The wake-up call from a crumbling ceiling

“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?

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7 Responses to The wake-up call from a crumbling ceiling

  1. I feel your pain. I also am paradoxically somewhat relieved to hear that even the mighty UBC has such problems. At the University of Manitoba, the Chemistry Department has had no ceilings in most of the building for 6 years, and we have been in a constant state of on-again off-again construction work that never seems to actually achieve very much. We too have filthy floors and walls, dripping pipes and so on. And, repeated appeals to the highest authorities seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile, several new buildings have been constructed and more are on the way.

    Your situation is interesting because you are even a member of the Board of Governors yet you are muzzled. I suspect that some of your colleagues may not share your high principles, which is why THEIR pet projects are actually happening. Certainly, one thing is clear: senior administrators would NEVER tolerate the conditions that you and I work under for even a week, let alone years.

    Does this sound familiar? It is the same fundamental problem that drives the “Occupy” movement.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      I am definitely not muzzled on BoG, and no one on the Board brings in their pet project. Most building projects at UBC start bottom up as I write in my following post. The Math department is (or was) split about moving away, hence the consensus isn’t there and you need lots of it to get a project going.
      But the latest erosions are a wake-up call as I entitled my post. It is now everyone’s responsibility –administration and faculty– to worry about the safety and the future of such a major department.

  2. anon@UBC says:

    Even if I partially agree, the case at hand here is a bit more tricky than what is being presented. The math department itself hasn’t shown a great interest in getting a new building, as mentioned by Nassif, the survey did mention that “the department did not favour moving”.

    Now it seems that the collective spirit has shifted and more faculty are actually interested in getting this department out of the current 5 buildings of extremely poor built that it inhabits. What does it take to do it though? When the university president visited the department a year ago, our Head asked him what was to be done to get ourselves a new building. His answer was fairly straightforward: get in business of getting one yourself, the university doesn’t do that work on its own.

    The president also added that his own administration building comes from the same batch of buildings that we inhabit. He is as keen as we are to get a new building for himself, but nobody would agree on a president spending money on himself (or maybe only as he leaves office). So, I’m not quite sure where Philip’s idea comes from, maybe things are quite different at UoM.

    • I have felt that my institution has serious problems for quite some time. Our administration building is very old – much older than Chemistry, but it is in pristine condition and we frequently see construction/maintenance people at work on it. It is kept sparklingly clean, and its denizens get new office furniture out of central resources often enough that I notice it on my infrequent visits to Elysium.

      Our Chemistry building is 50 years old and when it was built it was state-of-the-art. However, it was allowed to deteriorate until around 2004 or so when some laboratory modernization began. Here is where the “fun” begins. We can contrast the slapdash incompentent way in which our projects have been run with the parallel construction of a new Engineering building, a new Pharmacy building, a new student residence, a new building for Fine Art, a new Aboriginal Centre – all projects that went from brown field to complete in less time than our “renovation” which remains unfinished.

      And not because of any disunity among the Chemists, or any shyness about raising concerns with senior admin. It is clear that (at my institution at least) there is a “1%” and a “99%”.

  3. Ghoussoub says:

    I don’t know what is “a bit more tricky” since you don’t refute anything that was written in the post. My next post addresses the part of your comment about “doing it ourselves.” You may have also wanted me to write more about why the administration –and past ones– are not culpable. Well, I just didn’t feel like it. I support them when they do good things and I don’t when they are not up to the level. We can discuss it in person if you have a problem with that. But then I need to know who you are first.

  4. Djun Kim says:

    There’s many things I like about the Math buildings. I didn’t even mind the pet squirrel in my office. But surely the university could find a way pay to have hot water for the washrooms? Perhaps as a form of protest you could refuse to shake hands with any of your colleagues on the board, citing concern for their health, until the hot water situation is fixed.

  5. Ghoussoub says:

    The Board is not to blame for such shortcomings. Boards are not in charge of maintenance and projects don’t get to the Board before a long process of vetting and jockeying by Deans and others. It is our job to make the case first to the Dean, but also by starting to fundraise. So far, our turn –whatever this means– doesn’t come before 2024. My wake-up call to everyone was meant to say that UBC cannot afford to wait that long.

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