A UBC we could all be proud of
Starting a conversation is one key to repairing the current discord, writes Anne Gorsuch.
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.