UBC Vancouver Faculty Forum about the Presidential Search

UBC Vancouver Faculty Forum about the Presidential Search

Below are notes from the UBC Vancouver Faculty Forum on Wednesday, January 27, organized by the faculty representatives elected to the Presidential Search Committee. The forum sought input from the faculty about the search and took place before former President Arvind Gupta talked about his reasons for resigning.

The faculty expressed concern about the governance of the university and the legitimacy of the current search process. It suggested that serious reform is needed, that the presidential role, the role of the Board of Governors, and governance practices must be clearly outlined before recruiting the next president. There was agreement that an external candidate is required, consistent with the message from the Faculty Association. Those present unanimously requested a faculty forum with the short-listed candidates, consistent with AAUP guidelines. There was also recognition that UBC has not always been so dysfunctional, and that with reform in its governance and a supported president, it can return to a period of pride, optimism, and prosperity.

In Attendance: 42 Faculty Members, PSC Faculty Representative Professor Jennifer Berdahl, Board of Governors Secretary Ms. Reny Kahlon.

Call to Order: Jennifer Berdahl, 12:06PM

Welcome and thank you all for coming and making sure that faculty have a strong voice in the selection of our next president. We have an hour. I’m the only faculty rep on the PSC who could be here today, the other two are out of town. Reny Kahlon from the BoG is also here. Alan Richardson, Professor of Philosophy, will moderate the meeting. He was a candidate for faculty rep on the PSC.

Many faculty have contacted me seeking to provide input. The purpose of this forum is to make sure we’ve left no stone unturned. Faculty participation in the town halls was poor. There was a suggestion that we have a faculty-only forum, it’s collegial to listen to each other and discuss. Other options are to send email to your faculty reps, Faculty Association, or PSC.

At its core, the university is defined by the faculty. We build its reputation for research and teaching and attract the quality of its students; the continuity and quality of the university is vested in us. We are the longest serving members of the university with the longest views of it. To be successful, the next president needs the support of the faculty.

I have a few questions to bring forward for consideration in this discussion:

  1. What do you think are the key challenges, opportunities and priorities the next president will face?
  2. What kinds of qualifications (e.g., background experience) and characteristics (e.g., values and leadership style) are important for our next president?
  3. What role should faculty play in the selection of the next president? For example, the AAUP has shared some advice on the role faculty should play in the selection of a president, such as public forum and meeting with the faculty.

When you speak, please introduce yourself.

Alan Richardson, Professor of Philosophy, moderates.

Alex has a microphone. We hope to have a nice discussion among faculty. Please be brief while still saying what you want to say.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

What is the status of the search at this point?

My brief comment would be that the incoming president should be someone of ambition and vision, someone unconstrained by any provincial mindset.

It would be good for faculty to drive the academic direction of the university.

We should drop “A Place of Mind” from our university. A leading university does not need a slogan. “Tuum est” is enough.

Issues like the land use plan….we have an enviable asset with our endowment lands. Perhaps because of composition of the Board, the aim seems to be on current income rather than on longer term goals like recruitment and retention of faculty members.

I know some people want a submissive, obedient leader. We need someone who can take on UBC Properties Trust and advance.

Berdahl

The search committee is just finishing the consultations with various stakeholders. A position profile and a job ad will soon be released. There are no candidates yet. We’ve not gotten there yet.

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

The accidental leak of documents today shows a serious breach of the Board members into the management of the university. This is a structural issue. Mr. Montalbano’s own notes, his instructions, his meetings, his coordination of a select internal group show that direct instructions were given to Professor Gupta. How is it that these corporate personnel were selected to give direction to Dr. Gupta? This deliberate and direct intervention by the BoG into the president’s office means that nothing will be fixed putting a new person in that place. No matter what we bring forward to you, we will continue to get the same situation. Conflict and disruption is systemic. We’ll either end up with a compliant president and “steady-as-she-goes,” or another conflict and cover-up. Perhaps they will only do a better job keeping the records off the books.

If there was one value, I’d like to see front and center and more than just a slogan, it’s the academic mission. The academic mission should be the core agenda of the university. We should not be running a municipality, unless this is clearly linked to the core academic mission of the university. We need investments in research and focus on support of our mission.

