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 the Chair 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 unsavoury 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 the 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. One can only hope that Professor Ono will be able to affect the system-wide changes that are needed to restore faculty confidence in the administration.