Saving Senate from itself

Much has been made at UBC on the subject of governance, sparked by such diverse issues as the sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta, the violation of academic freedom that occurred in the aftermath of the resignation, the university’s non-response to complaints of sexual assault, and the handling of a petition to ask for divestment from fossil fuels.

Most of the discussion has been focussed narrowly on the Board of Governors and senior administrators, since it is within their ambit that this series of unfortunate events lies. A vote of non-confidence in the Board was held, and more than 800 faculty members voted to censure the Board for its perceived failures.

But largely forgotten in the discussion are the facts that UBC is a bicameral institution, and that the UBC Senate is is endowed by the University Act with expansive powers to manage the academic affairs of the institution. In principle at least, the Senate is one of the routes that faculty have towards self-governance. One is led to ask, therefore, whether the state of governance at Senate is any better than it is in the university at large. Regrettably, the answer seems to be in the negative, and many of the problems seem to be common to the university as a whole.

Dysfunction at Senate came to light this week by way of a motion tucked away on page 148 of the docket for the meeting scheduled for September 14th. This item contains a list of 4 names advanced by the Senate Nominations Committee to be members of the search team for the new Provost and VP Academic, as mandated by UBC’s Policy 18. The four persons named on the list were a current Dean  (as required by policy 18), a former Dean, a current Associate Dean, and a member of the Senate Nominations Committee responsible for producing the list in the first place. In other words,  two administrators, a former administrator, and a person who nominated himself. No student was selected, despite the fact that student representation is explicitly mentioned in Policy 18, and neither was any rank-and-file faculty member. The list was produced without any broad call for candidates, either within Senate, or to the university as a whole.

Fortunately, consideration of this list was postponed by President Ono, who has asked the Senate to solicit nominations for his advisory committees from the community. In a further — and most welcome — development he also expressed, in his comments at Senate, his desire to conduct an open search for the Provost, and to give the community the opportunity to interact with the candidates. One can only hope that such a process is indeed adopted, and that Professor Ono’s demonstrated commitment to transparency becomes part of the culture at UBC.

A closer look at the powers of the Senate Nominations Committee and at the way it is established, is revealing by way of contrast. The Nominations Committee is responsible for setting the membership of every other Senate committee, and for nominating Senate-selected persons to university wide searches for such persons as the President, Provost, or other senior administrators. In some very real way, it is the most powerful of all the committees on Senate, in as much as it gets to decide which Senators have roles in such key committees as the ones dealing with academic policy, academic disciple, or the agenda committee, the last of which determines which issues are or are not considered in Senate.

So who gets to be on the Nominations Committee? Does it nominate itself? The Senate website is largely uninformative on this point. But, as it turns out, the committee is elected on at the very first meeting of a newly constituted Senate — its membership is determined by vote prior even to the first meeting. While the exact procedures are obscure, it appears that the nominations and voting take place in the summer prior to a new Senate being struck, and before the new members of Senate have even met or interacted with the people whom they are supposed to elect. It is hard to imagine how such procedure is compatible with even the most elementary notions of good governance. Forming the most important committee of Senate when Senate is in recess, and prior to formation of the new Senate, seems designed to be perversely antidemocratic and to suppress broad participation.

Predictably enough, the nominations generated by this committee are not the sort that inspire confidence. The same names show up multiple times on many of the important internal senate committees, and in this year’s round of nominations to the various external searches, many large constituencies, such as the Faculties of Science, Law, Education, and Commerce have no representation whatsoever. The questionable practice of naming people serving on the nominations  committee itself to the committees it is supposed to populate also seems to be accepted.

Sad to say, the Senate, is just as much in need of a governance review as the rest of the university. It appears to be run under arcane and arbitrary and undemocratic procedures, which are not documented and which live in the folklore of the administrators charged with running the system. This is a UBC-wide phenomenon — there are few documented procedures for managing such basic issues as access to information, conflict of interest, or public accountability, and little credible oversight, leading to major decisions and processes being conducted in inappropriate and ad-hoc ways. Certain individuals occupy key adminstrative roles for extended periods of time (decades, in some cases), and inevitably, institutional inertia sets in.

This pattern can be seen repeating itself in many of the issues cited at the beginning of this post — such topics as managing the university president, or handling sexual assault are inherently delicate and complex, but it is abundantly clear that the problems were amplified by poor decisions around process and communication. At the end of the day, university actors such as Board members or Senators presumably try to follow the rules (in as much as any rules exist) so the first step to good governance is to carefully consider the basic operational framework in which the Board and Senate operate, and to set clear and public standards for accountability, fairness, accountability, and transparency in administrative processes. Points of administrative weakness (and I would suggest that poor communications and general indifference to due process and the public interest are high on that list) should be identified, and appropriate remedies put in place. Poor governance is not a Board issue, or a Senate issue — it is a UBC issue, and our whole administrative  culture is infected.