When you look at the names of the BOG members over the last decade, you find the social linkages among them, that they represent one narrow band of people in BC. Their primary interest and focus in the development of real estate property and investments. This might be great for corporations, but this focus stultifies the university. How can a president make effective change when we have this narrow band of people running things?

We need to suspend this presidential search.

[APPLAUSE FROM THE ROOM]

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

I agree. The faculty has lost respect and trust of the administration. The process is clearly flawed. The kind of leader we need is precisely someone like Arvind Gupta…someone who puts teaching and research front and center. The process is tainted. We have no chance.

Full Professor, Faculty of Medicine

We have a damaged environment here. The issues appearing in the newspapers everyday are damaging morale. The sexual assault issue is terrible. We need a better environment, with respect for individuals, not sexual harassment. People do not feel safe, it is not a safe place to learn or do research.

Transparency is key. No more redacted documents. Ridiculous. As a public servant, there should be no privacy or confidentiality protecting our president. We need accountability.

Full Professor, Faculty of Applied Science

There was a letter by the Faculty Association suggesting a renegotiation of the contract to get rid of the confidentiality clause. The problem we are facing was a president who left early in his term. Same thing happened in Applied Science a while ago. No mission can be accomplished if the candidate cannot fulfill their term. How can the search committee make sure the next president will stay for their full term?

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

Hypothetical scenario…a friend says “I’m thinking about applying for the presidency at UBC, is it a snakepit?” I don’t know what to say. Will there be enough support to make it possible for the next president to succeed? This is a real burdensome task to convince applicants. Can we tell a story that will convince candidates?

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

I question whether UBC believes that faculty and students are the heart of this university. That is actually a controversial statement in some quarters. Perhaps the university and the search committee needs to address the core mission rather than looking for someone who will keep the investments and property development chugging along. People will say “of course, faculty and students are the core” but the evidence shows otherwise.

Faculty Member, Faculty of Arts

The next president will need to address the status of contingent faculty on campus.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

There is a real sense of demoralization, futility, that the system is broken. It doesn’t matter what we do. Failure of the search is inevitable. What can we do? Several people have said we should cancel the search. Who initiates the process of the search? Do faculty have any say on whether we should go forward, what is the role of the faculty to intervene?

Berdahl

I’ve only been on this campus for a year and a half. What should we do as faculty? If there is this much demoralization, what role should the FA play? What should we do? How should the search go forward. Martha Piper is leaving on June 30. We need input.

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

We are limited by the Province’s control of the BoG. A vote of no confidence on the BoG would indicate strongly our desire for a change of Board. We should all push our networks for accountability and transparency.

Another problem here is the “Dumb gap.” This isn’t Watergate level espionage, just dumb. We can push for no confidence, and be more public.

I hope the next president has a deep understanding of this place and our mission. We have a lot of high level visions but a president who can’t speak to those will be hamstrung locally. Place and promise speaks to this place. I did not see deep engagement with first nations in President Gupta’s presidency.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

We should make sure that we don’t repeat the same problem as what happened with Gupta. We first need to know what happened. Embarking on another search otherwise seems pointless without first taking care of the structural problems. The search costs a lot. It’s demoralizing. Make sure there’s no confidentiality clause with the next president.

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

To me, for the search to succeed, it must develop a clear picture of the job description. The info that’s been released makes it clear that the role of the president and the BoG was not clear during tenure of last president. Any candidate needs a clear statement on how the BoG is going to support and endorse the president, needs to know that the BoG and the president have correct structural relationship.

On the subject of the University Act, I have some doubts on the steps that led to the creation of the committee that led to Gupta’s resignation and the creation of the PSC. There is not enough information to validate whether the creation of the PSC was consistent with the University Act. Was its creation legal under the University Act? If not, it does not even have the authority to hire a president. What were the statutes that gave rise to this committee? Given the closeness of people who formed the Presidential Search Committee to the events with Gupta, there are important questions that need to be addressed.

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

We’re looking for a new president for whom words are tools for communicating. Words appear to be viewed by others as strategic devices to achieve a goal.

