UBC: The ill-fated revolt of those who ought to know better

“We the undersigned are writing to express deep concern with the lack of transparency regarding the decision on the renewal of the Provost”. This looks like an ordinary enough preface to a standard petition signed by the usual “rebellious” suspects at a North American university. Except that it isn’t. This petition to the president of the University of British Columbia, dated June 22, 2021, was signed by a large number of heads of units and associate deans. It challenges the decision of the Board of Governors not to entrust the current provost with a second term, while assuming and stating as fact that it was contrary to the recommendation of the president. Very unusual indeed, even by the standards of someone who had fathered many “revolts” over the years.

This one is different as it totally ignores the basics of university governance. It is different because it is based on an unverified “understanding” by a group of people in positions of responsibility, of a piece of information that is supposed to be sealed. It is different because it accuses the Board of making an “arbitrary and capricious” decision by not revealing the details of a personnel file. It is different because it is signed by those who ought to know better about how to deal with sensitive personnel issues.

Let me start by stating that this post is not an opinion on whether the Board decision was sound or not. I had chosen not to provide input when it mattered – to the re-appointment committee, hence my personal opinion is irrelevant now, and I will not offer it.   

I understand that the Board has provided a response to the petitioners. I have not seen it, but I am alarmed in learning that another petition to the president is being prepared as a response to the Board, hence this post.

The confidentiality issues: First, what is known and what seems to be conjectured. The petition starts with the premise: “Our understanding is that the Board of Governors did not accept your recommendation, as the President of UBC, that Andrew Szeri be reappointed as Provost.”

How do they “know”? All what is publicly available is that the President struck a re-appointment committee consisting of Board, Senate, faculty, students and management representatives. The President chaired the committee. The committee solicited input from all university stakeholders, and interviewed members of the university community, including the person under review. We also know that this advisory committee is expected to make a recommendation to the President, who brings it to the Board for further deliberations and vote.

We obviously know in which direction that vote went, but the proceedings of the re- appointment committee, the President’s recommendation, and the Board’s deliberations are supposed to be confidential. So, where did the “understanding” of all these heads of units and associate deans come from? What made them so sure of the course of events to convince so many of them to lend their signatures to such a statement?

The president agreeing to form a re-appointment committee may have been a signal of support to his provost. It usually is the case. But extrapolating this intention without giving much weight to the subsequent work of the committee, is a stretch to say the least.

Having been on the Board as recently as 2019, I have witnessed first-hand how the painful governance crisis of 2015 had left its mark on the Board’s proceedings, be it in the form of stricter adherence to governance processes, better applications of pre-approved policies and guidelines, and an overriding spirit of collegiality and fair-play.

That’s why I would personally give more credence to the assumption that the Board followed religiously the recommendations of the re-appointment committee as relayed by the president. But that’s an assumption that only the Board can corroborate, if it hadn’t done so already.  

The challenge to the basics of university governance: The petition continues by singing the praises for the provost: “As faculty members holding leadership positions across the UBC Vancouver campus, we have worked closely with the Provost. The Provost has overseen the academic mission of the university during both a dynamic period of growth and accomplishment as well as through this painful pandemic.”

Fair enough. But surely the re-appointment committee must have heard a myriad of opinions while consulting widely and comprehensively with all the UBC stakeholders: the students, the rank-and-file faculty and staff, the senior managers, the governors who also worked with the provost. Don’t these voices count? What happened to the principle of shared governance?

Implicit in this petition is the assumption that the class of mid-managers knows best, that the opinion of a head of a unit -say philosophy- takes priority over a rank-and-file faculty member in that same unit, who happened to be on the re-appointment committee, hence privy to broadly gathered information. It assumes that the opinions of an associate dean matter more than those of a student in the same Faculty, who has done time on the re-appointment committee, weighing all the information gathered.

And what of the heads of units who did not sign, whether because they approve of the Board’s decision, or because they are showing respect to proper governance processes? How do we weigh their opinions?

Transparency: “Without further explanation, the campus community cannot accept a decision …. To do so without any explanation is inconsistent with the standards of transparency and accountability expected at public institutions.”

This may be the most troublesome aspect of the petition. Are so many heads of units, those who are supposed to deal regularly with sensitive personnel issues, really expecting the Board, the President, and the re-appointment committee to publicly announce the reasons behind their decision? Are they applying these measures when dealing with personnel issues in their departments?

Certain aspects of evaluation processes need to remain confidential not only to protect the reputation of individuals under review, but also the careers of reviewers, be they students, faculty, staff, senior administrators, or governors.

In a public institution, we are surely owed a proper review process, but we seldom challenge and question why a search committee chose one candidate for an administrative position over another. How often is our preferred candidate for Dean, VP, or president not chosen? And when was the last time a search committee publicly detailed its decision? The re-appointment committee was considering whether a new contract for another term is warranted, not interrupting someone’s mandate.

I find it ironic that the last governance crisis at UBC was essentially triggered by a similar reaction from mid-level management against the “removal” in 2015 of another provost in his 9th-year on the job. Yet, there was no petition from them asking for transparency and fair-play concerning a president of color being undermined so early in his term by a subgroup of the Board. We somehow seem inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to some administrators over others. Perhaps the scholars of EDI will, one day, clarify these issues.



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