by Juliet O’Brien, Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies
Cross-posted from meta-meta-medieval
I. WHAT AM I VOTING ON?
The [UBC] Faculty Association Executive Committee was presented with a petition signed by over 450 faculty seeking to have a membership vote on a no confidence motion. The motion, sponsored by Jonathan Ichikawa (Philosophy), Juliet O’Brien (FHIS), and Alan Richardson (Philosophy) is as follows:
“Be it resolved that the Faculty Association of the University of British Columbia has no confidence in the University of British Columbia Board of Governors.”
Pursuant to the Association’s Constitution, the President, in discussion with the Executive Committee, has agreed to call a special general meeting of the membership to discuss the motion, which will be voted on electronically following this meeting to ensure that all members have an opportunity to participate in the vote.
Meetings at both the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses will be held on Tuesday, March 22nd from 2 pm to 3:30 pm.
- UBC Vancouver: Jack Poole Hall South, UBC Alumni Centre, 6163 University Boulevard
- UBC Okanagan: Sci 337, Science Building
THE ABOVEMENTIONED PETITION = RESOLUTION FOR PRESENTATION TO THE UBC FACULTY ASSOCIATION
Whereas the UBC Board of Governors is required by law to act in the best interests of the University (BC University Act 19.2);
and whereas it has come to light that the Board has held secret, unannounced meetings of the Board, leaving no documentation of its activities;
and whereas Board members have formed secret ad hoc committees in which governance activities have been pursued without oversight and contrary to policy and procedural norms;
and whereas these committees and the Board have taken decisions or engaged in actions—such as declaring no confidence in the President with no formal review or input from faculty, declaring full confidence in the Chair after his role in interfering with a faculty member’s academic freedom, interpreting fiduciary duty to the university as pertaining to donors rather than its faculty, students, and staff—that are not obviously in the best interests of the University;
and whereas the Board has declined to explain such actions to the University community;
and whereas, consequently, we faculty members in good standing at UBC find that we cannot know—indeed, we have strong reason to doubt—that the Board has been operating in accordance with its legal obligations to the people of British Columbia;
therefore be it resolved that the Executive of the UBC Faculty Association, as soon as possible, bring a motion to its membership expressing no confidence in the UBC Board of Governors.
Submitted to the UBC Faculty Association Executive 11 February, 2016.
Signed by 457 members of the faculty, with the added support of 62 emeriti.
This petition came into being as a next step from a grassroots protest on 2 February; composed a few days later, posted publicly online, and circulating by word of mouth and social network over the next few days. This grassroots protest is not a faction competing for power, nor a Grand Movement with a Leader or Leaders, but a collective of members of the UBC community who care about their university—as a whole and in its constituent parts, including individual persons—and are concerned about its good governance. The collective isn’t just faculty although the petition brought to the Faculty Association had, obviously, to be brought and signed by faculty; it also includes students, alumni, staff, emeritus and emerita faculty, and intersects with a number of other groups around UBC (and beyond) who are interested in issues such as divestment and sustainability, women’s rights, LGBTQ2S / LGBTTQQIAAP, First Nations, anti-racism, human rights, and transparency.
II. WHAT IS GOING ON AND WHY? WHERE DID THIS IDEA OF NO CONFIDENCE COME FROM?
Here follows a very rough rapid historical overview of events over the last year. I shall attempt to keep them short, simple, and neutral.
- UBC Futures is a good repository to read
- UBC Faculty Association, “Presidential Search, Governance Issues, & UBCFA Fact-Finding Process”
- UBC’s President, Arvind Gupta, resigns in mysterious circumstances. There is media coverage, commentary, and speculation; fueled by an absence of information.
- Martha Piper is appointed as interim President.
- The then Chair of UBC’s Board of Governors comments on the resignation and on speculation thereon, speaking through the official communications-channel of UBC; this is already an inappropriate abuse of Public Affairs / News and an overstepping of authority. The Chair of the Board—half of our bicameral system, each chamber of which has an advisory function with respect to the President, the other chamber being the Senate—cannot speak as the University: only the President can do so. Rather like a head of state.
