also live in the midst of a climate emergency. In this context we need to be very careful about how we proceed with campus growth. Growth and expansion simply for the sake of growth is no longer socially responsible. However, we have to ensure we maintain what we have, keep up with changes in faculty laboratory and physical plant needs, and ensure our classrooms can support modern teaching.  Many of our buildings no longer provide what the building people call 'thermal comfort.' Many of these buildings also lack in proper and effective ventilation systems capable of keeping people safe with airborne viruses. We need to rebuild a lot of campus infrastructure. 


Living and working on this campus, raising our family here, has kept me connected with many facets of our university world. Living here I meet colleagues I might never have meet if I lived off campus.  I find value in working with colleagues, neighbour's, and friends to keep our community of scholars a great place to be, and strive to make it even better. 

I trust that you will find reason to count me among your choice for faculty governor when you vote in this election.


Monday, October 31, 2022

Seeking Election to UBC's Board of Governors

My paperwork has now been accepted and I am officially a candidate.

I seek your support for election to UBC's Board of Governors.  I last served as an elected faculty governor from 2017-2020. During that term I served as chair of the Learning and Research committee. I was the inaugural vice-chair of the Indigenous Engagement committee. In 2020, rather than run again, I sought a position on UBC-V’s senate and am currently a joint faculties senator.

I have been a faculty member at UBC since 1996. I’ve served four terms as Member-at-Large on the Faculty Association of UBC (FAUBC), 2001-2007, 2012-2014. As a resident of the university area, I’ve served two terms as elected Director of the University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA), 2012-2016. 

My research focuses on First Nations’ natural resource management, decolonization, and social justice and fairness in human relations. 

When I ran for election in 2016 I said “It’s time for a change in how the BoG responds to faculty members.” During that term things did improve a bit. We’re now learning the situation has turned backwards.  Much of the board’s work occurs behind closed doors. Elected governors have been excluded from key decisions. 


We need voices willing to speak out to keep the BoG transparent.


I am dedicated to working to ensure open and transparent democratic practices in the governance of our university. I would be pleased to speak with any who have questions about my candidacy. I can be found on twitter @charlesmenzies. I also author a faculty issues blog called and a local newsletter “A Campus Resident.” 


My thanks to the colleagues who agreed to sign my nomination form. You come from across our campus, some I have known for a long time, some I have only recently got to know. I value the trust you placed in me by signing my nomination form.

During my last term as an elected governor I made a point of publicly commenting on issues in front of the board.  You can find an archive of my comments on this blog site. 



Saturday, October 29, 2022

Katzie First Nation sues BC Hydro over impact to Alouette River salmon | Vancouver Sun interview

 I was interviewed for a story about a recent court filing by Katzie First Nation. I include, below, the section of the story that quoted me and the full text of my interview.  Most of the journalist's comments are edited out to highlight specific questions asked and my response offered.

I am quoted near the end of the story as follows: 

Charles Menzies, an anthropology professor at the University of B.C., predicted that if a dollar value was assigned to the lost salmon, the number would be “astronomically big.”

But mitigation does not simply equate to the number of fish lost when a dam is built.

“Community practices were disrupted,” he said, as well as an entire “way of life.”

Menzies said the Katzie likely felt they had no other choice in turning to the court.

Here's the interview transcript behind the quote. 


[00:00:22.800] - Glenda Luymes

Okay, awesome. I'm just writing a story today about the court filing, from the Katzie First Nation. … I just wondered what your thoughts are on this situation, if there's a broader context that this comes in, and if mitigated, what kind of mitigation would ever make up for the losses on that river to the traditional territory?


[00:02:48.040] - Charles

Yeah, one of the things to note is that from the early part of the 20th century, from the early 1900s, through to well, in the 70s … there's a lot of industrial actions on the land that took place with impunity, like Hydro, DFO (dept of fisheries and oceans), forestry, Ministry of Forests, and with different private companies. Basically, [they] just did a lot of things without any recourse to First Nations …  So, for example, up in the Skeena of river system at Hagwilget, DFO decided there was a rock in the way in the 1940s or 50s I think it was, and they blew it up and it destroyed a fishing site. That one actually became a comprehensive court, not a comprehensive, a specific claims litigation which DFO and the government of Canada eventually back out and paid them multiple units of millions of dollars. And why I mentioned Hagwilget case is that really relates, what the Hagwilget were arguing, I presume, really roughly applies to the case you have here. Something very similar is that the community of practice was disrupted.


