A UBC we could all be proud of

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

Vancouver Sun - - OPINION - 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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