- Jennifer Berdahl, a member of the faculty in UBC’s Sauder School of Business whose academic work deals with leadership, comments on the President’s resignation and is subjected to harassment and other mistreatment, including by superiors (the managerial ranks in the university) and by the then Chair of the Board of Governors. These actions result in matters being brought to the Faculty Association (the UBC union that represents academic faculty—“academic staff” in other parlance—of all ranks, from sessionals—“adjunct faculty” elsewhere (not here, adjuncts are something else here)—to full professors).
- An external enquiry by former judge Lynn Smith concludes that “UBC failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom…through the combined acts and omissions of Mr. Montalbano [the then Chair of the Board of Governors], the named individuals in the Sauder School, and others.”
- The Chair of the Board of Governors resigns.
- A Presidential Search Committee is struck, chaired by Chancellor Lindsay Gordon and four other members of the Board of Governors (including Darrin Lehman, also serving as a faculty representative), three deans, three senators, three faculty representatives (including Jennifer Berdahl), three staff, and three students.
- UBC documents are leaked to the media (including independent media and individual bloggers) revealing emails between the former Board Chair and President and revealing that certain members of the Board of Governors held secret meetings (to which others on the Board were not party), undocumented, including meetings about the then President. Other meetings would appear not to be fully documented or minuted. The members of the Board of Governors involved in the secret meetings include those running the search for a new president.
- The UBC Faculty Association issues a statement outlining concerns that the Board of Governors and its Secretary had violated FIPPA laws, Provincial guidelines and best practices, and questioning whether the search for a new President should continue under the leadership of the current Board of Governors given these concerns.
- Over 200 faculty and community members protest the Board of Governors meeting on 2 February calling for transparency, accountability, an end to secret committees and meetings, and divestment.
- The student Alma Mater Society (AMS) issues a statement outlining concerns with Board processes leading up to Dr. Gupta’s resignation and calling for an external review of the Board of Governors and a delay in approving any candidate proposed by the Presidential Search Committee until such a review is complete and incorporated.
- Divestment is rejected at a 15 February Board of Governors meeting in a manner that dismisses evidence, proper reasoned debate, and support for divestment that had been expressed by students and faculty
- Statements are made by the Board of Governors, by individual members of the Board, and by others in the University in support of the Board. The lexicon of “confidence” is heavily used.
- The Board of Governors announces that it will discuss governance issues with interested faculty, staff, and students in its (regularly-scheduled) 14 April meeting. It is not yet known what shape this discussion will take, who is invited (it’s unclear whether this is just “spinning” the fact that elected representatives of faculty and students would be there anyway), and whether it would be free and open (or indeed a discussion, by any common-sense definition).
[Adding in comment: while this invitation has been “spun” by the Board of Governors in the media—for example to deploy ambiguity in order to suggest that this is a new event and an invitation extended to everyone—that very ambiguity give us all room to make 14 April a day for change and conversation, and an opportunity for a first public move towards genuine rapprochement, relationship, mutual respect, trust, and true—reciprocal and communal—confidence. Consider this a friendly suggestion to the Board of Governors.]
- The results are released of a Faculty Association survey asking faculty if they had confidence in the Presidential Search Committee. The majority (72.5%) of 885 respondents expressed a lack of such confidence.
- Jennifer Berdahl resigns from the Presidential Search Committee, stating she has “lost confidence in the willingness of the committee to hear the concerns of the faculty and to learn from mistakes of the recent past to improve the future of UBC.”
CONTINUING THROUGHOUT THIS PERIOD (AUGUST 2015-MARCH 2016)
- our Board of Governors has used the UBC website for its own public information and publicity purposes; as well as external PR, strategy, and legal consultants; and placed op-ed pieces in the local and national press (Vancouver Sun, Globe & Mail, etc.); in a manner that placed any dissenting voices at a disadvantage not least as individuals, groups, and even the FA did not have access to the same internal resources (ex. UBC Public Affairs) nor to the financial means to access similar external ones.
- PR has been used as much for manipulation, strategic games, and disinformation as it has for information.
- a number of Freedom of Information requests had been made (also on other University affairs). These had been met with delays and resulted, when results there were, in heavily redacted documents. It appeared that much of the Board of Governors’ activity was undocumented. Governors did not all systematically use UBC email addresses for conducting all UBC correspondence. Given the provenance of many members of the Board—especially the majority who are unelected, appointed by the Province—their interests, interpretation of “acting in the University’s interest,” and possible conflicts of interest have been called into question.