[00:04:12.360] - Charles

So the ability of the Hagwilget people to continue to fish salmon in their traditional manner in their usual and accustomed places was disrupted and that had a whole cycle of different disruptions. And the various court documents around that, and expert opinion reports, really documented the extent to which the Hagwilget way of life in terms of fishing was disrupted because of this action. Now in the 50s DFO had promised to make compensation to the Hagwilget community. “We're going to give you some cans of salmon that are made commercially. We're going to get you nets, we're going to let you have fish down river in the commercial fishery.” They promised stuff, but it was deemed that it really didn't equate [to the lost fishing site] and it wasn't really a parallel or a fair or adequate compensation. That's why the government decided to settle it because I suspect had they let it continue through the court cases, they were at risk to lose significantly more than they actually paid out, which somewhere between 20 and $25 million to the Hagwilget. Here we have a situation where state owned enterprise BC hydro disrupted through power things in the 1920s and then when they renegotiated 95, they would sort of mitigate these impacts.


[00:06:02.010] - Charles

… I shouldn't presume what Hydro may have offered in the 1920s or their antecedent, clearly they made promises in the mid 1990s and this is I think a period when they're trying to [do an] awful lot more hydro development with run river of contracts and stuff like that.


[00:06:37.740] - Glenda Luymes



[00:06:39.260] - Charles

But the difficulty is this caused [disruption in a way of life], it continues in an ongoing disruption to a way of life, [undermining Katzie’s ] capacity to harvest and probably result[ed] in changing a fishing pattern in addition. So not being able to fish in the Alouette would force them probably downstream into the main trunk of the Fraser River.


[00:07:04.090] - Glenda Luymes

Yeah the significance of a change like that, it's not just one place replacing another or some canned fish replacing a whole way of life. Can you talk a little bit more about that.


[00:07:26.060] - Charles

A fellow called Joe Jorgenson talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and how it affected his indigenous communities in Cooks Inlet. And he described it, and he framed it as kind of the idea, the notion of a community of practice. And so it just wasn't like you lose an object of some value, but around when the particular practice that is engaged [in was disrupted].  … It's not just harvesting fish, catching the fish, processing the fish, but teaching and learning, inter-generational transfer of knowledge occurs to that place. And it's not just in the abstract but happening in a particular location. All of this really augments and it sort of exponentially increases the implications, … , the negative implications of this kind of disruption. And of course, if the hope was brought back by the hydro thing in the mid 90 days, [with Hydro saying] “we're going to fix this,” and then they didn't actually follow through on it. They basically make it even significantly worse than the earlier afront. But often times people will say, well, how much does it cost to pay this out? They want a dollar value it, and you can kind of do those sorts of exercises, but it's really kind of hard to do because what you're really saying, you try to put dollar value on cultural beliefs, practices and long transmission of experience, there really is no dollar value for that; but you can do it.


[00:09:08.070] - Charles

There's people who trained to do that. But the numbers become so astronomically big that it's kind of hard to envision what that actually means.


[00:09:18.410] - Glenda Luymes

It's interesting. Yeah. I don't want to speak for the Katzie First Nation or try to try to figure out what they're hoping for, but yeah, I wanted to ask that question, like, what would be enough? 


