Tag Archives: University of British Columbia

Comments on Academic Freedom at the University of British Columbia

Comments on Academic Freedom at the University of British Columbia
Delivered at “Breakfast with the Dean” panel April 21, 2016

E. Wayne Ross, PhD
Faculty of Education
University of British Columbia

First of all I would like to thank Dean Blye Frank for inviting me to participate on this panel and thanks to all of you for coming out this morning to participate in a discussion on academic freedom.

On the surface, it’s easy to be pro-academic freedom, kind of like being for mom and apple pie. But, academic freedom is a contested issue in universities (and schools, but that is a very different matter).

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), describes a number of major academic freedom cases in Canada ranging from the University of Manitoba blocking a documentary film that reports findings of research on genetically modified crops; to irregularities that lead to the suspension of David F. Noble’s appointment to an endowed chair at Simon Fraser University; to Mary Bryson, the Faculty’s senior associate dean, and her battle with UBC over intellectual property rights. The arbitration decision in the Bryson case is described by CAUT as “landmark in the struggle to insure that faculty, not administrators, determine the content of courses.”[1]

In recent years there has been international attention given to the academic freedom cases of Professors Norman G. Finkelstein and Steven Salaita, who lost jobs as a result of social justice scholarship and activism, in particular, criticisms of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians living under occupation.

Threats to academic freedom are real and have a long history in Canadian postsecondary education and beyond.

CAUT defines academic freedom, in part, as including:

the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; … freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration, and the system in which one works; … Academic freedom always entails freedom from institutional censorship.

Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual. Academic freedom makes intellectual discourse, critique, and commitment possible.

Academic staff must not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as individuals including the right to contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest. Academic staff must not suffer any institutional penalties because of the exercise of such rights. [2]

In short academic freedom is essential to the mission of the university.

Dean Frank asked the members of this` panel to focus on issues of academic freedom in light of the current search to fill the new UBC position of Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom.

My first thought was that if we have provosts who need advisors on academic freedom, maybe they shouldn’t be provosts, really. But, perhaps I’m being too glib, even for a short breakfast talk.

Of course the creation of this new advisory position is the result of controversy created by the former chair of the UBC Board of Governors, John Montalbano, when he interfered with the academic freedom of Sauder School Professor Jennifer Berdahl, after she blogged about UBC President Arvind Gupta’s “resignation” after 13 months in office.[3]

Oh, wait a minute. Let me correct myself, like many of UBC’s self-investigation exercises the external report on the Berdahl case, written by former justice Lynn Smith, did not find fault with any individual university administrators.

“No individual intended to interfere with Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom, or made a direct attempt to do so… However, sometimes several relatively small mistakes can lead to a failure of the larger system.”

Despite whatever good intentions might lurk behind the creation of the new academic freedom advisor position – and I do believe that its existence is primarily a public relations effort – at best this position is a band-aid on a life-threatening wound and at worse it is yet another diversion – a manifestation of an ideological stance that is widely held in society and practically hegemonic in universities—liberal neutrality. I’ll briefly address both of these circumstances.

Corporatization of the University (The life-threatening wound)

The corporate takeover of education at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, facilitated is by governments that might best be described as executive committees of the rich.

The trouble begins when the framework for understanding the nature and aims of education and scholarship is as a tool vital for economic success. As Thomas Docherty argues in his book Universities at War, the university has become a servant of the national and provincial economies in the context of globalization. Its driving principles of private and personal enrichment are understood as necessary conditions of progress and modernity.

Docherty sees this circumstances as a radical impoverishment of the university’s capacities to extend human possibilities and freedoms, to seek earnestly for social justice, and to participate in the endless need for the extension of democracy. Docherty argues that we must take sides in this matter because market fundamentalists are on the march and the war is being fought not just for scholars but also for a more democratic, more just, more emancipatory way of life.

The Problem of “Liberal neutrality”

In her article “Why I’m Not a Liberal,” Robin Marie Averback argues that

“In the liberal imagination, education and accommodation are self-evident solutions, since the problem can neither be understood as a matter of brute power struggles nor as a product of structural inequality fundamental to the functioning of entire institutions … You can’t choose a side when liberalism insists there are no sides at all.”[4]

This notion, helps to explain how the Smith Report on the Berdahl academic freedom case creates a victim without a victimizer. This is a pattern played out in numerous instances at UBC in recently. See, for example, the reports on:

  • the privacy breach related to documents on the Arvind Gupta imbroglio[5]
  • Commerce Undergraduate Society Frosh Week “rape chants”[6]
  • UBC handling of sexual assault complaints[7]

Averback reminds us of the picture book version of social justice that we often see on walls of community centres,

“In this picture book version of social justice struggle, no one ever opposes freedom’s forward march. All the oppressed need to do is rise up and assert themselves; the world they are fighting for is realized simply by the act of self-declaration.”

