When the faculty needs to step up for their universities

(From the archives) Stephen Toope announced yesterday that he would be stepping down as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia at the end of June 2014. This is a very unfortunate turn of events for UBC, and not only because the guy is good, real good. The Board of Governors has already started dealing with the succession, yet most of its non-elected government-appointed members may soon be confronted with a radical change in provincial politics. The faculty may therefore have to step up and take a leadership role in the search for a new president. I have written before about the importance of the Board of Governors in its dual role of sanctioning, supporting and overseeing the actions of the senior university administration.  But what about situations when non-elected members of the Board are fully in charge e.g., without the input and support of the senior administration?

Two examples come to mind. In 2010, the Trustees of the University of Oregon –all appointed by the Governor– fired the President, Richard Lariviere, because he wanted to use non-state funds to provide badly needed salary increases to retain and recruit faculty at his university. The faculty reacted and within days, the Board had to appoint the President’s closest friend and advocate, Robert Berdahl, who had chastised them in a scathing public letter.

Then came last year’s debacle at the University of Virginia when the chair of the governor appointed Board orchestrated the resignation of the President Teresa Sullivan. Again, the faculty and senate fought back. Faced by the prospect that no academic was willing to take over the position –even on a temporary basis, the Board relented and reinstated Sullivan in order to restore order and dignity to the University.

Both episodes show that even the full support of government does not provide an appointed university Board legitimacy, if the faculty doesn’t support the direction it is taking. A Board without the institutional support of the administration and without the trust of the faculty is nothing more than an emperor with no clothes. Even worse! What if the Board didn’t even have the support of government: a situation that we may experience soon in BC. Do we run the risk of plunging in an institutional vacuum?

The current situation at UBC is of course very different from the two abovementioned US universities, and I would like to think that we are immune from the unconscionable actions of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas. We have a President who is exiting on his own terms while at the zenith of his powers and his accomplishments, hardly a crisis situation. Also the Board of Governors at UBC is of the hybrid type, i.e., it also comprises a few elected members (from faculty, staff and students) and not only government appointed representatives. So, where is the resemblance?

First, similar to U. Virginia and U. Oregon but for different reasons, we are in a situation, where a Board is in charge of recruiting a president and the senior administration is on the sidelines –for obvious reasons. Second, and in spite of the hybrid nature of the UBC Board, the non-elected government-appointed members regard themselves as the “independent members” of the Board and therefore firmly believe that they should be running the selection process –among others.

As I had mentioned before, the status of the elected members of the Board feels sometimes like the one of women within the Catholic Church. They are appreciated and tolerated but they are not allowed to be ordained nor say mass. This already constrains the process to very few governors.

But all this would still be manageable if the Board didn’t have to face the reality of turnovers, first in the chair’s position whose term is ending in June, that is before even the search starts, but also in a large set of appointed members whose terms end before the completion of the presidential search, and last but not least in the likely introduction of new members who are unfamiliar with all the issues.

Fine, we may still have a couple –the newest and greenest on the Board– to put on the search committee. But here is the kicker. British Columbia is facing an election in May, and if the political winds change –a real possibility, it seems– then all appointed members could be replaced overnight by the incoming government.  The fact that the process may include two or three private-sector people from the Alumni Board of Directors is neither enough to guarantee independence nor to inoculate the process from the prospect of political turmoil.  We therefore need the elected members of the Board to step up during these potentially uncertain times to insure stability and continuity.

Fortunately, there will be slots for faculty, students and staff on the search committee to be filled through elections. But these can never play the same role as elected Board members, who have been exposed to the whole range of university files, hot or not, controversial or not, secret or not.

Yes, we may need the expertise of governors from the private sector to quiz presidential candidates about the future of the UBC town, but we also need knowledgeable core members of the University community who have spent time on Board committees, who know first hand the nuts and bolts of the university’s academic files, and who are also well aware of the fast-evolving world of post-secondary education and advanced research.

The university would be well served if/when the Board uses an inclusive, transparent and –dare I say—democratic process to help the UBC faculty step up for their university.

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2 Responses to When the faculty needs to step up for their universities

  1. Peter Bell says:

    Perfect storm? Big issues that resonate with me as a student senator. Thanks!

  2. You know, I think a new board appointed by the NDP will be far less politically slanted on one direction then the liberal appointees who are all essentially members of the developer’s club and to a letter carry political members in right of centre parties. Under the NDP our BoG was far more representative of BC’s population and interests – we had community volunteers, trade unionists, architects, and business people. Under the Liberals we have had board members who represent a very narrow cross section of BC’ers.

    Call them green, call them raw, but a new board appointed by the NDP will bring a much needed (I hope) breath of fresh air to UBC’s BoG.

    My only regret is that we aren’t looking toward a Dave Barrett NDP. Adrian Dix’s NDP is far closer to the old style Federal Liberals then they are to a real social democratic political party.

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