[00:09:51.820] - Charles

So if we just look at the general and aggravated damages, say, as an anthropologist, if I was asked to actually write a report and assessment. When you start hearing they've been displaced from being able to practice salmon fishing in this area, you can actually cost out the value of the salmon harvesting that was disrupted to them by looking at the records, … how many families were engaged in harvesting in this system. And you can kind of run these calculations, and that's when the numbers start getting really big because then you bring in an accountant to amortize that over time. So it's not just a rough abstract number without running through the things. I did a similar report for another community, and I calculated over a 40 year period of time something in the neighborhood of about $100 million of lost fishing opportunity, as well as the additional sort of side benefits of trade and exchange, etc. that happened. That's why I say these are large numbers, because people don't understand how much fish people were catching when they were operating fairly unmolested by colonial forces. And in the early 20s, even though the industrial fishery on the Fraser River are happening because they would have been harvesting household based production at a quite high level.


[00:11:17.590] - Charles

It's not just sockeye. I mean, you've got dogs, pinks, spring coho, a whole range of salmon species included. And of course, there's salmon. That's the target. There's a whole range of other species that also get affected. You change the water flow in, you're going to disrupt the hydrology of the whole system. That affects things. Like, oolichan and sturgeon, there's a kind of cumulative effect.


[00:11:52.310] - Glenda Luymes

Would you hazard a guess on how hydro would address this or what their next move is, or why this has gone to court, and why it's taken 25 years.


[00:12:08.210] - Charles

These things take a long time. And people, in my case [when I reflect on] back home in the community, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are often very optimistic that people who come and make deals with them are being honest, even though our history shows, right from the first time settlers arrived on these shores in their merchant ships and made promises, they never really held up their end of the deal. Yet, despite that, people tend to be really positive and willing to accept that people are going to be, actually live up to their words because they operate in the world. I don't know the specifics here, but that would be my sort of background on abstract statement about what's going on, why they take so long. And then it's like the final action because the developer, the government, whatever agency it is, has been dragging its feet and you feel like you have no other choice but to seek a court resolution course.  Court cases take a long time and they're really expensive.


[00:13:15.630] - Charles

You bring an expert witness or two up to the table and you're talking thousands and thousands of dollars plus the legal team's cost. So this is really prohibitive for communities. So for community to push this point to feel the need to do this, they really run all their sense of optimism and patience been run out.


[00:13:43.310] - Glenda Luymes

That's interesting.


[00:13:58.390] - Charles

[quoting from court claim] "Provided evidence in Katzie Elders regarding the extensive impact of DC hydro's operation of things." And I just noticed that they basically got rid of, that type of development destroyed the sockeye run, which would have been a really important one. So you've totally removed one entire run of salmon out of this river. It looked like they really worked hard to try to put them together. Of course this is Katzie's claim and hydro, and the province will probably file their own. Obviously.


[00:14:54.260] - Glenda Luymes



[00:14:59.210] - Charles

Once they done this, how do they put sockeye back in the system? They're not cheap.


[00:15:05.740] - Glenda Luymes

There's one suggestion a little later on that if things can't be mitigated, then perhaps there might be a way to have a portion of the profits that the dam generates. 


[00:15:35.210] - Charles

I will say that I'm always skeptical, when very often when companies come to Community and promise a share of the profit. And I'm just enough of a cynic when I see how books are accounted for. We have to be very clear about whether that's actually profit because companies sometimes way they write the book, they don't actually have profit.


[00:15:58.840] - Glenda Luymes



[00:16:33.960] - Charles

Yes, they say profits derived from Alouette River system. That's a possibility. Not being a lawyer, I always have to be wary about the meaning in the legal terms. But my sense of just observing when I've been in Community, I've seen deals that have been made for a certain share of the profits.  Then the company never make any profits. But they generate lots of revenue. The people who work for the company are getting money and there are dividends being paid out to shareholders and stuff but the company just doesn't seem to make profit. So maybe I'm being too cynical here.


[00:17:15.670] - Charles

How they calculate that, clearly some payments, some reasonable payment to cover this. But I would suspect in order for that to work they would file some kind of expert opinion reports saying what's the total value of salmon and other fish and cultural values between it as lost since 1920 and particularly also since 1995. There will be some kind of document that would calculate what that would look like.


[00:17:47.620] - Glenda Luymes

I see.


