Let’s make Reading Week a Reading Week – In March

Let’s make Reading Week a Reading Week – In March

By Fred Cutler, Political Science

Reading week is held at the wrong time. Both faculty and students would be better served by a reading week held in mid-March, coinciding with the March Break in most BC schools.

This change would improve working conditions at UBC. An increasing proportion of faculty and staff have school-age children. Almost none have a spouse who stays at home and can care for children when they are out of school. This makes the March school break a challenge. Most families find some kind of camp for their children. Often this involves complicated family logistics, with multiple children being driven to these activities, making it a difficult work week for faculty and staff. One political science colleague reports seeing other UBC faculty working on laptops at the Grouse Mountain base lodge!

Faculty, in particular, are unable to use the school break to take a family holiday, as so many families do. And this is particularly galling, because we have the flexibility to take a family holiday in May and June when children are in school. My senior colleagues say their children went on spring break holidays with other families, year after year. Others describe all kinds of clever ways to reschedule lectures or make deals with colleagues to cover their classes. At some comparable institutions, like the University of Illinois, all this is unnecessary because local school boards time their break to coincide with the university break in mid-March.

Bill Mohn, of the microbiology department, says “Teaching in spring term caused a real dilemma, pitting against one another my commitments to my family and my teaching. It caused me to miss or curtail family vacations. And, this was doubly frustrating in the knowledge that a later spring break would be better for academics at UBC.”

Moving reading week would, quite simply, make life better for UBC employees and their families. This is what UBC’s existing family-friendly policies and the goals of Trek 2010 are all about. And the change is costless.

The second reason to make this change – no less important – is pedagogical. The February reading week, after only six weeks of classes, is simply too early. Many of my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts tell me that they consider it too early to schedule a midterm examination before reading week after so little course material has been covered. Few students use the break in the middle of February for term projects due at the end of March or early April. To some extent they are justified in doing so, since they have had only five real weeks of course material. Instead, many students use it as a holiday week a mere six weeks after the two-week December break.

If the break were in the middle of March, looming deadlines would mean students would use it for term papers and projects. At present, we ask students to do this work while continuing with normal class reading and attendance. With students taking a full load, something has to give, and instructors notice a serious drop in attendance in mid-March. A March break would be more of a “reading week” than a spring break, but it’s called reading week for a good reason.

One account of the origin of the February break is that winter sees the highest incidence of depression, so students need stress relief at that time. (The jury is still out on this in the psychology literature). But surely the real academic stress is in March, when work piles up and exams loom. A March reading week would do as much or more than the February one to reduce student stress.

Put these two arguments — working and teaching — together and it is hard to imagine much resistance to this change.

Note: This post was originally published in the November 2007 Faculty Association’s Newsletter, Faculty Focus (Vol. 40, No. 4: 5). It will not be long now before the author’s own children graduate from high school.


Inquires, again

This post is a continuation of my earlier post,  An Inquiry into Inquiries, and is generated by UBC’s recent release of the Butler report on the investigation into the mishandling of complaints of sexual assault. In the earlier piece, I expressed concern that the Butler inquiry would have little to offer the women who brought forth complaints of sexual assault by a student, and it is an unhappy fact that this gloomy prediction proved to be correct.

Ms Butler found no evidence of any wrongdoing by the University, and no breaches of any existing UBC policy. She found also that university staff involved all acted in good faith. A summary of her report may be found here; it makes a few findings of delay, human error, and lack of clarity in procedures, declares all university actors acted in good faith, and that’s about it. The report offers even less to those who might want to conduct an intelligent debate on the subject of the investigation: none of the evidence is available to those us who might want to make up our own minds on the subject. Indeed, the report offers so little of substance that it’s hard to even write about it.