- Whatever did or did not occur, the end result is a lack of information. In the absence of facts, of material evidence, members of the university community have been asked to believe or disbelieve the Board (and believe in the Board) on the basis of their word alone (in the case of those individuals who have made statements to the press) or on the basis of their silence.
Some further recommended reading:
III. WHY DO I HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN THE UBC BOARD OF GOVERNORS?
There are several reasons for my lack of confidence in the Board of Governors. Many of them are already in the petition above. My most serious one is a moral reason, as a matter of principle and conscience: because confidence shouldn’t even be an issue and there’s something deeply wrong about the way “confidence,” “faith,” and “belief” are being brought into play.
The Board has acted in a way that is at best merely barely compliant with a legal minimal standard. (They are not alone: this ethos may be observed elsewhere in university management and procedure.)
Had the Board acted in a responsible, accountable, transparent, open way we would not be asking such questions and this motion would not even have been contemplated, let alone brought to the assembled Faculty to be voted on through our Faculty Association. The same is true of other representative bodies of the UBC community, including those who have elected members on the Board of Governors, who could also bring similar petitions to their membership: the AMS (undergraduate students), the GSS (graduate students), CUPE 2278 (graduate student teaching assistants), and the various unions representing staff. The Alumni are also represented on the board in the persons of a certain number of those members appointed by the Province. Any of these bodies could bring similar petitions and hold similar votes with their constituencies.
Responsibility does not mean mere legal compliance. Due diligence. Or not being caught breaking the law; or enjoying the gentle art of brinkmanship by seeing just how far you can go without bending the law too far, how far you can push it. That may be a satisfactory standard of behaviour in some business cultures: but not in all businesses; and this is not a business, it is a university; it is also a public institution, part of the public service, and as such should be setting the standards. Responsibility includes behaving in an ethical manner. Such as acknowledging when wrong has been done and harm caused and apologising for such actions.
With a duty to the higher interest of the university: as a whole, as a university, and to its long-term benefit. This means taking a very long view: for decades and centuries, not merely until the next Board, Provincial, or Federal election.
With a duty to the special work and identity of a university: to teaching and learning, scholarship, the preservation and archiving of knowledge, and the intellectual work of questioning, discussing, analysing, and criticism; again in the longer term: even (and perhaps especially, if you recall the exemplary case of Einstein and the Institute for Advanced Study) if the end results of this university work are unpredictable and will be unknown for a long time, often for the lifetimes of those running a university. To a delicate balance of letting academics (faculty but also students and alumni) be, and supporting them.
With a duty of care to every individual member of the university community: to make the university an exemplary model of an ideal in action, experimenting to set best practices and radical standards in this living laboratory: to be not just functional and productive but nurturing, caring, compassionate, humane; inventive and innovative through happiness and the stability and safety that give free rein to imagination. And there’s a duty of care to individuals as individual human beings: accorded due dignity, respect, and value.
Accountability means being able to make a full account of oneself and one’s actions; to tell the whole story / history; and it would necessitate full record-keeping. Meeting minutes: proper verbatim transcripts or, ideally, whole recordings. Records of all votes, including the entire voting history of every member. All correspondence. Archives. Free open public access to all archives. Live streaming of meetings. The one exception would of course be those parts of Board activity that had in their nature to be private and confidential: but these ought to be the exception (and clearly described and distinguished as such, with strict limits) rather than the rule, and still properly fully recorded but under seal.
Accountability and responsibility combine in a duty that elected members of the Board of Governors have to the electorate that they represent. I have seen no evidence that the Faculty representatives have considered, consulted with, or represented faculty interests let alone the general interests of the university, the greater good, the commonweal of our common res publica.
The Board has not been accountable. I am open to persuasion. Show me proof of good behaviour, conscientious decision-making, accounts of all activities.I want to be persuaded. I would prefer to be persuaded, and content, and calmed and reassured. That would make me happier. I don’t like being unhappy!
Transparency (as discussed in an earlier blog post here, with full OED entries) entails being clear and open. Openness to questioning: be that in completely free open meetings, or—as is easily done in 2016—online in free open discussion. We have been presented with prepared statements by individual board members, either posted on the UBC website (with no possibility of reply or online discussion) or in newspapers. “Dialogue” has been offered but this seems to mean “the right for a representative of a group to make a two-minute statement which won’t be interrupted.” This does not constitute dialogue, nor the more useful constructive conversation, in any dictionary or common sense of the term; nor in the terms of more specialised usage, in discourse analysis, textual criticism, and so on. The key element is the phoneme con- : “with, together.”