[00:17:48.660] - Charles

And of course hydro would find an expert to try to suggest that the diminished value now were no were near what the First Nation has claimed and you get this kind of back and forth, … I can also imagine there's going to be biological fisheries experts giving opinion about what could have been done to keep the stock in the river, what could be done to get the sockeye back and whether that's even possible. I mean that's outside my area


[00:18:31.760] - Glenda Luymes

But it seems like you said it seems a very big that it will be expensive.


[00:18:43.460] - Charles

The Hagwilgyt case, for example, they lost access to a fishing site for about 50 years and the government paid out, the federal government paid about $25 million for that. And that was even though the rock that was going on the river river has been something that had fallen in modern, recent memory. So it wasn't even something that they'd done for millennia before. … DFO blew it up, didn't compensate them adequately, wouldn't, and when it went to the court case, it was 25 million. So looking at the parallels between the [river] systems here and this stuff, I suspect that's in the rough equivalent zone in terms of a parallel case which basically prevented community from being able to fish in their normal accustomed location.


[00:19:52.630] - Glenda Luymes

Yeah, great. I think that's the questions that I had. I really appreciate this. It really helps to explain the things that aren't said in the court documents or just take out the context that this falls into. So, yes, I appreciate it. 


Thursday, September 29, 2022

Nuchatlaht First Nation fights to reclaim territory in landmark court case

 Global BC reporter, Kylie Stanton, interviewed me for her story on the Nachatlaht rights and title case. Here is her story. 


The full transcript of my comments, for context, are printed below. Lightly edited for clarity. Section quoted in newscast is bolded and underlined.

[00:02:02.590] - Kylie

… Charles this case is being called a landmark case. It could be precedent setting in terms of the way that the BC government deals with these declarations and the land back movement. … What is it that you think is driving this issue that's brought it to court? …


[00:02:46.870] - Charles

Well, there's a couple of things that are kind of interesting about this case. For one, they're looking at a relatively speaking small piece of land. So there's a very specific focus. But this is outside something that's called specific claims, which is a different category of legal claims. And so often times some of the smaller land claims cases, I'd say with the Squamish Land Court case that fit under specific claims. There was a case with Hagwiget up in the north that was against specific claims. So there's a different category of things that have occurred so that's kind of unusual that they've gone the litigation route with this particular avenue. Also just the nature of some of the issues about the way the court determines how, under Canadian law, aboriginal rights and title are passed along. So one of the big differences that people, the Canadian government considers, according to the constitution and legal history, sort of structure, is that there has to be a kind of continuous chain from a pre contact existing polity or entity and then that kind of carries its way forward. Of course, the reality is today many different First Nations are combinations of different groups of people.


[00:03:55.090] - Charles

Sometimes they're not actually in the places originally from, or if you were trying to sort this all out in a different direction. So I think there's elements of that here, where you've got a very small community that has members from other locations also making claims to a specific place that maybe other groups also have claims to, but they're making a particular way that is actually stands up and makes that unique. For those of us who are really into this kind of stuff, the nuance and very detailed complexity is quite interesting from an intellectual perspective. For the regular observer, they're going to look at this and think, what the hell, what gives here? It's like a small chunk of land, a small group of people. How come people can't get along with it? But of course, as logging proceeds and removes the timber from the land, the land gets fundamentally changed, ceases to be what it was to begin with. So part of what's at stake here is that First Nation is trying to prevent the logging from continuing. So at least there's something left at the end of the day. And the left, it's not necessarily the value in the timber, it's the value of the timber, of the fact of it being there, and the different types of life and practices and histories to carry on.


[00:05:00.980] - Charles

So that's kind of a combination answer. What might make this, particularly, I have noticed, because you can't help but observing people, colleagues talk about different things that are paying attention to, there are some peculiarities as well about the case and different things. The way the Crown has been arguing that essentially there's kind of limitations and saying that it isn’t the right people and all this kind of stuff. But at a political level, if we're talking about reconciliation and trying to resolve things, there's a real question about why is the government continuing? Why is the Crown continuously and without hesitation basically fighting back on everything all the time? And everywhere you look there's a similar kind of issues. Only rarely do they actually make it in to court. But it's practically the entire playing field across the province of BC.