At UBC everybody seems to be for academic freedom. It’s like a picture book version of academic freedom. But in the all-administrative university – a phrase coined by Benjamin Ginsberg in his book The Fall of the Faculty – the response of the administration to an academic freedom crisis is the creation of yet another administrative position, aimed at educating and accommodating.

This reminds me of a comment someone made in the context of the recent UBC Board of Governors debacle(s) and the compromised Presidential Search Committee, “UBC doesn’t need a new driver, because the problem is with the car.”

Here are some academic freedom issues that the new position will like never come close to addressing:

  • Intellectual property rights;
  • Corporate influence on campus academic programs and research.[8]
  • Faculty loss of control over academic programs (such as the teacher education program in our faculty)
  • Respectful workplace statements that become instruments that encourage bullying and mobbing of faculty with dissenting points of view or who merely ask questions that make people uncomfortable;
  • Middle managers, like those in Sauder, who intervene like their corporate counterparts to threaten the rank and file on issues of solidarity and criticism of management (e.g., the recent UBCFA no confidence vote);
  • People like those faculty members who have warned UBC Professor Jonathan Ichikawa (sponsor of the UBCFA no-confidence vote in the Board of Governors) that his activism would negatively affect his advancement at the university;
  • Students/faculty self-funding themselves;
  • Administrative efforts to “right-size” academic programs;
  • Tenure and promotion committees that forego evaluative reading of faculty scholarship and instead focus on impact factors or the amount of external dollars won in competitions.

When no one is understood as protecting a position of power (liberal neutrality) how do we combat these threats to academic freedom? I don’t think the answer is by appointing an advisor to the provost.

Questions for discussion:

To what degree are the new policies for academic speech inscribed in academic work, regardless of where it’s done? As the academic workplace is increasingly displaced and distributed, are academic policies displaced and distributed as well? Observed at work, monitored at home and tracked in between—these are not so much choices as the cold reality of 21st century academic work.[9]

BC Premier Christy Clark has warned provincial postsecondary institutions that they must do a better job of producing graduates who meet the needs of the private sector (2014 Throne Speech). What happens to academic freedom when universities are cast as servants to the provincial or national “economic success?”


[1] CAUT, Major Academic Freedom Cases: http://www.caut.ca/issues-and-campaigns/academic-freedom/academic-freedom-cases

[2] See full CAUT statement on academic freedom here: https://www.caut.ca/about-us/caut-policy/lists/caut-policy-statements/policy-statement-on-academic-freedom – sthash.0grFSra5.dpuf

[3] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/ubc-chair-john-montalbano-resigns-after-report-finds-academic-freedom-not-protected-1.3272776

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/07/why-im-not-a-liberal/

[5] http://universitycounsel.ubc.ca/files/2016/03/D-Loukidelis-Report-on-UBC-FOI-Processes-final-7-Mar-16.pdf

[6] http://president.ubc.ca/files/2013/09/Fact-Finding-Report-copy.pdf

[7] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ubc-sexual-assaults-complaints-expulsion-1.3328368

[8] See government appointments to UBC Board and U of Calgary/Enbridge relationship: http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/calgary/caut-ucalgary-uofc-dru-marshall-david-robinson-1.3531851

[9] See Petrina, Ross, & Mathison (2015). Threat convergence: The new academic work, bullying, mobbing and freedom. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 24, 58-69. Retrieved from http://ices.library.ubc.ca/index.php/workplace/article/view/186137/185332

Be Realistic Demand the Impossible: A Rejoinder to Peter Seixas [updated with video]

“Be Realistic Demand the Impossible”[1]

Rejoinder to Peter Siexas’s
Dangerous indeed: A response to E. Wayne Ross’ ‘Courage of hopelessness’

University of British Columbia
Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
Seminar Series: Diverse Perspectives on Curriculum & Pedagogy

February 26, 2016

1. The “courage of hopelessness” is, perhaps ironically, an optimistic position.

The publicity blurbs for Peter’s talk stated that he would offer “a way to steer a course between the two closely related traps of hopelessness and utopianism.” This is a misreading of my use of the term “courage of hopelessness,” which is a position of some great optimism.

