The Fall of the Faculty: A Case Study of University Governance at UBC

This post expands on a talk I gave at a Conference on University Governance in the 21st century, which was held in Vancouver on March 3-4. My session was concerned with: Duty to Whom? Institutional Loyalty and Collegial Governance, which will be the subject of my next post. In this first part, I show how university governance as practiced at UBC is used to marginalize the faculty. Almost a year has passed since 800 faculty members at UBC voted non-confidence in the actions of the Board of Governors. Reforms, promised then by the Chair of the Board, Stuart Belkin, are yet to be announced, let alone implemented. The Board secretariat remains intact, its controversial ways resisting and stalling FOI requests by the Faculty Association and others, unchanged. The Chancellor is still in place, unmoved by a humiliating vote of non-confidence in his chairing of the presidential search committee. Many of the governors are still around, oblivious of their responsibilities in one of the darkest moments in UBC’s history.

Here is my address:

I am not an expert on university governance. I believe I was invited here because I am a rank-and-file faculty member who served six years on the UBC Board of Governors (2008-14). I served under three Chairs, whose very different styles, personalities and views of their roles, made me feel that I am watching a Sergio Leone movie. I also participated in one presidential search (Gupta’s) and another for a presidential term renewal (Toope’s). I also suspect I’ve been invited here because I founded “Piece of Mind” so as to report on a “Place of Mind.” I also happened to witness live the forced departure of one president. Indeed, I had a frontline seat watching the catastrophic failure of governance at UBC during the inglorious Gupta affair.

At the beginning of this adventure on BoG, I couldn’t get Leonard Cohen out of my mind: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom to change the system from within.” I obviously failed to change anything, but not for a lack of trying. The experience was more painful than boring. Sometimes, I miss the blissful ignorance of a regular faculty member.

C6GVBMrU0AITpCLThe UBC Governance-My view

Yesterday, you heard from Mr. Gold and President Ono, about the BC university act, and what the university governance in BC is supposed to legislate. That was theory. Today, I am going to tell you about the real state of UBC governance. How is it being practiced?

Well, I can safely say that it is one of the most regressive of the neoliberal era for universities. My own vision of our institutions may now seem old fashioned. Yet, 1979 is not so far back, when the Supreme Court defined the university as a community of scholars: (Harelkin v U. Regina 1979). My view coincides with what Isidore Rabi told Eisenhower in the fifties, when the latter was president of Columbia: “Mr. President, We (the faculty) are not employees of the university. We are the university.” Unfortunately, the BC University Act, and the way it is being applied at UBC seems to be custom-made for the marginalization of faculty.

A skewed governance: At some point in the 70’s, Academic Boards were deemed not suitable for the neoliberal university. The latter was indulging in the proliferation of a class of professional administrators to assume new managerial functions and tasks such as government relations, fundraising, branding, investments, property development, real estate, energy production, sustainability initiatives, you name it. This non-academic transgression was particularly acute at UBC. Wealth management oblige!

A marginalized Senate: Yes, we have a bicameral system enshrining a Board and a Senate, but it is totally skewed towards the business side of the equation. There is a firewall between the Board and the Senate, as President Ono said, but –not unlike other emerging walls in the current sorry state of humanity– it is one-sided. It is there to keep the natives out. The bankers, developers and political hacks on the Board are unlikely to be interested in legislating academic degrees and course requirements, that is in what an Academic Board does. On the other hand, many faculty members may show more interest in Senate if the latter were as consequential as the Board for their academic priorities. Just take a look at the pathetic annual reports by the Senate’s Academic building Needs Committee, at a university that has been spending more than a billion dollars on capital projects every year.

Our Senate, which is supposed to be where the faculty reign supreme, became quite marginalized. Its agenda is set by the Administration. Its information is sanitized and filtered. UBC’s Senate is not a Faculty Senate. It is dominated by Deans and their Associates. And as opposed to places like Berkeley or Virginia, it is chaired by the university president, with some obvious consequences. Here is one.

Do you remember how, after a power play by a politically appointed banker on the Board of Trustees, the Senate –led by a distinguished faculty member– reinstated Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia? Well, President Arvind Gupta had no chance to be re-instated by the UBC Senate with Martha Piper de-facto chairing it. Worse, a majority in the UBC Senate even voted down a motion by Senator Richard Anstee asking for more accountability and openness about the Gupta affair.

An empowered Board: Then you have a powerful Board of Governors that is dominated by a politically appointed majority. The BC provincial government appoints more than half of the Governors, which is unique in Canada. Actually, Alberta operated in a similar fashion, though I hear that the Notley Government has moved recently to a merit-based nomination and appointment process. She actually appointed faculty members to the Board of the University of Alberta. The selection process for the BC Government’s appointees is opaque, with a well known strong correlation to political donations. BC universities may not be immune to the Province’s alleged addiction to the “Pay to Play” syndrome. The curse of UBC is that some university Boards are more “enticing” than others.