I think it’s critical we bring someone in from outside. Internal candidates are unacceptable. FULL STOP. Look through the pool internally. We used the best one. Any other internal candidate is second best at best, by definition. The class of administrators may be fundamentally tainted. At least the outsider we will eventually settle on, their past lives may not be any of our business and a fresh start may be good. Insiders definitely have pasts that are our business but their stories are all redacted.

[LAUGHTER]

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

Whoever the new president is should be someone who can distinguish settling old scores vs. dealing with real unfinished business and making structural changes.

Redactions, non-disclosures, have had a negative effect. Has the new BoG made any commitments to abandoning non-disclosure agreements? Are there any structural guarantees that the search committee has sought from the BoG? Some of the burden of proof leading to a productive relationship between the BoG and President need to be made, guaranteeing the BoG won’t push them out, get the BoG to say “we will commit to this.”

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

That’s a bit like asking the wolves not to eat the rabbits….I kinda doubt that will happen.

There is evidence that people want to hide the mess. Is there a way to force their hand?

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

Seems like the university is run by a legal team concerned with corporate protections, not academics. We need a president who can engage law in the academic mission of the university. We need close scrutiny of UBC legal.

Full Professor, Faculty of Science

The documents disclosed today reveal meddlesome behavior by the BoG in the presidency, private meetings with John Montalbano, Greg Peet, and Lindsay Gordon. Those people who took action to remove the previous president are now selecting the next one. Along with Martha Piper those same people wrote a hit piece on our colleague and my spouse.

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

Should there be a faculty forum to meet the candidates? I would welcome that opportunity. I think most people would like to see that happen. I vote YES for a faculty forum.

Berdahl

Can I see how many people want that with a show of hands?

[UNANIMOUS.]

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

This could be a short-term problem, a 3-4 year turn-of-events, just a handful of people responsible? Toope did a good job. He took the well-being of the faculty seriously. He did a great deal to enhance our global recognition.

It will be good to have a Canadian as the President who knows our unique and distinctive culture. Maybe what’s happened is not going to be a long-term problem. It was functioning well a while ago…there are of course questions as to why Toope did not finish his second term. There was a good period of prosperity.

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

We have some evidence before us. It does speak to a systemic on-going issue. There may have been a change. The development structure, financiers, Brad Bennett and Birgit Bennett, UBC Properties Trust, local & regional real estate should be seen as the people who actually run this university. Effective and formative decisions in running the university are being made by a group of people with a jaundiced view of us as intellectuals and academics. The people who hold the responsibility for the university have this type of view and this is a real problem. Something needs to be changed by legislation so BoG is made to act with best interest of the university.

This particular job search will not affect these fundamental structural problems. I’d like to see someone on the BoG who is involved in the unionized trade sector, someone who works on the ground to address the housing situation, some business people, active alumni…but that’s not what we see right now. The south campus development on endowment lands, the international students, and other issues ….

I speculate that Arvind Gupta was looking carefully at the books and this may have generated the problems with his presidency. We went 10-20 years of not having a president worry about or understand the financial numbers. I don’t really have any hope that this process will change much. We need someone with integrity.

I do ask our colleagues how we can make this place better.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

What can we provide to help the search committee? The next president will need to pay more attention to the problems on the campus, not just focus on the global outreach.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts

We’ve discussed many things that go beyond the presidential search. We may want to have a faculty forum in which we can discuss systemic issues at the university. The demoralization comes from these issues. We seem to feel that no matter who the next president is, the situation will not improve. Faculty feel vulnerable. We don’t like learning things about our university from the Vancouver Sun. I’m feeling very disconnected from our faculty. Discussing those together will be a big help.

Unidentified Faculty Member

Being a university president is a difficult job. UBC is not so unique in that. This is a great time to take stock, we might still find someone.

Richardson

I second the idea for more discussions among faculty members about things we care about. We need to understand what the BoG and senators think their job is. We should reach out to our senators, our faculty reps, and others to make sure we have a shared understanding.

Berdahl

I’ve taken notes and I will bring this information back to the PSC. I like the idea of having a faculty forum. Others are interested in that. We should get that going – and take back our university.

