BoG No-Confidence Motion

BoG No-Confidence Motion

Yesterday there was a special meeting of the UBC faculty association, organized in response to this petition to the FA executive. The result of that meeting is that, beginning today, there will be an online vote on the following motion:

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.

The motion was presented by myself—Jonathan Ichikawa, Associate Professor, Philosophy—and seconded by Juliet O’Brien, 12-Month Lecturer, French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies.

Faculty members, watch your email for a message from the FA instructing you on how to vote.

Juliet and I each spoke for a few minutes in favour of the motion; our draft/notes materials follow. Continue reading “BoG No-Confidence Motion”

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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.

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.