[00:05:53.800] - Kylie

…  you're saying this happens all the time, this pushback [from government] is happening all the time. [But], isn't this supposed to just be a part of reconciliation, our way of moving forward by repatriating these lands? ...


[00:06:30.450] - Charles

And it doesn't seem to matter whether it's a Socred government, a Liberal government, an NDP government, whomever it seems to be, they act and behave like the Crown [because they are the crown]. And the Crown is pretty belligerent in an interesting way about what's going on. But when I say it's happening all over the course of BC; essentially what's going on is people will be saying, let's say a government official will come to a First Nation. There's a project going on. And they'll basically say:


“Let's just sign an agreement. A memorandum of understanding. And we realize it's a big issue. But we'll just do a memorandum of understanding right now. And are you willing to accept some cash. Some job. Something else? And we'll put off the big issue.” 


So they keep putting off the big issue. But ultimately, and I think the big issue will actually come home and will be a big explosion that people [non-Indigenous people] won't really understand. They'll be shocked when it actually works in the favour of First Nations. So you take a look at the Chilcotin case. Which actually declared Land Title exists (which is a pre-UNDRIP decision). And you also see some of the court decisions they're challenging something called this idea of universal possession.


[00:07:41.010] - Charles

This kind of radical sense of possession the Crown has claimed. Court cases started to chip away at that. Which basically moves us to an idea of shared governance with the Crown and First Nations. That idea, when people start to realize that that is likely what's happening, moving forward will be a bit shocking for people because they don't understand it. And if the government was really moving and working in that kind of direction to begin with, we would have a much smoother, more comfortable going in that direction. And we have lots of examples of First Nations being very happy to co-partner with non-First Nations, both governments and private industry and NGOs all over the place. So it's not like there'll be a big disaster. But I think we're actually moving toward the idea of this kind of shared governance. You see examples in New Zealand, this idea emerging and very likely what's properly happening to be happening here, especially if the government forces everything into the court, because these court cases keep constantly ratcheting things forward in this direction.


[00:08:44.530] - Kylie

[asked to explain shared governance]


[00:09:05.420] - Charles

No, because that's why I say the crown is quite belligerent in it's refusal to accept the possibility of there being other models. They will enter into co-management agreements, which doesn't question the underlying rights or title. It doesn't redress this. But some of the things that happen in New Zealand actually point in this direction where between the Maori and the New Zealand State, this recognition that there's actually a kind of shared governance between the crown and Maori, and that really transforms the situation. So it doesn't give one more power over the other, but it really is conceptually a different way of thinking. It's like having two crowns ruling one land, I guess you could put it that way, which may be a way of thinking of it.


[00:09:49.150] - Charles

I suspect by looking at some of the way the court decisions are moving and some of the different decisions, it's conceivable. And clearly it strikes me as a reasonable and appropriate kind of measured policy to put into place. If I always like to ask my students, if they had a magic wand, what would they change? Well, if I had a magic wand, that's what I immediately pop in the head of all the different political leaders in the province to make them think about shared governance without hesitation. That would be my sort of wave of the wand.


[00:10:23.710] - Kylie

[asked if I thought this was precedent setting]


[00:10:33.730] - Charles

I think very likely that this goes forward. If they don't win, it won't necessarily be precedent setting because a lot of times things shift around. So there's been First Nations that have lost court cases, and so it ends up, like with the Lax Kw'alaams and the fishing rights for Salmon case. They lost that one. But that doesn't preclude another First Nations from gaining the same right. It might actually inhibit their ability.  But a positive win, actually, because the way the court system and the judicial decisions work in a precedent setting will actually make a difference. So I think that's how I would frame it. Of course, a more learned legal scholar might have a totally different take on this than what I.


[00:11:13.850] - Kylie

Thank you so much for your time.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Data Transparency and the Faculty Union

A group of faculty members organized a drive to get a data transparency motion on the agenda for the UBC Faculty Association's AGM, held June 16/22.  They managed to collect about 150 signatures in support of their resolution.  The history behind their motion and the driving subtextual motivations are not clear, but the

argument made is one based in terms of the current moment of intersectional values and intersectional theory.