The Board has been neither transparent nor open: it has also often been silent. These actions and ways of working obscure. Adding a lack of clarity.
We have also been subjected to gross misuses and grotesque abuses of language, often expressed in hair-raisingly poor writing with even worse argumentation; but that is another story for another day. Suffice it to say, for present purposes, that bad writing and little evidence for reading (let alone good, sensitive, intelligent reading; or understanding; or thought) are unlikely to instill confidence in a literary scholar.
I find myself faced with the following problem:
With respect especially to the specific items outlined in the original petition, I do not know enough about what the Board has done, and what it has not done, and how, and why. This information simply isn’t available. Worse, it’s very much emphatically unavailable. I therefore have insufficient evidence from which to read, analyse, and interpret their actions; to draw conclusions; and on which to base a rational judgement on good and bad, rightness and wrongness, and thence to declare support and agreement with the Board (or the contrary).
What little I have been told—as a member of the faculty and as a member of the public—encourages me to “believe” in our Board, to “have faith” in them (as individuals and as a whole). This is what they mean by having confidence; although technically that crucial con- of “with, together” is absent: this is not a bi- or multi-lateral relationship, it is a one-way “faith in” by a believer, directed towards that in which they believe, without any necessity of any reciprocity or of anything in return. Blind faith. Some of the tone of this encouragement has been disrespectful or intimidating; some colleagues have had more overtly threatening comments on their support for the petition. (I have the good fortune to have a civil and civilised department and head; this is mere brute luck.) For example: if my Dean has faith in the Board, then I should. If faith is good enough for my superiors and betters, than it should be good enough for me. If I do not have faith, and express that, the implication is an insult to my Dean and my other betters. And disobedience, and insubordination. Though I never made a public oath of obedience in a ceremony of fealty to these individuals, or to their formal roles: my duty, as per my contract letter and the Collective Agreement, is to my department and to the University and its general interest (so: including students).
Yet I cannot, should not, and will not make a decision that should be rational on the basis of faith or blind belief. And certainly not if threat, fear, or manipulation are added. That would not be a proper moral choice by a free agent: sceptical, in good faith, true to myself. It would also be an absurd way foran intellectual at a university to make a decision; as invalid as not thinking at all. We are, you may recall, in the thinking business.
IV. WHY AM I DOING THIS?
Some other occurrences and aspects of the practice of everyday life at UBC over the same period and going further back in time may be borne in mind, and have influenced my lack of confidence, being part of an endemic larger problem of systemic practices. They are not, however, directly and immediately related to this specific motion and the specific events to which it relates.
So. Related matters that point to generalised systemic problems and practices:
- 2015, coming to light especially through the fall and with a CBC documentary: cases of sexual harassment and assault come to light. It becomes clear that these cases add insult to injury—or rather, further injury to injury—in how survivors are dealt with by UBC’s policies and procedures. There is another external enquiry, again exculpating the university from their minimal legal obligations, but (even in the executive summary of the report that was the only version released to the public) with reprimands.
- from 2014 onwards: faculty and staff are required to take compulsory training on workplace bullying and harassment. I took both the online and the in-person versions of this training. This was an exercise in compliance (as a public-sector workplace): for individuals, for academic departments and other “units,” and for the university as a whole. The purpose and end were regulatory compliance. Not change, education, re-education, altering behaviour as a conscious considered moral decision. Not, in short, ethics.
- In at least my time here (2009 onwards) policies and practices in a number of areas, including academic ones (ex. Learning Outcomes), move towards the purely quantifiable, commensurable, and commodified in an organisational and operational structure that is based on certain models from the business world, using its language and principles. Or the lack thereof that passes as principles and values; I point readers to the Project Management Handbook which contains less than one page on ethics and little more on cultural sensitivities, both presented as an unfortunate inconvenience.
- Most governance takes the form of emails sent through a mass general list. Many smack, to say the least, of government by fiat and dictat. By an imposed higher power that is alien and alienating. That is worrying. For starters, its immediate consequences are distrust, insecurity in the face of unpredictability and seeming irrational whim, discomfort, unease, suspicion, wariness, anxiety, and fear. We may all wish to discuss arrogance and arrogation, hubris and outrecuidance further later; for the moment, it might be useful to ponder checks and balances, the accountability of authority, and better models—from other times, places, and cultures—for responsible harmonious social organisation with free will, goodwill, and consent.