The women whose lives were affected by the events in question receive scant attention from Ms Butler. They are offered a scant paragraph, which acknowledges that they felt silenced, but the report goes no further than that, and assigns no responsibility for any suffering that might have been inflicted. The origin of the investigation was the fact that six women made complaints of assault, and that they received little or no remedy from the university — while it may be reassuring for the community to hear that no policy was violated and that the university acted in good faith, it seems less than satisfactory from the perspective of victims of sexual assault, whose suffering presumably goes further than simply being “silenced,” and who might reasonably expect some kind of redress. I can find no public record of Ms Butler’s mandate, but it seems clear enough from reading the report that the effects of UBC processes on complainants was not a primary focus.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the complainants proposes to pursue the matter before the human rights tribunal. The marginalization of the complainants in Ms Butler’s report strongly suggests that an outside complaint is the only way to exert pressure on the university to take responsibility for events occurring under its aegis.

The report does not appear in isolation. It comes in a context where the university is experiencing a major public outcry around general questions of transparency and accountability, sparked by events around the resignation of the former President Dr Arvind Gupta, as well as the misappropriation of funds in the Faculty of Dentistry, a breach of academic freedom, and a decision to ignore a petition for disinvestment in fossil fuels which seems to place duty to donors above duty to the community.

In this context, the Butler report reads like yet another UBC media release (and there have been many) that declares no evidence of any problems, which absolves the University administration of any responsibility, and which sidelines the concerns of the persons whose lives were affected by the incidents in question. The common theme in all these matters is an institutional approach which seems to focus on the corporate aspects of the university’s administration more than it does the interests of the community, whether faculty, staff, or students.

The AMS Society and the UBC faculty have both independently called for an external review of the Board of Governors, and one is led therefore to ask what sort of review might actually have some teeth, and address the interests of the community rather than protect the image of the university. Would the Board (or the Government) agree to a review  which gives a third party access to Board deliberations and committee meeting minutes, which seems to be what is wanted? If it did, what sort of limits could the Board reasonably be expected to set? Who should conduct such a review, and what confidence do we have that any finding would be implemented? What are the elements that the community would require? And what recourse would there be if the Board and Government simply refuse?

I do not know the answer to these questions. But those of us — and I am one — who wish to see an inquiry into the Board and the Board Secretariat, might be well advised to move away from general calls for transparency to thinking in more specificity about what an inquiry might look like, about who might conduct it,  and how it might be generated.

Open Letter to the Elected Members of the UBC Board of Governors

“The Board of Governors shall promote a culture of integrity at the University through its own actions, its interaction with senior executives and external parties, and through selection and review of the President.”—UBC Board of Governors Code of Conduct and Ethics

Dear Elected Board Members:

Thank you for taking the time to speak to the UBC community about your votes in favour of accepting the resignation of President Arvind Gupta and your continuing belief, despite subsequent turmoil, that these votes served the best interests of UBC.  I have a few further questions:

In light of the fact that there were some meetings of an unspecified committee of BoG members in the process leading to Gupta’s resignation and that at least some of you were either not aware of these meetings or have now a sense of their impropriety, do you now believe that your judgment as to what was in UBC’s best interests at the time was unreliable, due to your failure to understand or to participate fully in the process that led to that resignation?

In light of the fact that Gupta was prevented by the then Chair from speaking to the BoG, do you now believe that the information you had upon which to base your judgment was biased, fragmentary, and unreliable?

Did you know that Gupta did not have his contractually-required annual performance review?  If you believed he did have that review, did you ask to see the report?  In your view at the time or now, was this violation of the President’s contract in the best interests of the University?

Much has been made of the fact that some details of the resignation fall under the BC Privacy Act.  All actions of the UBC BoG, however, fall under the BC University Act.  This Act enjoins each of you to act in the best interests of the University.  Is it impossible to explain without violating confidentiality the general reasons why the BoG accepted Gupta’s resignation?  If faculty and students do not know the reasons why you accepted the resignation and if we do not know why new information about the processes that led to it fails to alter your judgment regarding that resignation, how can we know if you were acting then or are now acting in accordance with the law? 