The idea seems to be that the UBC FA is not taking into account diversity amongst complainants, that the assumption is there are "particular groups of faculty more likely to experience injustice in the workplace," and that concerns related to equity need to be highlighted. This, it would seem, the proponents argue can only be effectively dealt with through a compilation of a detailed report made available to the entire membership of the faculty union on an annual basis.  They don't really say what the fundamental purpose of this might be. Nor do they say how their analysis might be different or better.  I appreciate that as academics many of us deal with all kinds of data and we often run the risk of becomings experts in all manner of things related to and well beyond our own professional fields. One supposes, sitting somewhere sub-textually in all of this, there is an idea among a subset of the proponents they are better suited than the professionals our union has hired to do this work.  

The current faculty association executive disagreed with the specifics of the resolution and recommended defeating it, or at least referring it to a joint committee

(comprised of members of the executive and signatories to the resolution) that would report back to the fall AGM.  As the meeting stretched well past its scheduled end time I had to leave before the matter was resolved. I was subsequently informed the motion was deferred to committee.  

A limited circulation summary document, described by proponents as legal advice from a labour lawyer (who is not named, nor is it disclosed what kind of labour lawyer they are and whether they work mostly for business or unions or individuals), was used to counter the executive's statement. The excerpted comments in the summary, as pertains to the data transparency resolution, mostly referred to the ability to protect individual member's privacy and offered some fairly pro forma commentary. 

I have served several terms on the Faculty Association Executive, though it has been about a decade since I last served. During my three terms on the executive I was there immediately after UBC's voluntary recognition of the Association as a union and during the acquisition of Okanagon College's academic programs and facilities. As an executive member I was party to discussions of reports from the member services committee which involved all manner of issues (tabulated summaries of which have been included in annual reports to the membership for years, if not decades).  I gained a deep appreciation of the work the member services professional staff do and the amazing volunteer work of chairs of the standing committees, like the member services committee. My experience on the executive left me knowing we have strong staff and committed volunteers dedicated to considering the wellbeing of our collective membership.

A union has many responsibilities, but one of the most important is the duty of fair representation. In practical terms this means that as a member of the union I can bring a complaint about my work to the union and it is within their discretion how to proceed. The union has to fully and fairly consider my complaint (if it merits going to grievance). I might not agree with their decision, but once the union decides how they are proceeding I have no recourse unless they acted arbitrarily or discriminatorily.  

At the same time the union cannot simply refuse to consider my request for representation. This is an important point. Especially in the context of a university workplace were political ideologies and cultural beliefs can play an oversized role in workplace relations. So even a worker with an unpopular perspective has to be fairly represented in conflicts with management, even if a majority of other union members disagree (There are implications in the resolution that seems to imply that the focus of union support should tend toward equity groups - a union must represent all members fairly and without bias no matter who we are or what we believe). 

One of the best pieces of advice in my career at UBC came early during the first or second year of my employment.  I was chatting with a senior colleague in their office.  They were asking me how things were working out. I was quite naively optimistic about things. "Well," my colleague said, "if ever anything was to come up you should talk to the staff in the faculty association for their advice." At the time it seemed a non sequitur.  How did we get from casual chat about settling in to UBC to seeking advice from the faculty association? The conversation continued on its path as I reflected on the advice I had been given.

In retrospect I'm glad my colleague shared that advice. I had a prior working life that involved membership for many years in an industrial trade union.  As a student I was also involved in the TA union at SFU and the academic staff union at York University. So I was familiar with the idea of going to the union for help in tricky spots. Yet, I had this impression that UBC's faculty association of the day (before it became a union under the Labour Code) acted closer to management than to frontline or junior staff. But I kept my colleague's advice in mind.