UBC’s new president is not a mathematician, but …

Piece of Mind

The last time I saw the fabulous Frances Bula, she said that she liked my tweets whenever I commented on mathematics and mathematicians. I think she really meant for me to leave the rest of the news and analysis to her and the pros. However, thanks to Stuart Belkin, I now have a chance to do both. I mention the Chair of the UBC Board because I hear that –fortunately I must say– he is the one in charge these days, including of the presidential search.  The remarkable choice of Santa Ono (yes Santa!) as UBC’s 15th president is nothing but a victory to those among us calling for a renewed spirit of research excellence, academic freedom, diversity, decency, humanity and fair-play among the UBC leadership, be it mid-level and up.

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An open letter to Faye Wightman, Chair of the UBC Alumni Board of Directors

An open letter to Faye Wightman, Chair of the UBC Alumni Board of Directors

From Roger Francois, Professor, Canadian Research Chair, FRSC, UBC Alumni ’87 (PhD)

Dear Ms. Wightman,

I could not attend the meeting of the Board of Governors on April 14th because of a scheduling conflict but owing to the new openness of the board under the leadership of Mr. Belkin, I was able to view the proceedings later that evening. What I saw and heard encouraged me to believe that I was witnessing a new era of earnest dialogue between the various stakeholders of the university. The representatives for UBC students, faculty, and staff raised their cases frankly but respectfully, and the response from the board members conveyed the desire to build bridges and work towards addressing the concerns of the different constituencies of UBC.

It was therefore very unfortunate that this atmosphere of goodwill was partly clouded when you took the stage, although the silence that followed your rather condescending and acrimonious presentation tells me that it will be quickly forgotten. Nonetheless, as a UBC Alumnus, I feel compelled to voice my concern regarding your assertion that you were speaking in the name of 300,000 of us. You may have consulted with the twelve members of the Alumni Board of Directors but 12 out of 300,000 do not provide a quorum. As you aptly indicated in your speech, it is important to “report on the numbers in an accurate and correct fashion.” As a person who speaks her mind, I trust that you will appreciate that I do the same.

Yours truly,

Roger Francois

An open letter to Stuart Belkin, Chair, UBC Board of Governors

An open letter to Stuart Belkin, Chair, UBC Board of Governors

Re: Ms. Wightman’s presentation at the April 14th meeting of the Board of Governors

From: Prof. Kalina Christoff, Department of Psychology

Dear Mr. Belkin,

As a faculty member at UBC, I was delighted to hear today’s discussions between the Board of Governors and various UBC representatives. It was encouraging to hear your thoughtful responses to each presenter and the engaged questions that a number of Board members asked. I was just starting to feel a pleasant sense of hopefulness and, dare I say, a glimmer of trust in the Board of Governors — when suddenly, a cold bucket of water was poured over my head in the form of Faye Wightman’s presentation.

Ms. Wightman’s tone all but destroyed the atmosphere of respect that was created throughout the preceding 1.5 hours. In the space of 10 short minutes, she managed to gravely insult, disrespect and belittle faculty members and others who have been working to improve governance practices at UBC. Rebuilding trust is a delicate exercise and scheduling such an insulting and outright offensive presentation for the end of today’s discussion can only mean that whoever was doing the scheduling did not want us to leave feeling a sense of hope. Whoever did today’s scheduling wanted faculty members to leave the meeting feeling “put in their places,” feeling like the little kids in the playground that Ms. Wightman compared us to.

Furthermore, I would like to question the decision to have Ms. Wightman represent alumni today in front of the Board. It was my understanding that the Board wanted to hear feedback and suggestions on how to improve its transparency and operations. Whoever chose Ms. Wightman to speak on behalf of alumni today clearly did not want the Board to hear any critical feedback from alumni.

All in all, I would like to congratulate you on everything you and your Board members did today, and to convey my regret that your hard labours were, in my opinion, almost completely undone by the decision to chose Ms. Wightman among the presenters and to schedule her presentation last.

Respectfully,

Kalina Christoff, Ph.D.

Recommendations for Moving Forward and Improving Governance at UBC

Recommendations for Moving Forward and Improving Governance at UBC

The majority of faculty at UBC lack confidence in the current Presidential Search Committee (72%) and the Board of Governors (62%). This confidence needs to be restored before selecting and appointing a new president. No matter how wonderful a candidate the current PSC may find, this person will arrive at UBC under a cloud of suspicion and an indebtedness to those currently not trusted by most of the faculty. This, in turn, will undermine the president’s ability to be trusted, supported, and effective at UBC.