Similarly, all BoG activities are guided by the UBC Board of Governors Conduct of Conduct and Ethics.  This Code enjoins you to be a “guardian of the University’s values” and “to direct the Administration to ensure that the University operates at all times … to the highest ethical and moral standards.”  In your opinion, did you yourselves or the BoG as a whole act in the matter of Gupta’s Presidency and resignation as a guardian of the University’s values or to the highest moral and ethical standards?  Did you, as you are further enjoined to do, “promote a culture of integrity” in your actions in this matter?  Have your actions subsequent to the resignation—your support of Montalbano while he was being investigated for alleged violations of academic freedom, your failure publicly to call for more transparency in governance in the wake of highly visible faculty and student protest and action—promoted a culture of integrity or exhibited the highest moral standards?

If UBC faculty and students (or the residents of BC) cannot know if you have acted and are acting in good faith in accordance with the law and with the BoG’s Code of Conduct and Ethics, why do you expect us now to have confidence in your judgment or in the judgment of the BoG as a whole?  How can we support your choice of the next President of UBC?

In the absence of answers to questions like these I, as a member of the UBC academic community and as a resident of BC, cannot support the continuation of the current Presidential search.


Alan Richardson

Professor, Department of Philosophy, UBC


On Taking UBC’s Governance Crisis Seriously

The fate of UBC as a leading Canadian university is now at stake.  Many both within and outside the University have looked upon recent events at UBC with despair—an unexplained resignation of a President, the resignation of a Board Chair after a finding that UBC failed to uphold a faculty member’s academic freedom, an embarrassing and damaging document leak.  The wheels seem to be coming off.

The past few days have brought assurances from UBC leadership that, appearances notwithstanding, all is well.  Martha Piper, UBC’s interim President, and Stuart Belkin, its new Board Chair, issued a public statement; this has been followed by a public letter from the Deans.  Unfortunately, both missives failed to acknowledge that there is a governance crisis at UBC and failed to outline positive steps toward resolving that crisis.

There is a governance crisis at UBC.  It has been several months since the executive of the Faculty Association declared a loss of confidence in the leadership of the Board.  More than 450 faculty members signed a petition asking for a motion of no confidence.  As an institution devoted to teaching and research, UBC is primarily its faculty and students.  If the faculty lack confidence in the Board, UBC cannot function coherently and the faculty cannot endorse the Board’s choice of our next President.

In their statement, Piper and Belkin offer three points.  First, there have been changes to the Board.  Second, the Board is open to a conversation about governance and this discussion will begin in April.  Third, an external legal opinion assures them that the Board did not act illegally before or after the resignation of President Gupta.  These points do not address any of the main concerns of the faculty.  Given that we do not know how the Board governs, we cannot know if the changes in the Board address governance issues that have contributed to recent events.  Acting within the law is a minimal standard of governance and is clearly an insufficient standard of excellence for a leading university.  As for conversation, faculty have been calling for that since August 2015; there is no need to wait for April.

In their letter, the Deans offer three points also.  First, despite rumours to the contrary, they are supporters of Gupta’s vision to place UBC among the pre-eminent public universities in the world.  Second, President Piper and Chancellor Gordon are good, competent, and committed people. Third, we need to get on with our Presidential search and come together.  Again, no substantive issues are addressed.  The only reason why damaging rumours are circulating is that the Board has refused to explain why Gupta resigned. Second, faculty concerns are about governance structures and procedures, not about the individual virtue of those in leadership positions.  Third, in the absence of substantive changes in governance structures, the faculty’s lack of confidence in the Board simply entails that the current Presidential search lacks legitimacy; we cannot endorse the choice by this Board of the academic leader of UBC. (Gary Mason’s recent column on UBC explains the current governing crisis and why the Presidential search cannot continue on its current schedule.) 

UBC, due to the quality of its faculty and students, is the finest university in western Canada.  It aims to be among the finest public universities in the world.  When its governance structures are opaque and when puzzling Board actions and decisions are not explained, UBC cannot fulfil its ambitions and is, indeed, in danger of losing its current status.  Therefore, the faculty demand genuine and substantial reform in UBC’s governance structures. Together with a group of like-minded colleagues, I call for specific actions: suspending the Presidential search pending an external review of Board procedures and structures; suspending Board members engaged in meetings that were kept secret from the full Board and that led to Gupta’s resignation and the deepening governance crisis; putting in place policies that make the Board more representative of the range of constituencies in the province. 

