Vancouver Sun

A UBC we could all be proud of

Starting a conversati­on is one key to repairing the current discord, writes Anne Gorsuch.

- Anne Gorsuch is a professor of history at the University of B.C.

As an organizati­on — and as individual­s — committed to learning and leadership, UBC should be engaging in a substantiv­e conversati­on about the future of the university. And we should be doing it now, rather than waiting for a new president to swoop down and save the day.

A president alone is not enough to repair the discord at UBC. University governance is a complex system of power, of privilege, and of personal relationsh­ips, as well as of collaborat­ive decision-making. I lived it for a year as deputy to former UBC president Arvind Gupta.

Without first undergoing a dedicated process of institutio­nal learning and accountabi­lity to help address problems and restore confidence, a new president’s relationsh­ip to faculty, students, alumni and to the board of governors will be much less likely to succeed.

Our problems are entrenched ones. They are made worse because UBC lacks effective mechanisms for real conversati­on about difficult issues, or even about everyday ones. When I accompanie­d Gupta in his visits to over 70 per cent of academic units, many faculty expressed their desire for more ways to make meaningful connection­s across a siloed Vancouver campus, between UBC’s two campuses, and between faculty and administra­tors. They wanted help build research and teaching networks. They wanted clarity about who to speak with about processes and procedures that sometimes vary wildly.

Hardest to find at UBC are transparen­t and effective ways to get UBC’s multiple stakeholde­rs, with their varied positions and power and their competing interests, to substantiv­ely engage with each other. UBC has a bicameral system of governance, including both a board of governors and the UBC Senates ( Vancouver and the Okanagan). To date, Senate meetings are largely about curricular details. The Senates should be active public forums for faculty, students, deans and senior administra­tors to openly and rigorously debate academic issues, including those of academic governance. A Senate willing to tackle weighty issues would engage a wider constituen­cy of faculty and students and serve as a necessary check and balance to the board of governors.

More face-to-face connection­s are needed, but in a university of UBC’s size, online forums could also be part of the answer. Electronic forums would be mechanisms for faculty, staff and students to connect separately or together on any topic of interest. They would also enable conversati­ons between faculty and their delegates to the board and the UBC Senate: faculty representa­tives could comment, ask for feedback, and encourage turnout to essential meetings. Deans, senior administra­tors, and members of the board would have a more open, diverse, and transparen­t source of informatio­n about university opinions.

The absence of university-wide mechanisms for discussion and debate is one of the reasons why people have turned to social media. When viewed from cyberspace, UBC appears to be dividing into camps, with previously cordial colleagues becoming hostile adversarie­s. It has been made worse because UBC has privileged the perceived safety of public relations management over dialogue with faculty.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In my own capacity as a senior administra­tor, I worked with many people who were deeply dedicated to UBC. A positive and powerful route forward would be to appoint an interim president vested with the authority to work with a variety of stakeholde­rs in a serious and transparen­t process of learning and accountabi­lity.

This does not imply a particular outcome to contentiou­s issues. We won’t all agree about how to address issues of board governance, academic freedom, or divestment. About 800 faculty supported a recent vote of “no confidence” in the university’s Board of Governors. Nearly 500 voted against the motion. Many faculty (and other concerned members of the extended UBC community) are going to continue to ask hard questions until their desire for real conversati­on about the crises of the past year is addressed. We need not be afraid of asking hard questions or challengin­g the status quo. These activities are core to a great university. The harm is not in asking difficult questions, but in not discussing them.

“A courageous conversati­on is the one you should be having,” the poet David Whyte has written. We still have an opportunit­y to act with the kind of integrity, responsibi­lity and academical­ly informed leadership fitting for UBC’s centenary year. This would be a UBC we could all be proud of. It would also be a UBC sure to attract and make good use of a new president when the proper time comes.

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