There will be enormous pressure to have the next president serve a full term, no matter his or her effectiveness or level of support from the university. It is therefore crucial that the next president walks into a situation in which governance problems, and the rift between faculty, administration, and the BoG, have been adequately addressed and healed. This will ensure that proper institutional support is in place, along with effective mechanisms for performance review and accountability.

Below are suggestions for moving UBC forward and taking advantage of this moment of unprecedented faculty engagement in issues of governance. By refocusing UBC on its academic mission and enlisting faculty more deeply in governance, UBC can grow stronger, and around its longest serving members: the faculty who define the university’s reputation for research and teaching. Rather than a threat to its reputation, our strong and vocal faculty are a sign of excellence and opportunity. Positive reforms and strengthening faculty governance can launch UBC to a new level of greatness.

Immediate Steps

1. Suspend the current presidential search and appoint an interim president until the items below can be accomplished, probably through June 2018.

The Coming Year (2016-17)

2. Conduct an independent investigation into the failure of the last presidency and the (mis)management of the announcement, external relations, and internal relations following the resignation. This is required for institutional learning & accountability about what went wrong and why.

3. Conduct an independent external review of the Board and its practices, including:

  • How new Board members are trained (past two years);
  • How meetings are scheduled and announced;
  • Time given to members to review the agenda and materials in advance of meetings;
  • Recording of meetings, minutes, and record-keeping (including voting records);
  • The existence of secret subcommittees (extracommittee meetings between Board members);
  • Communications within the Board and between the Board and its members with the president, executives, and deans;
  • Communication and transparency with the university community of Board activities;
  • Management of conflicts of interest between Board members and the university.

4. Identify best governance practices for university boards (e.g. as outlined by the Association of Governing Boards) and implement them.

5. Clarify responsibilities for the different governing bodies at the university and proper lines, methods, and documentation of communication between Board members, the president, the executive, the senates, and the deans.

6. The faculty within a department should be consulted and polled about their choice of department head to inform these appointments.

7. Vice presidents, directorships, and executive posts should be held by tenure-track faculty. Exceptions should be rare, well justified, and approved by the appropriate governing body.

8. Launch a UBC Dialogues Series on Academic Freedom, Governance, and Social Justice at the University organized by and for students, community members, members of the Musqueam First Nation, faculty, and staff who are interested in the welfare of UBC.

The next three recommendations may require amendments to the University Act:

9. Make the Faculty Senate consist of faculty. Department heads, associate deans, deans, and other administrators should not be eligible for the Faculty Senate.

10. The Senate, not the Board, should submit nominations for new appointments to the Board, with an eye toward building a Board that represents the diversity and excellence of the people of British Columbia.

11. The number of faculty on the Board will be raised to at least 25% of its composition, consistent with peer institutions.

The Following Year (2017-18)

12. When the above steps have been accomplished, begin the search for a new president. The number of faculty on the Presidential Search Committee should be at least 25% of its composition.

13.  As part of their campus interviews, short-listed presidential candidates will present to a forum of faculty, consistent with UBC faculty wishes and AAUP guidelines.

14. A new president, with enthusiastic support from the faculty, will be inaugurated in the fall of 2018.

15. Recreate the Faculty Club, where faculty across campus can gather, meet, dine, and host visitors. Small dues will be mandatory and drawn pre-tax from faculty salaries.

How the BoG Might Regain Faculty Confidence

Here is some unsolicited advice for the UBC BoG on regaining faculty confidence.

