“Dear all, The east entrance, in front of the men’s washroom of Math Annex, a portion of the ceiling has come apart and fell to the ground. This area is now out of bounds and considered to be unsafe. We have locked the east entrance doors and have blocked off the area, which also means the men’s washroom is out of service.”
This type of broadcast email is unfortunately a regular occurrence at my home department, which is housed in the oldest, probably most decrepit, least functional, most hazardous, least hygienic, most crowded, and least environmentally friendly buildings on the UBC campus.
One UBC researcher in health & environment tells how whenever he wants to expose his students to epic samples of mould, he brings them over to the basement of the mathematics department.
When the ceiling doesn’t fall on your head, you are chased away from your office by the horrendous noise of rusty pipes and radiators, and if you happen to be on the second floor, by disturbances from squirrels and rats in the ceiling.
Halloween or “Home alone” is a daily episode in the crumbling edifices of UBC-Math.
Being housed in such a dump, while you are an elected University Governor overseeing over $1.5-billion worth of construction on campus is nothing short of a surrealistic experience.
A scene that is now too familiar to fellow Board members is how agitated I get, whenever we are dealing with “Property and Planning” agenda items on the Board. Do I need to tell you why?
After all, how seriously can one take any argument, however valid, about the need for a new building for such and such department or institute on campus, when yours is housed in the absolute worst among them?
And before you call me a useless loser, I remind you that you cannot advocate for your personal causes on the BoG. And I shall not!
But here is the catch. How can you be expected to put away and not dig into your own life experiences on campus, whenever you are called upon to evaluate whatever is put in front of you as a member of the Board of Governors?
• Need to release funding to rebuild structure X because it is 40 years old? But the Math buildings are soon to celebrate their ninetieth anniversary!
• Need to release funding to rebuild Y because it has asbestos? But the Math Annex had once radioactive material in its basement, let alone asbestos-infested walls.
• Need to release funding to build better space, so as to improve morale and be able to attract better people to Faculty Z? But Math has already outstanding faculty and we need to worry about retaining them … by keeping them healthy and safe.
• Need to move the department elsewhere on campus, because we need the space for another project. But haven’t you seen the yellow wall that Math has been staring at for the last 20 years, waiting for the expansion of the library next door?
• Need to provide competitive home for Faculty W, which houses 35 scholars and 600 students. But Math –though only a lowly department– is home to more than 200 faculty, postdocs and graduate students, and teaches almost 16,000 students per year.
• Need to be champions of “sustainability” and want to build the greenest building in Canada. Fine, but let’s also try to work on sustaining our faculty’s morale, health and sanity.
And so on, and so on. Now, X, Y, Z and W were all worthy projects, also for other reasons. Projects I have personally supported. The point here is that, we are all sum totals of our experiences, and it is so much harder to “swallow” such arguments, when you are housed in the mathematics department.
Now to be fair, the administration did offer a few years back to move the math department –currently housed in 5 different buildings—to a new edifice to be shared with another department and several other units.
Here is what the departmental document prepared for the upcoming external review says about that issue. “Polls have been taken at various times regarding their attitudes towards a new building. A 2005 survey of faculty taken in the context of possible new space in a building to be shared with Earth and Ocean Sciences found that the proposed space was inadequate and the department did not favour moving”.
So what to do now? Wait for the external review of the department and hope that their report mentions the dismal conditions of the infrastructure? Keep in mind though that every one of the 6 departmental reviews of the last 30 years has done so, and still no light in sight.
I say it is high time to roll up our sleeves and get to work, and by that I don’t mean going to pick up yet another piece that had fallen off the Math Annex walls. A phone call to “un oncle d’Amerique” who cares about mathematics might be a good start. Any candidate out there, folks?