~

Notes Sent Directly to Faculty Reps from Faculty Who Could Not Attend the Forum

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

I won’t be able to make it to today’s meeting, but very briefly: especially in light of what we’re learning today about the relationship between Gupta and the BoG it seems to me that we have major, major issues with the current role, composition, and scope of the UBC BoG that should be looked at very critically before bringing a new pres into this.

I’m really concerned that we’re either going to get someone who is going to tow the BoG line, or get bullied out of office again.

Senior Instructor, Faculty of Arts

I’m teaching during that timeslot, but would like to offer the article below as food for thought. I’d like to see that the next president is someone who values our university’s teaching mission alongside research, including supporting funding, hiring, and careers of people who are dedicated to teaching excellence in the Educational Leadership track. At minimum, the next president should be well-versed in the merits (as well as challenges) associated with this track that the university has committed to.

http://chronicle.com/article/What-Leaders-Can-Learn-From/235011/

Canada Research Chair, Faculty of Medicine

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend today’s meeting. I have been getting one impression that I would like to share. Since I joined the Faculty of Medicine in 2010, it seems that bureaucracy and administration have taken over this University. It appears that the academic component of UBC and the faculty serve the administration instead of the other way around. I may be wrong but if I am not I think this is something that should change.

Full Professor, Faculty of Arts

My point concerns academic freedom in research, teaching, and other academic activities. Much has been said on this already; I simply add my voice to the chorus. The new President should do more than state the importance of academic freedom in general terms (I am sure that all candidates will do so eloquently): she or he should have specific ideas on how academic freedom can be actively cultivated in public universities like UBC.

Associate Professor, Faculty of Science

UBC has increased its student intake consistently over the last decade (or more) in order to make up for shortfalls in provincial funding. This means departments are teaching more students than ever before – leading to larger class sizes, less direct contact between faculty and students, rising dissatisfaction for both students and faculty, and loss of precious research time.

At the same time, many departments are being told that they are “in deficit” as resources are not flowing from the faculty level to the department level. A president needs to understand these pressures – ideally by having been in the classroom in recent past – and be equipped by the BoG to ensure that resources flow to the front-line where they are needed. How will you, as a faculty rep (or other PSC member), ensure that candidates understand these pressures and be empowered to alleviate them?

 

Losing Sight of Basic Principles at UBC

In November I posted “Ten Principles of a Well-Run University” on my blog after reflecting with higher education experts on the leadership crisis at UBC following the sudden and unexplained departure of Arvind Gupta, as well as crises at other public universities (e.g, UBC, Calgary, SaskatchewanMissouri, IllinoisIowa, Texas, and Virginia). The post was greeted with acclaim from faculty, former academic administrators, and even consultants like Alex Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates.

Events over the past six months at UBC, including the infringement of my own academic freedom, in addition to today’s release of unintentionally leaked documents related to the Gupta departure, reveal serious gaps between UBC’s governance and the principles of a well-run university.

UBC seems to have lost sight of the fact that the university is its faculty and students, not its Board of Governors; of the importance of shared governance with a strong faculty voice; of academic freedom (rather than donor concerns) as the university’s core value; of the responsibility of the BoG to represent the public interest through transparency and accountability; of the necessity of formal review of a president with broad faculty input; of communication to and from the governing board being properly through the president (not a micromanaging BoG Chair and end-arounds by the deans); of the right of the president to build his or her own team; and of the need for members of the president’s administration to support his or her leadership.

Before selecting and installing our next president, UBC has far to go in reforming its governance to make sure that president – and the university itself – can succeed.

1. At its core the university is its faculty and its students, by a definition as old as the institution itself. As universities became more complex and granted formal education and degrees, faculties were organized by broad disciplines and were led by the pre-eminent scholars in those disciplines. Thus, deans, vice chancellors, other administrators, and governing boards came into existence to facilitate the work of other scholars and students.

2. The principle of shared governance is inherent in the university. The responsibility for the continuity and quality of the university is vested in its faculty. This means that the faculty is responsible for what is taught, by whom it is taught, and to whom it is taught. It means that the faculty are expected to express views on the policies, leadership, and direction of the university.