  • Acknowledge that faculty and students are the core constituencies of the University.  We aren’t just the people whose excellence can be cited as a reason why the Presidential search is going to go so well.  Faculty have dedicated our careers (indeed, given our commitment to our intellectual concerns, our lives) to UBC.  Students have entrusted faculty with guiding their education and have voluntarily joined for a time our academic community.  Without this academic community, there is no UBC.  We are astonishingly dedicated to what we do, to doing it well, and to doing it here.
  • Stop thinking that fiduciary duties are both exclusively financial and exclusively external, pertaining only to donor returns on investment.  Fiduciary duties obtain whenever one party places its interests in trust with another.  The primary fiduciary duty of the faculty, therefore, is our duty to students; they have entrusted us with their education.  In matters educational, we act on our students’ behalf, not our own.  Moreover, the Board, by law, is entrusted by the residents of BC to act in the best interest of the University, which is mandated to teach and to do research.  The Board’s first fiduciary duty is, thus, to the people of BC and pertains to safeguarding and promoting the teaching and research missions of the University.
  • Acknowledge that the teaching and research mission of the University would be improved if sessional and 12-month lecturers had more financial and employment security.  Don’t forget that the research faculty, as things are currently arranged, depend on teaching faculty, including those in casual or dubiously continuing appointments; without them we wouldn’t have time to do our research.  The same is true of our reliance on teaching assistants.  Looking after these least advantaged members of the teaching contingent at UBC is also one of your fiduciary duties.
  • Start engaging seriously with the content of the criticisms leveled against you.
    1. For example, it is not true that concerned faculty really wish Arvind Gupta were made President again; the main questions re Gupta have always been: What does his resignation mean for the strategic vision he was in the process of laying out (UBC as top ten public university in the world)?  Are we giving that up?  If so, is that because it was too grand and unattainable, too small and unambitious, too expensive, not well-enough aligned to the BC government priorities, or what?  Given how quickly Gupta went from being the best person for the job as President to being considered by at least a portion of the BoG as unfit for the job, what needs to be changed about the search process or the working conditions of the President to avoid this sort of problem again?
    2. Similarly, I have not heard anyone say that there should never be confidential, in camera meetings of the BoG.  Confidential meetings are not the same as secret meetings—secret meetings are those that some BoG members feel they must publicly deny ever happened or perhaps don’t even know have happened.  No such meetings should ever happen. On the matter of confidential meetings, there should be a clear set of guidelines as to when a matter is confidential.  Every department at UBC has confidential meetings and clear guidelines about when a matter is confidential.  The guidelines for when a matter is confidential should be public.
    3. I know of no one who has said that business people should not be on the Board.  Some of us have said that it is a shame if all the appointed members of the Board are drawn from the business community.  This is not an anti-business stance; this is a stance that views the diversity of BC as deserving of some representation on the Board.
    4. All committees of the Board, including ad hoc committees, should be listed on the BoG website and have clear, public statements regarding their mandates.
  • Show an interest in the academic life of the campus.  Come visit our courses.  Come for colloquia and other talks.  Avoid as much as possible in BoG meetings saying things that indicate contempt for what we do.  It is not true, for example, that every course that is not a “flexible learning” course at UBC is a dreary lecture course featuring a “sage on the stage” droning on and on, interested only in cramming content into empty student heads.  I’ll be teaching in Arts One next year, I hereby invite all BoG members to come visit at least one of my seminars or tutorials.
  • Acknowledge and work with faculty on matters of genuine concern.  Every single faculty member at UBC knows that there is a real lack of decent office, laboratory, and classroom space on campus.  Yet it is never quite clear how the building done on campus (endlessly) addresses this problem.  Let’s sort out the building priorities and make sure that they pertain to the legally-mandated mission of the University.  Similarly, the sexual assault (and harassment) issues on campus are issues of the well-being of members of our academic community; they go to the very core of our legitimacy as a scholarly community in which every person has an opportunity to study without fear.  It would be enormously helpful if the BoG would acknowledge how central such matters are to the health of the whole academic community.
  • Listen to the arguments about why the Presidential search does not need to be finished in haste.  Here’s one brief argument: UBC just had a mysteriously failed Presidency.  Yet it has not changed it search procedures.  Nor has it committed to changing the conditions, especially her relations to the BoG, under which the President does her job.  Thus, there seems to be a structural problem (or problems) with the choice of or the employment conditions of the President that has not been dealt with.  Since the next President must succeed, it would be prudent to solve that problem (those problems) before our next President is appointed.  A response that says “we must move on” (which seems to be the going argument) entirely misses the import of my argument: we do have to move on, but not on to appointing a new President, but rather on to solving whatever the problem was with the appointment of our last President.  In the absence of fearlessly facing up to problems, we place our next President in clear and present danger of failing.
  • Remember that we have experts on campus about all sorts of matters related to the proper running of universities—every faculty member on campus has thought deeply about teaching, for example.  Help UBC actually be among the employers that values the expertise of its employees.

Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?

Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?

by Caroline Jenkins (Philosophy) and Jonathan Ichikawa (Philosophy)

Like many of our colleagues at UBC, we’re concerned about academic freedom. UBC’s governance crisis has contributed to a culture of fear. This week, Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s Vice President of External Affairs, asserted that we’re wrong to be concerned. “Categorically,” he told the CBC, “there is no such culture”.

We’ll take Steenkamp at face value—he genuinely believes there’s no culture of fear at UBC. But how would a Vice President of External Affairs know whether faculty members feel stifled? If they did, they wouldn’t speak up—so UBC’s higher-ups wouldn’t hear much about it spontaneously.

As is well-known to theorists of knowledge, one’s position in a power structure can affect one’s ability to know what’s going on. Just think of the sexist office culture of the 1960s. That sexism, undeniable in retrospect, was obscure to the men in charge. Don Draper couldn’t see what was obvious to Peggy Olson. This kind of ignorance is often recalcitrant: the privileged are motivated not to see certain things. As philosopher Charles Mills put it: “imagine an ignorance that fights back.”

Continue reading “Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?”