Louis Nirenberg (1925-2020)

By Professor Ivar Ekeland, le 17 Avril 2020

Nous sommes nombreux, en ce jour de janvier, à avoir reçu le message : « Louis est mort cette nuit ». On ne parlait pas encore du COVID-19, qui était encore confiné en Chine, mais nous savions tous que la santé de Louis, chancelante depuis des années, avait empiré ces dernières semaines. Sa voix au téléphone avait changé, il ne manquait jamais de demander des nouvelles de tout le monde,jusqu’au dernier petit-enfant, mais on le sentait fatigué, et pour ne pas le déranger on allait plutôt chercher les nouvelles du côté de Nanette, et on se les repassait. On l’avait connu en déambulateur, puis en chaise roulante, ce qui ne l’empêchait pas de voyager, mais ces derniers mois il ne pouvait plus quitter New-York. Le corps faiblissait, mais l’esprit était là, et compensait les infirmités par une volonté de fer et un sens de l’humour irrésistible. Pour ceux qui ne l’ont pas connu, il est difficile de décrire ce qu’était l’humour de Louis, une manière d’attendre les calamités de la vie et de les tourner en dérision qui se nourrissait de la tradition yiddish et de son expérience de mathématicien. Son sourire en coin, sa barbiche pointue et son incroyable tignasse lui donnaient une allure de Méphistophélès débonnaire et donnait plus de sel encore à son humour. Il était toujours drôle et jamais méchant : Louis ne disait jamais de mal de personne. C’est de lui que j’ai appris la réponse à la question que nous nous posons tous : «Why do you do mathematics?» «For the grudging admiration of a few friends!». Continue reading

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UBC: The ill-fated revolt of those who ought to know better

“We the undersigned are writing to express deep concern with the lack of transparency regarding the decision on the renewal of the Provost”. This looks like an ordinary enough preface to a standard petition signed by the usual “rebellious” suspects at a North American university. Except that it isn’t. This petition to the president of the University of British Columbia, dated June 22, 2021, was signed by a large number of heads of units and associate deans. It challenges the decision of the Board of Governors not to entrust the current provost with a second term, while assuming and stating as fact that it was contrary to the recommendation of the president. Very unusual indeed, even by the standards of someone who had fathered many “revolts” over the years.

This one is different as it totally ignores the basics of university governance. It is different because it is based on an unverified “understanding” by a group of people in positions of responsibility, of a piece of information that is supposed to be sealed. It is different because it accuses the Board of making an “arbitrary and capricious” decision by not revealing the details of a personnel file. It is different because it is signed by those who ought to know better about how to deal with sensitive personnel issues.
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Shiny, happy, oblivious science

by Dr. Jim R. Woodgett

The government of Canada released a budget on April 19th, 2021, the first for two years. It was, as anticipated, a high spending, deficit projecting budget that clears the ground for pandemic recovery with its centre piece being a national childcare plan (the best part, by far). Given the exemplary role that science has contributed to managing and emerging from the pandemic, hopes were high for some bold scientific investments. Indeed, among a plethora of promises that covered the gamut, that was the rhetoric of the budget document with some $2.2 billion in new money for life sciences over 7 years. But the devil is always in the details and they were buried in over 700 pages of the document. So let’s cut through the declarative statements and get to the bones of the actual investments in science. Continue reading

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NSERC has lost its bearings … again

The last time I used this title was in 2012. Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) had grown embarrassed by the dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship program, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, Suzanne Fortier, the then president, decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times graduating Canadian PhDs can apply for such awards to … once in a lifetime. Then, in May of 2020, NSERC’s new president, 

reversed that decision and allowed previously unsuccessful applicants to re-apply for the 2021 competition. Fairness had been restored, we thought. NSERC’s new leadership was hailed, at least on Twitter.  Continue reading

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The Learning & Research of the UBC Board of Governors (II)

(This post is a slightly updated version of an article that appeared on October 10 in The Ubyssey).

On September 12, I resigned from the Chair of the Learning and Research (L&R) Committee of the Board. I chose to do it in an open session because I happen to believe that transparency is key to accountability and therefore most sessions of the Board should be open. As to why I have decided to resign can be summarized in the following three reasons.
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The Learning & Research committee of the UBC Board: What a difference a year makes (I)

“You had demanded to chair the Learning and Research Committee,” the Chair of the Board proclaimed at last week’s open meeting of a Board’s committee. You bet I did, I replied, “because the reason I ran for the Board one more time is precisely to stop the marginalization of the UBC-Vancouver faculty representatives on this Board.” Charles Menzies interrupted that exchange, and so we may never know whether the chair was tone-policing me (again) by stressing that I had “demanded” or just claiming to have been particularly accommodating to the UBC-V faculty representatives. For I became the Chair of the Learning and Research (L&R) committee of the Board and this series of posts is about what we have done with it over the past year.