Academic excellence demands a culture of open discussion, genuine listening to and engaging with other points of view, and deep, sometimes difficult, problem-solving.  A university governance culture that does not exhibit these characteristics is inconsistent with academic excellence and damages UBC’s academic standing and mission. Concerned faculty numbering in the hundreds refuse to let that happen.

Beyond the BoG Standard: UBC Governance and the Need for an Academic Voice in Choosing Our Next President

“The opportunity to lead one of the world’s great universities attracted outstanding candidates, but Dr. Arvind Gupta clearly stood out as the best choice to lead this great university. The Board will provide its full support to Dr. Gupta as he guides UBC in its pursuit of excellence, so that we may better serve the people of British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – John Montalbano about Arvind Gupta, March 2014

“You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when the facts are far from certain.  Creating division among individuals whether within the Executive, the Board or the Deans must cease immediately.  The role of the President is to bring people to together.” – John Montalbano to Arvind Gupta, May 2015

These are strange times at UBC.  In the opinion of the then Chair of the Board of Governors (BoG) the person who was the “best choice to lead this great university” in the winter of 2014 became, by spring of 2015, someone who failed to understand the basic job of the President. By the middle of summer 2015 that person was no longer the President.

Despite the revelations in the recent accidental document dump, we still do not really know why Gupta left office. That is, we know he left because a small group of Board members including Montalbano (and others who are still on the BoG) lost confidence in him and made it impossible for him to do the job as he saw fit.  But we still don’t know why they lost confidence in him.  From the evidence of the document dump, they found him not sufficiently consultative, overly aggressive, too controversial. The BoG, the executive, the Deans seemed to tremble before him.  It is, as I said, all very strange.

But with whom should the UBC President consult and about what?

According to Montalbano, the President’s job is to bring people together—by which he seems to have meant to forge consensus among the BoG, the central administration, and the Deans.  Faculty and students seem not to enter into Montalbano’s picture of UBC.  While being unnecessarily disagreeable or divisive is not a good thing in a leader, bringing even the small set of people Montalbano cares about together is not the job of the President of UBC.  According to the BC University Act, the job of the President is to be the “chief executive officer” of the University.  The President “must generally supervise and direct the academic work of the University.”  This academic work is teaching and research, activities of the faculty and students.

What is the job of the BoG?  The Act says: “the management, administration and control of the property, revenue, business and affairs of the university are vested in the board.”  In other words, the Act clearly indicates that the BoG manages the business side of the University in order best to aid the President to look after the academic activities that are the core activities of the University.

I suggest that the heart of the problem is to be found in the term “chief executive officer.”  Because nearly every unelected BoG member is from the corporate world, they seem to think that the President manages the day-to-day business affairs of the University, while the BoG provides the mission and vision.  But the general tenor of the Act goes in the other direction: the Board manages the University’s business affairs in such a way that the President can best direct the actual work of the University, its teaching and research.  The chief body meant to advise the President on the matter of academic vision is the Senate, in which “the academic governance of the University is vested.”

In other words, the root cause of our current difficulties is a misunderstanding in the BoG about their role.  The UBC BoG does not stand to the UBC President and a corporate Board of Directors stands to a corporate CEO.  UBC has a non-business purpose: it exists to foster the public good, to pursue research and teaching.  The President manages this mission and is aided in its governance by the Senate.  The BoG exists to help run the business side of the University in such a way that the academic mission can be discharged as the President and Senate see fit, while remaining mindful of its fiduciary duties to both the University and the province.

The people the President and the Senate should consult most with in thinking about the academic mission of the University are the faculty and students.  Arvind Gupta was doing this.  In the meetings I was in, he was not arrogant (or not more arrogant than the rest of us were), aggressive, or even terribly controversial.  Controversy was loaming, of course, since any actual plan for becoming a top-ten public university would require hard choices.  But the academic community thrives on controversy and knows how to handle it.  We often find ourselves thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when and because the facts are not clear.

Given the chance, the UBC academic community can make UBC great.  The UBC BoG just needs to understand its role, stand back, and let us do it.  This is why UBC faculty and students should have a role in the next Presidential appointment—it is our goals and our mission that person will lead.

