Do you want to be a governor?

I am completing a 3-year term as a faculty representative on UBC’s Board of Governors. Here are a few selected personal notes from my experience on that Board. My 33 years of academic service at UBC were surely helpful in dealing with the steep learning slope, but nothing could have prepared me for the challenges of this experience.

First, the good news: I found the appointed governors, and most of the students representatives, to be bright and engaged. The President is truly exceptional, both in his personal approach to the job, and for his core values, academic priorities, and intellect. The Administration consists of hard working and reasonable people who are committed to the well-being of the university. But every Administration has its own set of values, skills, convictions, and methods, hence the need for independent oversight. This is in principle the role of the Board.

In practice, however, this oversight is not as obvious as it sounds, since essentially all the information that forms the basis of Board decisions is provided by the Administration. Compatibility and trust become the main currencies in this relationship. That’s why we often see two contrasting types of Boards: the hostile ones (a dozen Canadian university presidents were sacked by their Boards in the last couple of years), or the completely docile ones. How does ours look lately? Well, the current assumption is that everything the Administration presents to the Board will, in fact, be approved, and that any serious probing by a governor of any submission is seen as an outlier. I often saw myself walking a very tight rope trying to support the Administration without conceding a “carte blanche”, to trust its competence without relinquishing oversight, to suggest ideas without micromanaging, and to question it without doubting it.

Back to good news: After an initial period of adjustment to my own -somewhat direct – style, I sensed a less defensive and more receptive Administration. The preservation of academic freedoms, privacy, and the formal implementation of ethical practices in the management of the UBC endowment were easy commitments to defend, considering that the current President himself is a champion of human rights, and international law.  With other keen governors, I advocated for, and contributed to, a more pro-active role for the Board through a series of working sessions in which Governors could provide substantial input towards long-term strategic planning. I have witnessed a serious evolution towards more accountability and transparency.

What were the main challenges? The approval process for capital projects funding has to be one of the most prominent.  It is the case that most projects come with various levels of funding from external sources (private, federal or provincial). But the funds are never sufficient, and decisions need to be made quickly, sometimes in a hastily arranged conference call, and often on the basis of optimistic assumptions and rosy scenarios. The decision process is incremental (Board 1 to 4) but it is a fact that once you have embarked on a project, it is difficult to turn back, even when financial commitments do not materialize, which happens more often than not.  The missing funds eventually have to come from the university’s general operating funds (GPOF), either directly or via the borrowing costs on external loans. Whether the university’s GPOF should be used as such is a subject of a continuing debate (and not just at UBC). The question of how far a particular Administration can borrow, commit, even mortgage the future of the university has no simple answer.

Recent developments have, however, taken these responsibilities and challenges to a whole new level. The passage of Bill 20 and its implications for the university’s land use practices, and the re-evaluation of UBC’s current status as a “Government Reporting Entity” (GRE) represent major milestones in our university’s history. I do support a plan to develop further the University’s community, and I have participated in the formulation of the basic principles on which the process is now based. But the devil is in the details, most of which I do not yet know. This Land Use Plan (LUP) is significant in scope, and is irreversible. I am advocating for specific   policies that will help keep it aligned with the academic mission long after this substantially expanded UBC town develops its own demographic identity.

Final thoughts: The Board needs to be more sensitized to the value and the contributions of faculty members to UBC the institution. On the books, our salaries appear as a major liability on the operating budget, but the faculty are what make and break the university’s reputation. They bring research funding, which is becoming a substantial portion of the University’s budget, and they are the most permanent of the university’s stakeholders. The presence of strong, credible, and knowledgeable faculty representatives on the BoG is extremely important.

The review of UBC’ status as a GRE opens the possibility for restructuring the BoG. I am therefore advocating for a larger number of faculty representatives on the Board, coupled with a staggering of their period of service. This would ensure a more adequate representation, and will guarantee continuity, both in terms of experience and historical perspective. We also need faculty representation on the IMANT Board (the one that manages the endowment, and the faculty pension plan) and more importantly, on UBC Property Trust (which manages the development of UBC land).

Finally, I cannot stress enough the need to have faculty representatives on the BoG that are independent thinkers, and have the courage to speak up when they diverge from the Administration line.  This is good for the Board, good for the University and good for the Administration.

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6 Responses to Do you want to be a governor?

  1. Pingback: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within.” | Piece of Mind

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  3. Excellent piece. Very well written.

  4. Pingback: While UBC’s Board is tested, others’ are running for cover | Piece of Mind

  5. Pingback: UBC Insiders | Race: Board of Governors

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