The selection of the Board Chair, supposedly by the Board members is bizarre. There is no vote! An inner circle of Board members and alumni executives now chooses the Chancellor who used to be voted by all UBC alumni in the world. The faculty has no say in this choice. Their collective pleas and vote of non-confidence in UBC’s Chancellor, Lindsay Gordon, and UNBC’s James Moore, did not matter.

An opaque governance: UBC Property Trust (UBCPT) which manages the development of the university lands, IMANT which manages the investment of the endowment fund, and the UBC Foundation (I don’t know what it does besides nominally overseeing the building of the Vantage complex) are affiliated incorporated entities. They supposedly report to the UBC Board of Governors. Do they really? While BoG is deemed a public institution, hence subjected to the Freedom of Information Act, its affiliated entities, UBCPT, IMANT and the UBC Foundation are not. The membership of their respective Boards and the fact that faculty are not allowed on these Boards, even as BoG reps (in spite of my efforts) speaks volume. I will let the reader ponder how consequential to accountability such a too convenient setup can be.

A closed Governance: UBC has a lot of very serious problems and transparency is chief among them,” wrote one student recentlyAdd to this, the now public stories about closed Board meetings, and secret processes, all decided in an ad-hoc fashion. The Board handling of the Gupta resignation is nothing else but a colossal failure of open and collegial governance. The lack of disclosures by a taxpayer funded public institution of the reasons and events surrounding that presidential departure should not (could not) be legal. The public needed to know whether there was any wrongdoing by the President that forced his departure. On the other hand, the public also needed to know if the president was being pressured out for refusing orders, favors, shady business deals, political meddling? Was there any involvement by the provincial government? What if the main characters resurface in public life?

A non-accountable Governance: As mentioned above, the shell game that UBCPT and IMANT could muster is a major obstacle to accountability. Moreover, what you get is not always what you are sold and what you vote for on the Board of Governors. Promises, expectations and assertions regarding many expensive and sometimes superfluous mega-projects often do not materialize several years later. The expected 1000 international students for Vantage College (and their financial windfall) never exceeded 400. The solid projections made to us, Board members, in order to approve tens of millions in expenditure, were later described as “aspirations” to the Globe and Mail. The megawatts promised from the various very costly District Energy projects never materialized.

In its demands for governance reform, the Faculty Association flagged the poor management of conflict of interest on the Board. How certain members from the business sectors are allowed to shepherd their costly vanity capital projects at UBC. How serving student Governors and Senators can be employed by the Administration. How Board members had undeclared ties to certain Faculties leading to conflictual situations with the senior administration. The financial relationship between the UBC Board and its affiliated corporations, UBCPT, IMANT and the UBC Foundation is a grey area that needs to be clarified. Sooner and not later.

This is not to mean that Board members are unable to manage their conflicts. I will always remember and admire the strong, principled and courageous stands of a few former Governors, including on deals and projects, where the Sauder School, their former alma matter, was implicated.

A trampled governance: The unintentionally leaked documents surrounding the Gupta affair exposed a full load of improprieties: secret committees, undeclared meetings with no agendas or minutes, improper use of private servers for email regarding UBC business, with their obvious effect on the reliability of Foible records.

An abused governance: The Jennifer Berdahl affair, for one, was a clear example of how unprepared, unaware, or unsuitable appointed Board members can be. They often come from the business community with little, if any, knowledge of the traditional structure and the academic functioning of a university. They often have no clue, as they bring their questionable habits, and unwelcome modus operandi from their private institutions. Why is the Smith report buried instead of being used to educate Board members and Dean offices about the basic principles of Academic Freedom?

A manipulated governance, often elevated to an art form by Board secretariats, is a particularly galling phenomenon. BoG members have virtually no opportunity to be informed by regular faculty members about issues of concern. The access to information is considerably filtered. Even worse: someone, somewhere, seems to have regulated that all information to Board members has to go through the secretariat, with all of its potential to distort the message.

Add to this the art of drowning faculty voices, usually by arguing that the faculty body is only one of many equally entitled, hence equally powerless, “stakeholders”: Unionized staff, Managers & Professionals, Undergraduate students, Graduate students, and … those who claim to represent the alumni.

Vocal faculty on the Board are marginalized and kept away from crucial side discussions about issues. They are denied from chairing Board committees. They are sidelined from representing BoG on university tasks such as search committees for president, provost and VP-Research. I can personally attest to that. On the other hand, docile faculty are coveted, rewarded, but also used.

In summary, UBC’s involvement in so many non-academic ventures makes it an unusual university to govern. A review of its governance should call for a closer monitoring of the myriads of conflict-of-interest situations that such ventures are destined to create. Otherwise, no future president will be able to bring the university back to its core academic mission, and its community of scholars will keep being drowned out by a supposedly supporting, yet increasingly overwhelming, cast of political hacks, professional administrators, money managers, real estate agents, among many other merchants.

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