As it turns out there are many reasons to contact the faculty association and ask for help. I don't wish to innumerate all the reasons I've emailed or called or visited. For one reason it makes me feel uncomfortable. Despite my experience in industrial trade unions I've found the university workplace less supportive of going to the union for help. It's almost as though going to the union is an admission of personal failure, an admission of not having what it takes to be excellent. I want to be clear, the union staffers have always been supportive and encouraging. My discomfort comes from the comments in the hallways shared with me and overheard over the years, the tone in meetings about excellence combined with the devastating critical comments colleagues provide in reviews and evaluations, and simply a strange antipathy toward unions I have observed here over the years. My experience with unions in other workplaces was far more affirming (not from the bosses) - these unions weren't perfect, but fellow workers didn't act like going to the union for help was my fault.  Just the same when the need arose I went to the faculty association for advice and support and it has been a positive circumstance each time. 

Most of the kinds of concerns and question I have had have not ended up in a formal grievance process. It is possible that some could have, but with advice and support I had positive outcomes instead. The idea though, that the nature of any of my requests for support tired to my demographic attributes, might be collated into a detailed report available for all to read and review does not sit well with me. I think that if others thought about it, it shouldn't really sit well with them either.  While UBC itself is a big corporate entity with thousands of staff, as academics we work in relatively small units with low turn over.  It doesn't take very much effort to piece together who might be referenced from considering the nature of a concern with how that concern is related to equity, and then how it was resolved (especially if one is party to the concern in some way via management - and many faculty are also implicated in our academic management structures).  Even with PIPA (not FOIPA) like controls at play, the act of making these data reports public runs a risk of worsening an individual's situation, not improving it.

A union represents a segment of a workforce in its struggle (negotiations) with their employer to better lives of all members.  It is na├»ve to think an employer, no matter how liberal, is unconditionally interested in the wellbeing of their workforce outside of their particular vested interests. We need to be cognizant that a union is not the same as an employer, the university, a human resources office, or an equity and diversity office.  A union has different obligations and responsibilities.  

That doesn't mean this kind of data shouldn't be collected, analyzed, and used in the functioning of the union as it fulfills its duty to represent.  We need such data to shape bargaining, to inform professional member services staff in their work, and union leadership in the setting of policies.  This kind of data is indeed critical for the operation of a union. I don't, however, need to have a big data report to pour over to satisfy my own analytic needs. Neither should my employer have it in hand so they can determine which groups of us are going to our union and which are not (they will already have their own data where they track 'incidents'). Making union data freely available to the boss helps the employer shape the terrain of interaction in ways that may well undermine the wellbeing of all of us.

It may be possible to mitigate individual risk with such data as the resolution's proponents suggest. I, however, prefer an approach that doesn't create the risk in the first place.  Let's not share our data with the bosses, let's keep the data in house.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Roundup, UBC Fields, and our Ecological Effects

I was walking by the field sponsored by Tourmaline Oil recently and one of the regular staff was spraying the margin under the fence with roundup. They said they couldn’t use an alternative (like acetic acid) since they didn’t have the time to do this every week.

I wonder why it is deemed necessary to have a browned out strip a foot wide under and along the fence margin in the first place, while also noting the evident problems with this ‘safe’ pesticide (see link to McGill research on roundup).


I would note that despite the athletics' fields being totally fabricated space (many now covered with plastic and other synthetics) having some margins that are biological does make small contributions to biodiversity and does remediate some of the ill effects caused by the fields. Having grassy margins can encourage increased biodiversity and improved ecological health.


For example, grass plants, dandelion, and thistles attract small birds (like sparrows and goldfinches) when they go to seed (which can’t happen if sprayed or cut).  Allowing margins to grow in ways that some (perhaps donors?) find unsightly is in fact beneficial to our overall wellbeing.

I am sure there is a ready answer that will explain to me that roundup is actually ok to use and that UBC has net positive ecological impacts.  I appreciate all that.  Yet. ... 

It still calls  out for a quiet moment of reflection and consideration to reconsider whether a  scorched earth look along the baseball field fences is worth the addition of more toxic chemicals into our local environment, however small these effects  might be.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Grade Distribution

What is the appropriate distribution of grades in a university class? Is there a standard that is readily accepted? These kinds of questions often motivate grade discussions amongst university instructors. 