[Read the text of my January 15, 2016 seminar “The Courage of Hopelessness: Democratic Education in the Age of Empire.” Watch video my talk here. Watch Seixas talk, my response and Q&A with audience below.]

2. Utopia – “Be realistic demand the impossible”

We need Utopia / utopian thought more than ever because we live in a time without alternatives when neoliberal capitalism reins triumphant and uncontested.

[This circumstance is captured in Margaret Thatcher’s declarations: “There is no alternative” and “there is no such thing as society.” The latter of which was embodied in Stephen Harper’s refusal to “commit sociology,” which was an ideological attempt to prevent the identification of and responses to structural injustices that result from capitalism.]

The so-called global free market works well for the One Percent, but not for rest of humanity. In my talk, I provided some examples of the ways in which capitalism trumps democracy (pun intended).

The hegemonic system of global capitalism dominates not because people agree with it; it rules because most people are convinced “There Is No Alternative.” Indeed, as I have argued, the dominant approach to schooling and curriculum, particularly in social studies education, is aimed at indoctrinating students into this belief.

Utopian thinking allows us to consider alternatives, such as the pedagogical imaginaries which I presented in my January seminar, in attempt to open up spaces for rethinking our approaches to learning, teaching, and experiencing the world. And these imaginaries are necessary because traditional tropes of social studies curriculum (e.g., democracy, voting, democratic citizenship) are essentially lies we tell to ourselves and our students (because democracy is incompatible with capitalism; capitalist democracy creates a shallow, spectator version of democracy at best; democracy as it operates now is inseparable from empire/perpetual war and vast social inequalities).

Stephen Duncombe argues that Utopia is politically necessary even for people who do not desire an alternative society,

“Thoughtful politics depend upon debate and without someone or something to disagree with there is no meaningful dialogue, only an echo chamber…Without a vision of an alternative future, we can only look backwards nostalgically to the past, or unthinkingly maintain what we have, mired in the unholy apocalypse that is now.”

3. The Nature of Method or Inquiry

I believe the key question to be posed in social studies and one that history can help us answer is “why are things as are they are?”

[Marx’s method, dialectics, is a tool that does not necessarily require a Marxist politics or practice (class struggle), see for example the dialectical approaches of individualist libertarians Chris Sciabarra and John F. Welsh.]

What we understand about the world is determined by what the world is, who we are, and how we conduct our inquiries.

Things change. Everything in the world is changing and interacting. When studying social issues we should begin by challenging the commonsense ideas of society or particular social issues as a “thing” and consider the processes and relationships that make up what we think of as society or a social issue, which includes its history and possible futures.

Inquiries into social issues help us understand how things change and also contribute to change.

In understanding social issues and how things change it helps to “abstract” or start with “concrete reality” and break it down. Abstraction is like using camera lenses with different focal lengths: a zoom lens to bring a distant object into focus (what is the history of this?) or using a wide-angle lens to capture more of a scene (what is the social context of the issue now?)

This approach raises important questions: where does one start and what does one look for? The traditional approach to inquiry starts with small parts and attempts to establish connections with other parts leading to an understanding of the larger whole. Beginning with the whole, the system, or as much as we understand of it, and then inquiring into the part or parts of it to see how it fits and functions leads to a fuller understanding of the whole.

Analysis of present conditions is necessary, but insufficient. The problem is that reality is more than appearances and focusing on appearances, the face value of evidence from our immediate surroundings, can be misleading.

How do we think adequately about social issues, giving issues the attention and weight they deserve, without the distorting them? We can expand our notion of a social issue (or anything for that matter) to include, as aspects of what it is, both the process by which the issue has come to life and the broader interactive context in which it is found. In this way, the study of a social issue involves us in the study of its history (the preconditions and connections to the past) and the encompassing system.

Remembering, “things change,” provokes us to move beyond analyzing current conditions and historicizing social issues, to project probable or possible futures. In other words, our inquiry leads to the creation of visions of possible futures.

This process of inquiry, then, changes the way we think about a social issue in the here and now (change moves in spirals, not circles) in that we can now look for preconditions of a future in the present and use them to develop political strategies (i.e., organize for change).

4. The School and “Social Progress”

The fundamental parts of human nature include a need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effects of coercive institutions.

Schools are continually threatened because they are autocratic and they are autocratic because they are threatened—from within by students and critical parents and from without by various and disparate social, political, and economic interests. These conditions divide teachers from students and community and shape teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and action.