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UBC: Failures in governance are slowing down the pace of academic renewal

I had promised many things to those who elected me to the Board of Governors as a faculty representative for UBC-Vancouver. But as I mentioned in a previous post, a data dump from the faculty association last October opened my eyes as to what my top priority should be. The data showed how far this university had veered away from its academic mission. Between 2006 and 2018 student enrolment has increased about 52% (41,573 in 2006 vs. 63,439 in 2018). The FA data shows that in the same period the RESEARCH faculty increased 4.2% (from 2,107 to 2,196) and the TOTAL faculty rose 8.2% (from 2,965 to 3,209). The numbers provided by the administration are different but the overall picture is similar. Here is a personal account on how things developed since, with a focus on what I see as deficiencies in governance practices that are pre-empting both Board and Administration from realizing stated ambitions.

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A research community at the mercy of a leaderless NSERC  

The bureaucrats of a leaderless NSERC have extended the 5-year grants of three research institutes by two years. This amounts to assigning awards exceeding $7,500,000. They have done so without peer review and against the wishes of one of their own liaison committees and even against the stated position of most of the grantees themselves. Besides issues of authority and accountability, this seemingly friendly act is destined to fracture a research community that strives to work collaboratively and coherently for the national interest. Moreover, the move threatens to upend Canadian leadership in a fragile international collaboration.  Let me explain.

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A busy first four months on the UBC Board of Governors

Things are different from my earlier 2008-14 term on the Board of Governors, but I still don’t know exactly why. The 2015-17 “revolt of the faculty” has surely been a factor. The UBClean campaign was triggered by questionable actions of a clueless Board vis-a-vis a new presidency that was trying -among other things- to refocus the university on the academic mission.  And now we have more data about how far this university had erred away from that mission: the number of assistant professors decreased from 619 in 2006 to 408 in 2017, while student enrollment increased during that same period by more than 20,000–Think about it! My sense is that the current Board -in spite of its new membership- has learned from that painful episode and is trying to re-prioritize the core mission of the university: learning and research. I am not so sure yet about our relatively new administration, which may still be taking its pointers from an entrenched middle management. Otherwise, why do they keep defending an inglorious record that is not theirs to own?

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Academic publishing in the time of sanctions and boycotts

On December 7th, the academic publisher Taylor & Francis informed two authors that they are unable to publish their mathematical research paper, even though it had been accepted by the editorial board of one of its journals two years after submission and revisions. Actually the paper had been posted online and a DOI had been assigned. The reason given? The US sanctions on the authors’ country: Iran. I give a bit more details below, but there is also another story within the story.

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Maurice Sion: 1927 – 2018

Maurice Sion was a very dear friend and a distinguished colleague in the mathematics department at the University of British Columbia. He died peacefully in his sleep on April 20, 2018. Maurice retired from UBC in 1989, after a career in which he contributed much to Mathematics and to our university. A former Department Head, Maurice was the lead organizer for the International Congress of Mathematicians held in Vancouver in 1974. There was a memorial service for him on July 27, 2018. I spoke there about Maurice’s life and my personal relation with him and his family. I was planning to include my notes here, but then the speeches of his three children were so spectacular that they were the ones worth publishing. Here is the one by his daughter Sarica, where she documents his fascinating pre-UBC years.

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Robert M. Miura: 1938 – 2018

I just got word that my friend and colleague, Robert Miura, passed away on November 25th. Robert was born in Selma, California, to an immigrant family from Japan. When he was three years old, he and his family were sent to a Relocation Center after the attack on Pearl Harbor ignited decades of anti-Japanese racism and led to the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Upon their return to farming in California’s Central Valley, Robert and his family experienced racially-motivated violence as they struggled to reestablish their lives. This episode left an indelible mark on Robert’s life. We had lots to talk about.