Some general points of consensus: larger classes more often fit normal distributions (i.e. grade curves) than do smaller classes. Larger lower-level classes tend to have a lower average than smaller upper-level classes. There should be some kind of consistency across equivalent classes so that students don’t think grades are totally subjective and potentially unfairly distributed. 

Up until a few years ago the Faculty of Arts had a grading guideline that recommended a typical grade distribution in which no more than 75% grades could be in the A and B range; that A grades should be between 5 and 25% of the total grades distributed, and; that no more than 20% of the grades should be a fail. This guideline was maintained (as a policy recommendation) in the anthropology department up until the present. Some faculty feel constrained by the above guidelines while other consider it too lenient. 

It is helpful to ask what grades are supposed to measure. If they are a measure of relative rank that leads us in one direction. If they are a measure of quality/quantity of learning that might take us in a different direction. It would seem that instructors generally consider them some measure of learning (but that’s where consensus starts to break down). Students often seem to consider that grades are correlated to the amount of time they invest in completing an assignment or preparing for an exam. What we do know is how grades are used: to allocate access to scarce resources like awards and admission to graduate and professional programs. 

There is a big literature on grading. There is a lot of talk about finding the best way to grade authentically. To give formative feedback to learners. There’s even a critical literature focused on “ungrading.” Both standard beliefs and radical critiques often ignore the reality that capitalist society is graded all the time. Of course we can be compassionate, we can care about our students (and trust they extend that same care to us), but that doesn’t belie the reality of our ranked, hierarchical, scarce resource driven society. Grades are just one more part of that bigger system. 

So. Why not resist the power and refuse to grade? Or, if not total refusal, change the means of grading more in line with so-called ungrading (which still results in a final grade). Why not indeed. Radical ungrading would be best, but for most of us the reality is that ungrading ends up being more work (arguably better feedback for students) and the same normative grading as before. So ungrading becomes another plank in the ubiquitous student-centric learning model in which grades are seen as rewards for showing up and trying. 

There is another augment used against grading – the social economic discrimination thesis. Here the augment is that grading norms white social norms (more accurate would be the claim they replicate specific class values, not racial values). Here students achieve differentially (and their grades are thought to reflect this) according to their demographic marginalization from whitestream middle class society. They are kneecapped before they start the course. Here an argument is made to use grades to counter inequities of history. Ignore obvious errors in composition, for example, and focus on ‘content’ mastery instead. 

Then there is the weakest (in my opinion) argument against grading: “the other guys are skewing their grade distributions higher than we are and thus our students lose out. This isn’t so much a critique of grading as an accommodation to grade inflation. 

I personally hate grading, and this is something that I think many colleagues would agree with. It can be tiresome, anxiety producing, and leave one feeling a deep sense of futility. As a consequence, I have shifted the types of assignments I give my students (more weight on completion graded assignments – if you complete at standard defined, you get full points- this does tend to skew class averages positively). I have also tried to lay out the grading criteria clearly so that there is no ambiguity in what I am grading. I try to use strength-based assessments (I identity where an essay, for example could be improved as opposed to explaining everything that is wrong with it). All this is still grading and at the end of the day I am responsible for submitting a number on a grade sheet. 

At the same time that I hate grading I also value the opportunity to facilitate learning, revision, and transformation through discussion and collaborative reading and reviewing of student work. Some quick witted observer will probably realize that’s really marking without numbers. Ideally, in my field of work, the formative part is guiding learners toward improvements, marking (assigning a value to that process) is simply one small piece. But, it’s the piece we end up focussing on. 

At the end of the day grade distributions have no natural level. They are indeed arbitrary. But because we use them for allocating access to scarce resources we have an obligation and a responsibility to be consistent with how we distribute them. Ideally, we should be consistent across a university, not just a department. My personal preference is toward criteria referenced (or standards-based) grading were there is some clear standard that we expect learners to obtain. It would be based on a combination of knowledge growth within the individual and in comparison to how that individual learned relative to a pre-set criteria. We aren’t in that world though and thus must be content with some variation of normative ranking.