When the Walls of Governance Come Crumbling Down

“We are deeply disappointed that Janis Sarra has had to step down as Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies … Like her, we will all work to secure the academic independence of the Institute and its programs, and to reform its governance.” That was May 2014, and the open letter was signed by 16 UBC distinguished scholars associated in one way or another to the institute. Fast forward to November 2018, and we learn again that the Director of UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS), Philippe Tortell, resigned in protest over the actions of the Institute Trustees, who have taken control of the strategic planning process and re-directed a large portion of Institute funding to support on-going research activities controlled by the central administration. The reaction was even more pronounced this time around. The actions that led to the resignation have sparked vigorous debate across campus, re-igniting concerns over academic governance, centrally directed research, ethics of philanthropy, management of conflict of interest, and administrative over-reach.

The PWIAS was established in 1996 by UBC President David Strangway, with an initial donation of fifteen million dollars from real-estate developer Peter Wall (in the form of shares in his Wall Financial Corporation). The matching funds from UBC include a significant pool of cash from the Hampton Endowment, and the dedication of most of the Leon & Thea Koerner building for PWIAS activities. It is worth noting that this facility was a donation to UBC from the Koerner family for a Faculty Club, which was eventually closed in 1994 by Strangway.  The Institute was founded to support creative, inter-disciplinary research, cutting across the work of individual departments or faculties.  Its first Distinguished Professor was Nobel Laureate Michael Smith, a pioneer of the molecular biological revolution that has transformed so many facets of our lives.

Despite several intellectual breakthroughs, scholarly successes, and potential for future growth, PWIAS has had a somewhat tumultuous history. In recent years, there has been a revolving door for directors, with 4 different people, including two interim directors, at the helm over the past 5 years alone.  At the time of his resignation, Tortell was halfway through a 5-year mandate.  By all accounts, the Institute was thriving under his leadership, and he was engaged in developing an exciting renewed vision and a forward looking strategic plan.  On November 16th, Tortell received a letter from UBC President Santa Ono, who chairs the PWIAS Board of Trustees, outlining a series of directives for the future of Institute programs. These directives were approved by the Trustees during an in camera session, that excluded the Director and the two current Distinguished Professors, Brett Finlay and Derek Gregory. Under the Trustee approved plan, the majority of core PWIAS programs were to be eliminated, and a large fraction of Institute funds were to be used to support the UBC ‘Research Excellence Clusters’ program run by the VP Research and VP Academic.  It was this letter that prompted Tortell’s public resignation on Nov. 20.

The institute’s deed specified that an international academic advisory board of leading scholars was to be established to provide high level advice on the development of Institute programs.  Such an advisory board has been convened periodically in the past, but was not consulted during the recent strategic planning discussions.  Neither were the two Distinguished Professors.   In a joint public statement, Finlay and Gregory wrote, We were deeply concerned at our exclusion from Board discussions about the future of the Institute. We explicitly asked to attend the relevant meetings – we normally attend all Board of Trustees meetings as observers – but were told they were in camera’.   This sentiment was echoed by others.

To understand the current crisis at PWIAS, we need to look at its governance structure, established more than 25 years ago.  As part of the original deed of trust, signed in 1991, a governance structure was established, whereby the Wall family would effectively control two out of five voting seats on the Institute Board of Trustees.  The three additional seats were reserved for the University President and his or her appointees. Given Mr. Wall’s position as a major donor to UBC, it’s not hard to imagine a potential conflict of interest with the UBC President chairing the Institute that bears his name.  Recognizing this, former UBC president Stephen Toope recused himself from the role of Institute Board chair.  This practice continued under the short-lived administration of Arvind Gupta, but was reversed by current President Santa Ono. Other potential conflicts of interests may also exist.  It has recently come to light that the two PWIAS academic trustees are currently leading UBC Research Excellence Clusters, and could therefore stand to benefit from the proposed re-alignment of Institute funds to support that program.

All of this raises a bigger issue.  How should UBC, and Universities across Canada, work effectively with donors to support key initiatives, while still maintaining academic independence.  This question is not new.  In 2012, York University voted to reject a donation by Jim Balsillie, which it felt ceded too much control to the donor. In 2011, students at the University of Toronto protested a donation by Peter Munk over similar concerns of academic freedom.  In response to these potential problems, UBC has developed a specific policy 114 around fundraising and the acceptance of donations.  In principle, this policy protects its scholarly integrity, autonomy and academic freedom, and forbids donations that compromise these fundamental principles. The reality, however, appears to be somewhat different.

With the donor family having two voting seats on the Institute Board of Trustees, which is currently empowered with deciding the scholarly activities of the institute -as opposed to an independent scholarly panel led by the director– the construct of PWIAS seems to be in direct conflict with Policy 114. Furthermore, Trustees demands, reportedly supported by the UBC administration, to occupy prime academic space at PWIAS, may have been another conflictual issue that contributed to the resignation of the director.

These on-going problems, brought to light by Tortell’s recent public stance, have touched a nerve locally, nationally and beyond, with coverage in the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and the Times Higher Education.  All of this attention has finally forced some much needed scrutiny of PWIAS by the governance bodies at UBC.  Prompted, in part, by a statement released by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Policy Committee of UBC Vancouver’s Senate is now raising concerns around academic governance and decisions taken by UBC’s Administration in relation to PWIAS.  In addition, the UBC Faculty Association has begun investigating the circumstances around the lack of ‘collegial consultation’ in the Trustee-mandated PWIAS strategic plan.  Many UBC faculty members have also written to UBC President Santa Ono expressing concern about the proposed new direction of PWIAS programs, and the manner in which the decisions were taken.

All of this attention is, no-doubt, uncomfortable for UBC, particularly as it comes in the wake of other public relations debacles, including the still unexplained exit of former president Arvind Gupta.  So we can only hope that it leads to positive change.  In the case of PWIAS, the solution is clear, if painful for the donors and the administration to accept.  UBC should reincarnate the Institute as a truly independent center of world-class scholarship, by creating a governance structure with independent trustees and a standing academic advisory panel of top-tier international scholars.

The University must also stick to its own policies around donor engagement and privileges, while protecting the academic independence of the institute.  If the donor and the UBC administration can accept these ground rules, PWIAS will be able to reach its full potential, living up to its founding principles and core mission.

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