A busy first four months on the UBC Board of Governors

Things are different from my earlier 2008-14 term on the Board of Governors, but I still don’t know exactly why. The 2015-17 “revolt of the faculty” has surely been a factor. The UBClean campaign was triggered by questionable actions of a clueless Board vis-a-vis a new presidency that was trying -among other things- to refocus the university on the academic mission.  And now we have more data about how far this university had erred away from that mission: the number of assistant professors decreased from 619 in 2006 to 408 in 2017, while student enrollment increased during that same period by more than 20,000–Think about it! My sense is that the current Board -in spite of its new membership- has learned from that painful episode and is trying to re-prioritize the core mission of the university: learning and research. I am not so sure yet about our relatively new administration, which may still be taking its pointers from an entrenched middle management. Otherwise, why do they keep defending an inglorious record that is not theirs to own?

But first, what of “my campaign promises,” if you will.

1. The UBC-V faculty ought to assume leadership roles on the Board’s committees, and not be sidelined.

The Board Chair surely heard our calls. I am now chairing the Board’s committee on Research and Learning, which means that I am also on the Executive Committee. The other UBC-V faculty representative on the Board, Charles Menzies, was appointed on the search committee for VP-External. I was asked to be on the search committee for VP-Student but had to decline since the process was well on its way, and the committee’s timetable was already set and not compatible with mine. It may feel a bit strange that there is no BoG faculty representative on the Housing Action Group, until you realize that our formidable colleague, Christopher Rea, is on it. I have asked to be on the Financial Strategy Working Group. Why? Exactly for item 3 below: Where are the huge amounts of new resources going? In any case, I can confidently say that the UBC-V faculty representatives on the Board are “sidelined” no more.

2. Refocusing the institution on the academic mission;

With crucial support from the Chair, we are trying to re-position Research and Learning at the core of the Board’s business. In the past, much of this committee’s work relied on somewhat automatic approvals of Senate submissions, which barely scratch the surface of the academic issues the Board ought to be paying attention to. Is the current decentralized structure well suited to support an evolving academic context? Is the current budget model insulating the deans and the academic mission from the crucially important oversight of the Board? Do the current allocations to the Faculties reflect the realities on the ground? What are the optimal ways to use the rapidly expanding President Excellence Fund? To what extent did the selection processes for Canada 150 Chairs, the CERCs, and the President’s Excellence Chairs frustrate our academic units? So many questions waiting for answers.

As a start, the L&R committee has asked for comprehensive presentations by the provost and the VP-research about their action plans for the near future, the opportunities they see out there, and the challenges they face. The same is expected shortly from the VP Health and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UBC-O.

 3. Reversing administrative bloat to restore scholarly capacity;

One issue is looming large on the Board’s mind. The Governors have seen and have reacted to the massive increases in the enrollment figures for international students. On the other hand, other sources of data suggest that the number of faculty members has decreased during the same period. It can be summarized by the following haunting table.


This table is also worth contemplating:

Employment.GroupI can assure you that this issue will be front and centre in forthcoming discussions, including the question on why comprehensive data is so hard to come by. Indeed, our information on student enrollments came from Senate documents, the data on Tuition Revenues came from posted official UBC financial statements (here and here), while the headcount for faculty/lecturers came from a recent broadcast email from the Faculty Association. The last table comes from a presentation to BoG: FOCUS ON PEOPLE, benchmark Report 2017 – 2018. In any case, we believe that all this information should be readily available to the public, and Board members should not have to become investigative reporters to get to the bottom of all this.

4. Recovering our know-how for attracting national and international research funding.

On the research side, our faculty bring in more than ½ billion dollars in grants from various national and international sources. In the past, these were never part of Board discussions since technically, these funds are not at the discretion of the Administration nor the Board. And guess what? The Senate doesn’t even have a Research Committee! Yet,  external research funds are hugely important for the institution, its graduate and postgraduate programs, its research and teaching labs, but also its ranking and its impact on attracting students from all over the place. So how are we doing in terms of research funding?

In my humble opinion, I think that in the past 3 years, and in a period where the federal government was investing hundreds of millions on research (CFREF, AI, etc.), we lagged behind other institutions, because of the various leadership transitions that we were going through.

The Board had to be cognizant of such matters. And for that matter, I believe the Board (and the Senate) should be also fully engaged in the research enterprise of the university. They need to support the Vice-President Research and Innovation, in her efforts to multiply the research opportunities, to effectively engage with the provincial and federal governments and granting councils, to fully involve our graduate and post-graduates in the research enterprise, and to make sure that the arts and humanities are not forgotten in this era of STEM and start-up companies.

Is UBC ready for potential federal calls for large collaborative programs? Is it ready to exploit the opportunities created by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee? By the re-organization of NSERC’s RPP? Are we communicating enough about the Clusters, the Superclusters, and the Corridors?

5. Re-establishing the full scale of the 2012 Housing Action Plan for the recruitment and retention of our scholars;

There is another push towards a new and substantive Housing Action Plan, that gives faculty and staff the possibility of owning/leasing (as opposed to just renting) housing on campus. I am perfectly aware that this renewed effort at providing housing assistance to faculty and staff was motivated by the current negotiations around the Stadium neighborhoods, and not by a “wildly efficient advocacy effort” of the faculty on BoG. But heck, we will take it. After all, the opportunity to develop the 2010-12 Housing Action Plan also arose because they needed our support for the humongous densification plans that were in the works then. We shall again use this opportunity to stress this important aspect of faculty recruitment and retention. However, we need to be more vigilant as not to lose this chance again to the maneuvers of an eternally skeptical UBC Property Trust.

6. Prioritizing capital projects to address the needs of research and teaching;

While there seems to be plenty of room to finance money-making, mortgage-attracting,  bank darlings infrastructure projects such as student housing projects, sports facilities, food outlets, etc., opportunities to secure financing for academic infrastructure are non-existent within the configuration of the UBC budget and its current dependence on the BC government. How to fund academic capital projects? Lecture and research seminar rooms, teaching labs,  research infrastructure, faculty office spaces, student study spaces, etc. The provost seems to have a few  ideas. We shall keep you posted.

7. Returning to open searches for senior administrators and to convocation-elected chancellors.

This and many other related items are currently the subject of thorough discussions within the Governance Committee, in response to an official submission co-signed by the representatives of the UBC-V faculty and students. We are awaiting a response from the provost, aided by the omnipresent internal legal counsel. But I can tell you this: We will be holding firm on the issue of open searches for Deans of the Faculties. This is our red line.

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