3. Academic administrators serve the faculty and its students. All administrative officers in a university have multiple and various responsibilities. However, their paramount responsibility is to advance the mission of the university: the faculty’s ability to discover and advance new knowledge, its freedom to communicate that knowledge, and its service to the community.

4. Academic freedom is the core value of the university. Freedom of inquiry is essential to the discovery, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom is not absolute; its exercise is always subject to the measure of competence, as ascertained by peer review by experts in the discipline. Based on established expertise, however, faculty have the right to express their views, even if others may disagree with their conclusions.

5. The role of governing boards at public universities is to represent the interests of the public. Governing boards are accountable to the public for their actions. Accountability is impossible without transparency, so the actions and reasons for actions of boards must be public and the positions of individual board members with regard to those actions should also be open to public review.

6. Governing boards are responsible for fiduciary and policy decisions affecting the university. Governing boards do not involve themselves in the administration or management of the university, which are the responsibility of the university’s administration and faculty.

7. In consultation with the faculty, the governing board hires and fires the university president. The governing board seeks faculty opinion by means of an organized process with broad input from the faculty. Except for cause, in which case special investigations are required, the termination of a president or the failure to renew a president’s contract is undertaken only after a formal review in which the views of the faculty are sought.

8. Communication to and from the governing board is through the president. This is because the president alone is responsible to the board and the president alone is hired and fired by the board. Exceptions to this line of communication may occur when the board asks the president to have policies explained or presented by other university officials, or when the board has undertaken, with the knowledge of the president, a formal review of the president’s performance. Board members communicate their concerns about the university, its faculty, or students directly to the president.

9. Vice presidents and deans are appointed by the president, in consultation with the faculty, and serve at the pleasure of the president. Vice presidents and deans work with the president in developing the policies of the university that will be presented to the board and they serve as administrators of the university in their assigned spheres. It is not uncommon for a new president to ask for the resignations of those who report directly to the president to enable the new president to build his or her own team.

10. Members of the president’s administration support the president’s policies and leadership. They are free to advise the president and to disagree with the directions or policies of the president when consulting with the president. As members of the president’s administration, they should not criticize those policies in a public forum or to the board of governors without the consent of the president, except in the case of a formal review of the president by the board in which broad faculty input is sought. If these administrators feel unable to support the president in this way, they should return to their faculty posts, where they can exercise their freedom to express their criticism publicly.

An Inquiry into Inquiries

The University of British Columbia has suffered an unpleasant string of crises since the sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta as President in August 2015. The furore occasioned by his unexplained departure was rapidly followed by allegations that the Chair of the Board of Governors had interfered with a faculty member’s academic freedom and by the resignation of that Chair of the Board. More recently the University has seen a documentary on national television alleging that University neglected to take seriously complaints of sexual assault; the bringing of a 10-million dollar lawsuit by the federal government for the misappropriation of funds by an Associate Dean in the faculty of Dentistry; and the public suspension of a prominent author and public figure from a university position on the grounds of serious but unspecified allegations.

Each of these individually would be embarrassing enough; taken together, they paint a disturbing picture of administrative malaise. The University has consistently taken the position that the UBC “brand” is strong enough to wear these shocks, but there’s no question in my mind that the University’s reputation has suffered, at least amongst the academic community: people are asking what on earth is going on at UBC, and what the institution proposes to do about its failures as it moves forward.

The sad fact is that we don’t really know what is going on at UBC. Accurate information about Guptagate is hard to come by, and we don’t know all that much about the other scandals either. What we do know, however, is that the university has launched a number of high-profile inquiries in recent months, and these inquiries form the core of the university’s response to the problems that beset it.

So what is an inquiry? More to the point, what is an inquiry not?

An inquiry, in the sense it’s being used at UBC, is an administrative process. The persons involved sit down with a qualified individual (the investigator) and tell their versions of the story; the investigator interviews them and any relevant witnesses, and eventually comes to some set of conclusions which are set down in a report. The scope of the report and the scope of the conclusions are limited by the mandate given to the investigator at the outset.

