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.