V. WHAT WOULD I LIKE TO HAPPEN NEXT?
I would like faculty to have the opportunity to vote on this motion freely and fairly, protected by their union. I stuck my neck out in participating in this grassroots collective, in signing the petition, and in sponsoring its presentation to the Faculty Association. I didn’t actually feel afraid—blame my department and head for that sense of security—but other colleagues have expressed fear, and have worried about me. Their worry is already a good healthy thing: we faculty care about each other and other people, we’re human and humane. Would that these human values and that caring were more widespread at the upper echelons of the university, and demonstrated (and their understanding clearly shown) by the Board. This grassroots thing that a collection of individuals has created is already changing UBC for the better. Moving away from a vertical hierarchy of competition and command; into a caring, compassionate, consensual network of horizontal relationships. It is of course early days yet before paradigm shifts or revolutionary intersectional social justice can be declared…
The more people come to the Special General Meeting on 22 March, the happier I will be: to see people coming out and expressing their care for their university.
The more debate there is, the happier I will be. Yes, it should be civil, courteous, polite, urbane; respectful, responsible, responsive; not playing silly power-politics games; in short, adult.
The greater the number of people voting, the happier I will be. Whichever way they vote. Even if this motion fails. Provided the vote is free and fair. Civil rights are precious: so easily lost, so hard to gain. Use them or lose them; and the more one uses them, the better one becomes as a moral and political being, through that exercise and practice.
Secondly, in the immediate future?
- An independent external review of the Board of Governors, their recent history, and their practices
- The removal from the Board of those Governors who were involved in secret committees, those who violated academic freedom, and those who failed to disclose information or delayed it or otherwise obfuscated and obscured the truth in reply to FOI requests
- Joining the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges or at the very least, as a compromise, adopting their Statement on Board Accountability
- A new, clean, fresh Board who are properly educated in governance
- A new, clean, fresh Presidential Search Committee
Thirdly, in the longer term?
Whatever the outcome of this vote, I would like to see us all—including the Board of Governors—work towards a new and renewed university that sets new standards, radically different, radiating that difference light years ahead of others, setting higher standards for all.
Some of us have already been working on this: in our immediate and larger university circles, in our teaching methods, in advising and other interactions with students. Simply starting to rehumanise what had been a dehumanising environment. Taking time out to talk to colleagues. Feeding colleagues and students chocolate. Going out together to wind down and talk after work: this is anthropologically, ethologically very important to social animals, especially when you add food. Companionship comes, literally, from breaking bread together. (That’s the same con- in confidence: Philology to the rescue of us all, once again.) This is one of the key secrets behind the greatness of universities like Cambridge, Oxford, MIT, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, CalTec, Stanford, Berkeley.
Free market competition gone silo-mad, with extremes like departments competing for classrooms every term (yes, I know: bonkers: if you think so too, go hug your department administrator), every item of university activity turned into the narrow sense of business as units of productivity. It can be resisted; and should be; and perhaps even in ways that cost little or nothing to the university and give it, in exchange, value and qualities beyond price: education, contentment, and free publicity and marketing for radical new ways of teaching.
Change can be harmonious: competition and conflict, that virile colonialist militaristic mentality, is not the only way to play nor the only kind of game. UBC has taken millions out of the regular teaching budget that used to be distributed to faculties and thence to departments and moved it into a Flexible Learning initiative. (It would, by the bye, be interesting to investigate how that decision was made.) This year, faculty created a very different kind of flexible learning from scratch, for free, and made it public: teach-ins including an online virtual teach-in, through Twitter. While these were at specific times for specific reasons (constructive protests that enhanced and enriched teaching, as opposed to traditional walk-out protests that hurt students), the materials are now there in a flexible sort of public repository, and can be used by others for a variety of reasons, at any time, freely; see for example #UBCSAAM on sexual harassment and assault and #divestUBC
Let’s go beyond compliance and confidence.
Ethics, healthy scepticism, compassionate community, and true trust. Trust and its rebuilding are crucial: in and with faculty, other constituencies, the university community as a whole, and the public. In the public interest.