Inquiries of this kind happen all the time in the workplace. Typically, they are low-key affairs, conducted by the HR Department, perhaps with the participation of a trade union or any other organization that may be involved. The fact of the investigation is not made public, and neither is any report, in accordance with standard labour practices.

The recent inquiries at UBC are of a slightly different flavour. The issues at hand are high-profile and of great interest to the university community. Suitably high-profile outside investigators have been hired to conduct the processes: the Honourable Lynn Smith, who was charged with investigating a complaint of violation of academic freedom, is a former Judge at the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and Paula Butler, who is currently investigating the handling of complaints of sexual assault, is a well-known labour and employment lawyer. The terms of reference of each of these inquiries include the issue of a public summary of the findings and some level of public engagement with the results, since the issues under investigation have serious implications for the future operations and policies of the university.

These sorts of inquiries are not judicial processes in the way that a court case or even an arbitration might be. Generally speaking, the mandate of the investigator is confidential, the participants are not under oath, there may not be any lawyers present, and there is no opportunity for any cross-examination of the witnesses. And if that weren’t enough, the mandate may not include the power to impose sanctions, and it’s not at all clear from the outside what sort of investigation was actually done. The actual report is a non-binding document that belongs to the participants; the only thing the public gets is a summary of the findings, if such a thing was included in the terms (which is the exception rather than the rule).

The point here is that the summary that makes up the only public record of such an investigation is a pretty weak instrument for any kind of public engagement or public policy. It is a purely administrative document, not a judicial decision, and as far as shedding light on the case at hand goes, it may be neither effective nor satisfying. Implementing the findings of such a report are up to the parties, and what happens in practice is anybody’s guess, since the issue of remedy and redress for the facts determined by the investigation is often hived off to a separate and less public process.

The public summary of Lynn Smith’s report on the allegations of violation of academic freedom is a case in point. Justice Smith made the Delphic pronouncement that while no single individual was guilty of violating academic freedom, the collective actions and inactions of a group of persons did have exactly this result, and she points out 3 specific points of failure, without supplying detail. The unfortunate fact is that, no matter how thorough her investigation might have been, the public doesn’t have the context in which to interpret her summary. The university’s response has been predictable – appoint a new adminstrator, and develop new administrative processes.

The public version of the Butler investigation of the complaints of sexual assault is yet to be revealed. Ms. Butler’s mandate does not seem to be public, and it’s hard to predict what her findings will be. My fear is that restorative justice for the complainants will be eclipsed by generalities about administrative process: new policies, new positions, new procedures, but little to transform the underlying culture that that led to the complaints in the first place. It is a sad fact that inquiries are creatures of administrative practice, designed for resolving administrative problems in the workplace, rather than instruments for the delivery of justice.

The good news is that the complainants in the sexual assaults have recourse to other avenues to seek justice. At least one complainant has announced the intention of a complaint before the Human Rights Tribunal, which is an entirely different beast: it’s a public affair, with testimony delivered under oath, and in front of a body with the power to order specific compensation and remedies. As such, it’s a much more powerful (and empowering) venue, and one that is responsive to the needs of the complainant as well as to those of the institution.

To me this is the crux of the issue. UBC is a massive and complex institution, but, more than that, it is a large and complex community of people. We play host to fifty thousand students, to any number of faculty and staff, and increasingly, to people who simply live in the residential buildings that have sprung up across campus. However, it is governed by statutes and process that are cobbled together from the Universities act, administrative law and — increasingly — corporate practice. HR practices such as inquiries are designed to address workplace issues, not core policy and justice questions such as sexual violence, or freedom of expression in a community that’s equivalent to a small municipality.

Knowing about Sexual Assault, Having Enough Evidence, and the Contextualist Fallacy

Knowing about Sexual Assault, Having Enough Evidence, and the Contextualist Fallacy

This post (very slightly edited) is cross-posted from my personal blog as part of UBC Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Earlier this month I wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about university sexual assault policies. One of the things I tried to do there was to draw a connection between some of the questions in that area and my own research into knowledge and contextualism. I tried to make the case that a kind of contextualist fallacy lies behind some attitudes about university sexual assault policies. I still think that’s plausible and interesting, although there are certainly competing possible explanations. But one tweet I received in response definitely commits the contextualist fallacy.

