UBC: Failures in governance are slowing down the pace of academic renewal

I had promised many things to those who elected me to the Board of Governors as a faculty representative for UBC-Vancouver. But as I mentioned in a previous post, a data dump from the faculty association last October opened my eyes as to what my top priority should be. The data showed how far this university had veered away from its academic mission. Between 2006 and 2018 student enrolment has increased about 52% (41,573 in 2006 vs. 63,439 in 2018). The FA data shows that in the same period the RESEARCH faculty increased 4.2% (from 2,107 to 2,196) and the TOTAL faculty rose 8.2% (from 2,965 to 3,209). The numbers provided by the administration are different but the overall picture is similar. Here is a personal account on how things developed since, with a focus on what I see as deficiencies in governance practices that are pre-empting both Board and Administration from realizing stated ambitions.





In my opinion, if the goals advertised in the UBC strategic plan were to be taken seriously, the Board needs to see a course of action for a net increase in research faculty over the next 5 years or so of at least 1000 positions. A “no-brainer” I thought: the administration would see this as an opportunity to fix the situation and establish a legacy. Ditto the Board would assume its responsibility to address this sorry state of affairs. How wrong I was. Let me explain.

The first step was to dig into the Faculty Association numbers. We needed the administration to verify them and to provide more details such as how different Faculties were impacted. After all, the massive increases in international student enrollments and revenues did not affect them all in the same way.

Shockingly – and there is no other term to describe it – it took several long months to get even basic data. And to this day the faculty-by-faculty count for the past 10 years is still eluding the Board. First, we only got the numbers of the last 4 years. Why? Because, this multibillion dollar public institution is challenged in collecting its own data, we’re told.  Then, the Board was promised more “in the next Board cycle”, which means at-least another three months delay.

Inability to provide data to a Board is a fundamental failure of governance because Governors need information to carry-out their fiduciary duties. I often call us the “Quantum Board,” since essentially nothing happens between cycles. Besides the omnipresence of the Board chair on the 7th floor of Koerner, there is essentially no engagement between the administration and Board members outside Board cycles.

A second governance failure is keeping a tight lid on this sort of data effectively preventing the major stakeholders in UBC – the people of British Columbia – from seeing how their funds are being allocated. In spite of objections, all the data we saw was presented in-camera (closed session) meetings. I believe that transparency and open sessions would have forced the issue and accelerated the process of restoring the academic focus. There is no justification to not having these sorts of Board proceedings wide open. It has been said that sunlight is a disinfectant. I say it is also a stimulant.

The administration committed to the Research and Learning committee to develop an academic renewal plan that will at least meet the stated aspirations of moving the university “from excellence to eminence”.  The plan eventually arrived with the material of the June Board cycle not long before the committees meet. As Chair of L&R, I had been promised a consultation prior to submission to Board, a basic tenant of good governance. But this never happened. Instead the plan unfolded in a closed session I am not at liberty to expand on.

Suffices to say that the Board Chair and I eventually agreed that we needed a Board-led initiative to oversee this situation and ensure a sound plan. In the subsequent open session of the Board, the Chair pushed for the approval of a so-called “working group” instead of a Board committee.

Now we hear 3 months after we had approved this initiative, that the UBC academic renewal working group will be announced to Board on Sept. 3, 2019 and to Senate on Sept. 11. Its report to Board is expected in June 2020 almost 2 years after we first sounded the alarm. What is causing such delays? Machinations of governance.

The formation of this working group is yet another failure of good governance. Indeed, working groups are ad-hoc constructs with no official mandate or clear terms of reference. They involve non-Board members chosen at the sole discretion of the Board Chair and hence are unaccountable to the Board. Admittedly, they are also used to exclude certain members of the Board from deliberations, even those duly elected and with the right knowledge and expertise.

Unlike Board standing committees, the working groups of the UBC Board function in total secrecy. Even Board members cannot attend and participate in their proceedings. They are all led by the Board Chair but are managed by the Office of the President, which removes the independence of the Board from the Executive. In short, working groups can be used in all sorts of ways contrary to the basic oversight of the Board.

The proliferation and the “flexibility” of these working groups is becoming a preferred modus operandi of the current Chair, who happens to chair all of them. Both the “Housing Action group” and the “Financial Strategy Working Group” are dealing with very important academically centered issues while circumventing the mandate of the standing Learning and Research Committee of the Board.

The L&R committee also pushed hard (some say too hard!) for a serious review and reform of our graduate programme. Eventually, this also became a major component of  the academic renewal working group. Again, we wished the process followed proper governance and included the expertise on the Board adequately, but it wasn’t to be.

At the end of the day, the potential for positive steps towards academic renewal and the improvement of our graduate program trumps (Did I say Trump?) everything else. It should not be slowed down by the shenanigans of university governance.

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