Open letter to Premier Christy Clark

Open letter to Premier Christy Clark

From Professor Leah Keshet

What’s happening at UBC is very bad, bad for our university and for our province. It looks bad to those in the UBC community, to British Columbians, and increasingly, internationally.

For someone looking from far away, recent events resemble a lynching: a small self-selected “posse” run their victim out of town for being – shall we say “too uppity” – or was it for not “respecting their authority.” Last time I saw that plot-line, it was in a movie called “Mississippi Burning.” Hard to believe that this could happen in British Columbia, let alone at an institution of higher learning that is among (if not THE) top universities in Canada. But it is totally galling that it happens in an institution that prides itself on being open, transparent and fostering diversity and inclusiveness.

From closer up it looks even worse. That’s because the “race card” has nothing to do with former President Arvind Gupta being chosen. He was simply the best man for the job, and the treatment he received cries out “FOR SHAME”!

Dr. Gupta has always been, and continues to be, one of us: a faculty member who knows the faculty, the academy, and our mission from the grassroots level. Like the rest of us, he spent years training before earning his first faculty position. Like us, he knows the challenges of supporting young students, of undertaking research and publishing, of seeking research funding, and of nurturing and training the researchers and thinkers that will make this province great. He knows the ins and outs of classroom teaching from personal experience.

Beyond that, he has shown vision in creating and leading MITACS, an organization lauded across Canada and around the world for fairness and transparency. As UBC president, he was intent on refocusing the university on teaching and research, which are its primary missions. In other words, he saw the university through the eyes of the faculty and students. Apparently this did not align with certain Board members who were more in tune with administrators, intent on protecting their turf. This was his undoing.

So I ask you: whose university is this anyway?

Are we more concerned with protecting the status quo, promoting the needs of administration even at the detriment of our students and faculty? Are we worrying more about a “bottom line” propagated by a bureaucracy removed from our classrooms and labs? Or are we an academic institution charged with fostering an environment of excellence in our students and in our research programs?

And who speaks for the future of this university? Do we only welcome the views of business people who sit on the Board of Governors, drowning out all other voices? Or do we also open our ears to the faculty and students who are intimately involved in carrying out our mission?

For months after Gupta’s forced resignation, the UBC administration hid the reality behind a smokescreen of “confidentiality.” BoG members, and even Deans and their associates, stonewalled when we asked for clarity. (Our Senate, over time, has become stacked with these stone-wallers, as Senate meeting minutes demonstrate). A search for a new president was launched even while we were prevented from learning lessons that could be applied to that search. It is unconscionable that those in charge, the Board of Governors, took steps to block any path for us to question why the previous president was gone.

The recent “redaction-gate” fiasco has done wonders to lance open this festering wound. It has revealed that the actual events surrounding President Gupta’s resignation were essentially “intrigue,” carried at the highest levels, by self-styled “ad hoc” secret subcommittees who took on a vigilante role.

Recent chatter seems to implicate the provincial government in some of what transpired. This adds further disappointment to what has been a shocking and demoralizing year. Yes, this looks very bad for UBC, honourable premier. But we are forced to ask why we aren’t seeing leadership from our elected officials and from our Premier. You spoke about the critical role UBC plays in building a knowledge economy at the recent Tech Summit so we know you “get it.” If we don’t get UBC back on track, your own vision will be in jeopardy.

As an ordinary faculty member, one of the masses charged with carrying out the university mission, I teach, do research, and carry out service to further the interests of my department and my university. In over 25 years of university life, with literally thousands of students taught, I have been content to carry out my lowly role, letting others carry on the big mission “up there” in the Halls of the Higher Administration.

But now …

I have lost my trust in those administrators.

I have lost my trust in the Board of Governors.

I have no trust in the presidential search committee, whose members include the same vigilantes. We can hardly expect a fair and just outcome in their hands.

Premier Clark, I ask you to do the right thing. Please, set this dismal process straight. Restore President Gupta to UBC, and quash those secret conspiracies. I want to maintain my trust in you.