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When the Walls of Governance Come Crumbling Down

“We are deeply disappointed that Janis Sarra has had to step down as Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies … Like her, we will all work to secure the academic independence of the Institute and its programs, and to reform its governance.” That was May 2014, and the open letter was signed by 16 UBC distinguished scholars associated in one way or another to the institute. Fast forward to November 2018, and we learn again that the Director of UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS), Philippe Tortell, resigned in protest over the actions of the Institute Trustees, who have taken control of the strategic planning process and re-directed a large portion of Institute funding to support on-going research activities controlled by the central administration. The reaction was even more pronounced this time around. The actions that led to the resignation have sparked vigorous debate across campus, re-igniting concerns over academic governance, centrally directed research, ethics of philanthropy, management of conflict of interest, and administrative over-reach.

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Why I am voting against the tuition increases for domestic students

During my previous two terms on the UBC Board of Governors from 2008 to 2014, I always voted in support of the administration’s maximum government-allowable 2% increases in tuition fees for domestic students. But things are different this time.

The substantial hikes in international tuition fees implemented in 2015, and the ensuing dramatic increases in the number of international students, have led to a remarkable 44% increase in tuition and student fees revenue for UBC. It is time to use this windfall of resources to alleviate the financial burden on the people of British Columbia, who have been investing for decades directly and indirectly in their flagship institution.

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Resignation of the director of the Wall Institute: The reaction

The Board of Trustees of the Wall Institute is trying to reach out to a revolted UBC community by announcing a one-year moratorium on the changes they had dictated, only a week ago, to Director Philippe Tortell. This had led to his resignation in a – worth listening to- fiery speech in front of most heads of units at UBC. President Santa Ono did not, however, address the institute’s future beyond next year, though he committed that the (unchanged and apparently conflicted) five-person board would consult with members of the UBC community on future decisions. In the meantime, Philippe Tortell received tons of correspondence (comments, supportive messages, copies of letters to Ono) and “Piece of Mind” got several requests from faculty to post their opinions and letters about this matter. They are informative and we think worth posting even anonymously for practical reasons. The “listening tour” of the Board of Trustees can surely start with a stop here.

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Why I am resigning from the directorship of the Wall institute

By Professor Philippe Tortell

Universities are places where imagination and unconstrained thinking converge to produce major advancements in fundamental knowledge.  Intellectual breakthroughs hide in unusual places, and often appear when they are most unexpected.  For this reason, the University must be a bastion of curiosity-driven fundamental research, where great minds freely explore new intellectual horizons through unfettered and unscripted work.

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Accountability and Governance at UBC: Budget

By Professor Mark Thomson Mac Lean

Over the past months I have become increasingly concerned about the disparity between UBC’s growing tuition revenues and enormous budget surpluses, and the struggles that many academic departments face in meeting their teaching and research missions. Conversations with colleagues and student leaders across campus tell me that I am not alone in having such concerns.

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NSERC corrects a mistake, but many remain unaddressed

No, I am not talking about the sudden and probably more consequential recent change in NSERC’s leadership, but about an accounting mistake. Yes, it looks minor, but it speaks volume. As I mentioned in a previous post, I resigned last May from a committee that was supposed to liaise between NSERC and Canada’s Mathematics and Statistics communities (The MSLC-see below). I described vaguely the reasons why: An unsettling lack of transparency, shoddy consultation, and poor decision-making by NSERC’s management in handling recent government budget increases. Last week-end, I learned that NSERC did address and partially fix the way they handled the 2014 and 2016 government increases, but we remain a long way from accountability and redress. Let me explain.

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Is the BIRS programme multiple disciplinary enough for NSERC?

The programs of the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in Banff and Oaxaca are supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT),  and the Alberta Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. In 2003, NSERC’s funding for BIRS was on par with its two partners then, covering 33% of the station’s inaugural budget. Fast forward to 2018 to see NSERC’s current funding for BIRS being the lowest among the four partnering governments – at 22% of the total budget. How did we get here?

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Calling on #UBC to step up and support our alumni Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014)

29 May 2018

Lindsay Gordon, Chancellor, UBC
Santa J, Ono, President and vice-Chancellor, UBC

Dear Mr Gordon and Dr Ono:

“Pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – UBC’s purpose per Shaping UBC’s Next Century: Strategic Plan, 2018-2028

A UBC alumna, Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014), has been detained without clear charges and without ability to contact her family in Saudi Arabia.  Ms Al-Hathloul is a well-known human rights activist in Saudi Arabia. The nature and timing of her detention strongly suggest that it is part of a crackdown on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

We, the undersigned, are deeply troubled by the following official response to a request that UBC comment on Ms Al-Hathloul’s detention:

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