The contextualist fallacy is the failure to attend to the context-sensitivity of language, allowing for the construction of a superficially apparently-valid argument that is in fact fallacious. For example, the word ‘now’ is context-sensitive. Sometimes when it is used, it refers to 9:47 am Monday, Jan 18. (In fact, that’s the time that word refers to when I utter it right now.) Here is a true sentence:

1. It is before 10:00 Monday right now.

Actually, although it is before 10:00, it’s not very far before 10:00, when I have to teach. So I’d better come back and finish this post later.

Continue reading “Knowing about Sexual Assault, Having Enough Evidence, and the Contextualist Fallacy”

More on Why UBC Should Have a Sexual Assault Policy

In a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, my colleague, Jonathan Ichikawa, offered some reasons why universities should have sexual assault policies, rather than rely solely on the police and the justice system.  I want here to offer a framework for thinking about such reasons.

Universities are communities brought together for instruction in existing knowledge and the production of new knowledge.[1]  A thesis common to pretty much all varieties of social epistemology says that such communities are best able to achieve their goals when they are open, tolerant, and ethically well-functioning.  This is why faculty and students are right to concern themselves with issues such as systemic silencing of voices or structural bias against people of specific sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin, or other qualities immaterial to the pursuit of knowledge.  Students who are silenced or scared are not adequately integrated into the university community and cannot properly fulfill their own academic roles.  University faculty members have fought hard for academic freedom in order to achieve for themselves sufficient autonomy and security that they can properly fulfill their research and teaching roles.

So, with respect to sexual assault and other sexual misconduct within the university community, two points: First, anyone in a university community who has been assaulted or harassed by another member of the community has been harmed in a way contrary to the best workings of the community and, in all likelihood, lives in substantial fear of further harm.  Thus, anyone bringing forward an allegation of sexual assault by another member of community is alleging a substantial failure of duties of care within the community; we must act diligently not merely with concern for due process and justice but with concerns of care for the person bringing forward the allegations and the person(s) against whom the allegations have been raised.  This is the crux of the matter in some of the recent cases at UBC: duties of care toward those who brought forth allegations (and potentially others—including others who might have been put at risk by processes that give primary weight to confidentiality) were not properly attended to while the University investigated their cases.

Second, on matters of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, universities have, by all credible accounts, done a terrible job of achieving just, open, caring communities.  University campuses in Canada (and around the world) have an unsolved problem of sexual misconduct—many members of our communities act sexually from values our communities do not endorse and should not tolerate.  Indeed, universities have never done a very good job on these issues or on related matters of gender equality.  On these issues, we can work toward fairness, justice, and compassion without the slightest temptation to think that we are trying to bring back “the good old days.”  If burglary or murder within our community were as rife as is sexual misconduct, we’d need a burglary or murder policy.  We don’t. But a sexual assault policy, within a larger framework of appropriate sexual behaviour policies, helps solve a problem we genuinely have.[2]

Those of us who were brought up academically in the liberal arts tradition do not view advanced education simply as a route to a job or even as simply an opportunity for “pure,” disengaged intellectual pursuit.  A student entering UBC enters into our academic community. We hope to inspire our students to pursue the formation of open, tolerant, intellectually curious and rigorous communities throughout their lives.  The BC University Act specifies first the “convocation” of BC universities—which comprises the Chancellor, the President, the Senate, the Faculty, and all graduates of the University.  Alumni of UBC are always part of UBC.  When we fail to form a morally well-functioning community at UBC, we fail ourselves, our students, and our alumni. We fail to achieve the conditions under which we are all best able to fulfil the functions the people of British Columbia have invested in us.

[1] This is enshrined in law in BC.  See the BC University Act, Section 47.2.

[2] “Sexual behaviour policies” is a phrase that might make some nervous.  The point is not to limit the often robust sexual exploration that some in the academic community engage in, except to specify that this exploration must take place within the context of consent and in full knowledge of structural and individual power differences in the community.