The Learning & Research committee of the UBC Board: What a difference a year makes (I)

“You had demanded to chair the Learning and Research Committee,” the Chair of the Board proclaimed at last week’s open meeting of a Board’s committee. You bet I did, I replied, “because the reason I ran for the Board one more time is precisely to stop the marginalization of the UBC-Vancouver faculty representatives on this Board.” Charles Menzies interrupted that exchange, and so we may never know whether the chair was tone-policing me (again) by stressing that I had “demanded” or just claiming to have been particularly accommodating to the UBC-V faculty representatives. For I became the Chair of the Learning and Research (L&R) committee of the Board and this series of posts is about what we have done with it over the past year.

In the near future, I will expand on the state of governance, representation, fiduciary duties and independence of the Board from the administration, almost 3 years after the vote of non-confidence by 800 of our faculty members and the subsequent promises of reform by the previous chair, Stewart Belkin.

To summarize, I am pleased to see great steps forward regarding the refocusing on the academic mission. I am hugely disappointed, however, with how governance reform and the rights of elected faculty to exercise their fiduciary duties have fared. And “disappointed” is the right term here because I personally had high expectations from the current chair, Michael Korenberg.

To his credit, the chair who had read my blogposts about the need to refocus the university on the academic mission, encouraged me to “revitalize” the L&R Committee. Indeed, the proceedings of that committee had become over the years a mere formality to approve a few consent items emanating from Senate. The irony is that the Senate doesn’t even have a Research Committee. The documents related to L&R occupied a handful of pages in a docket of more than a thousand.

I am proud to say that a year later, the L&R committee is now at the core of the Board’s activities. Its proceedings during the past 12 months crystallized the magnitude of the academic deficit that had seeped into the university’s operations in the past decade. But the cavalry -in the form of a major academic renewal plan- is on its way and will be the subject of my next post. For now, and since you may have heard of my resignation from the chairmanship of that committee, allow me to share my inaugural address on the very first meeting I chaired on September 13, 2018. It was somewhat prophetic of things to come.

“Thank you Mr. Chair for allowing me to chair the Learning and Research Committee. As you may expect, this aspect of the university is dear to my heart and I am hoping to make it dear to all of you. After all, research and learning are supposed to be at the core of the university mandate, so I don’t like this docket … I don’t like to see the L&R part of the docket dwarfed by finance, by capital projects, and all the rest.

 Now, in the past, much of the committee’s work relied on Senate submissions. I claim that the Board’s contribution to research and learning is at least as important as the Senate’s. For one thing, we don’t have Deans and Associate Deans breathing down our necks. The Board needs to also hear from the rank-and-file.

How to start? Well I have had two very productive meetings with Andrew Szeri, the VP-academic and provost, and Gail Murphy, the Vice-President Research and Innovation. And I would like everyone around here to hear what they have to say. Starting with their vision, their hopes and aspirations for their respective portfolios, their wish list if you will. This will give us a global picture of where they are leading us on this front, and will help us understand, prioritize, and even strategize with them if need be.  

In my meeting with Andrew, I was encouraged to see that many of the issues that I feel this committee should consider in more details are ones that have been highlighted by the provost as priorities:  More creative ways to finance academic capital projects dedicated to research and learning, carefully laid out student enrollment plans, faculty housing and other ways to support the faculty, their recruitment and retention.

But we also need to talk about creatively linking tuition increases (if any) to enhancing learning and research. How to address the fact that the CRCs have been around for 18 years with the same federal contributions. How the selection processes for Canada 150 Chairs, and the CERCs have frustrated our academic units. We need to discuss whether the massive increases in student enrollment was matched by faculty recruitment, and by student and faculty working spaces. More generally, whether the budget model has insulated the deans and the academic mission from the crucially important oversight of this Board? 

On the research side, which is of course not unrelated. Our research faculty bring in more than ½ billion dollars in grants from various sources. These are never part of the budget discussions because well, they are not at the discretion of the Board. But they are hugely important for the institution, its ranking and all the goodies that bring the 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, we lagged behind other institutions, because of the various leadership transitions that we were going through.

The Board has to be cognizant of such matters, and for that matter, I believe it should be fully engaged in the research aspect of the university, and we should be collaborating and supporting Gail in her efforts to multiply the research opportunities, effectively engage with the provincial and federal governments and granting councils, fully involve our graduate and post-graduates in the research enterprise,  make sure that the arts and humanities are not forgotten in this era of STEM and start-up companies. There is also a major communication gap that needs to be addressed. Clusters and superclusters and Corridors … The students also have their good ideas and I will leave it to them to present them whenever they see fit.”

 

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