Teachers then, are crucial to any effort to improve, reform, or revolutionize curriculum, instruction, or schools. The transformation of schools must begin with the teachers, and no program that does not include the personal and collective rehabilitation of teachers can ever overcome the passive resistance of the old order.

Schools should places that enable people to analyze and understand social problems; envision a future without those problems; and take action to bring that vision in to existence.

Social progress is enhanced when we rewrite the narrative of the triumphant individual working within the system into a story of the creation of self-critical communities of educators in schools (and people in society) working collaboratively toward transformative outcomes.

People who talk about transformational learning or educational revolution without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about learning, and love, and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, are trapped in a net of received ideas, the common-nonsense and false reality of technocrats (or worse).

Schools are alluring contradictions, harboring possibilities for liberation, emancipation, and social progress, but, as fundamentally authoritarian and hierarchical institutions, they produce myriad oppressive and inequitable by-products. The challenge, perhaps impossibility, is discovering ways in which schools can contribute to positive liberty.

That is a society where individuals have the power and resources to realize and fulfill their own potential, free from the obstacles of classism, racism, sexism and other inequalities encouraged by educational systems and the influence of the state and religious ideologies. A society where people have the agency and capacity, to make their own free choices and act independently based on reason, not authority, tradition, or dogma.

[1] These remarks were presented immediately following Seixas’ presentation and prepared without the opportunity to read the text of his talk in advance. As a result, they are based upon the abstract circulated prior to his seminar and my understanding of Seixas’ perspective based upon his published work and our interactions as faculty members at UBC.

Video of Seixas presentation, Ross response and Q&A with audience (February 26, 2016):

Peter Seixas talk: Dangerous indeed: A response to Wayne Ross’ “Courage of hopelessness”

Date: Friday, February 26th 2016
Venue: Scarfe Room 310
Time: 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
Title: Dangerous indeed: A response to Wayne Ross’ “Courage of hopelessness”
Speaker: Dr. Peter Seixas, Professor, EDCP

Light lunch served at noon outside Scarfe room 310. The Lecture commences at 12:30 pm. There is no need to RSVP.

Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky—to be realistic.
–Tom Crick, the history teacher, in Graham Swift’s Waterland, p. 108

In his EDCP Seminar on January 15, Dr. Wayne Ross challenged commonplace notions of schools, teacher education, the subject of social studies, democracy and freedom. In this talk (text, video, powerpoint), I review the arguments and confront them as a colleague—in the department, in social studies education, and in the project of educating teachers for British Columbia schools. As the basis of my critique, I offer a theoretical framework through the concept of “historical agency,” which calls attention to the abilities of people to act individually and collectively to shape the course of history, as well as the limitations on those abilities. It offers a way to steer a course between the two closely related traps of hopelessness and utopianism. I sketch its utility specifically in relation to 1) understanding our own social and political situation, 2) thinking about the role of schools and teachers in democratic societies, 3) developing useful curriculum and pedagogy in Canada today, 4) educating student teachers in the Faculty of Education, and 5) conducting educational research that matters.


UBC Faculty Association and student society call for external review of Board of Governors; Momentum gathers among faculty for UBCBoG no-confidence vote

With UBC’s crisis of administration and legitimacy growing worse, the Faculty Association has re-issued its call for an external review of the Board of Governors and its operations. Clearly, there are failures of governance and shadow systems of decision-making from the ranks of middle management to the top of the Board. The FAUBC announced today:

As the collective voice of faculty, charged with representing faculty interests and perspectives relevant to unfolding events at UBC, the Faculty Association, through its Executive, feels compelled at this time to raise a number of serious concerns. It has become clear that the University of British Columbia is in the midst of a governance crisis.

The events of the past year or so, as information about them slowly leaks out, demonstrate a failure of governance that threatens the integrity and credibility of the University. This is a singular moment in the 100-year history of UBC, the solution to which requires strong actions on the part of the Board of Governors.

We have called publicly for an external review of the Board and its operations. At this point, we re-issue this call. Such a review is essential to restore public trust in the Board. To accomplish this, the leadership for such a review must have the support of the University community – of faculty, students, staff, and alumni….

Some current members of the Board, including the Chancellor of UBC, have been shown in recent, now public, documents to have been involved in activities around the resignation of Dr. Gupta that appear to contravene standard and expected Board practices. Improper conduct of Board business is a serious matter. The former Chair of the Board, John Montalbano, has resigned. What onus of response falls on these other Board members, given these revelations?

UBCFA has posed specific questions about UBC Board practices, which include:

  1. In the leaked documents from last week, we have seen several examples of secret meetings without any subsequent public documentation of these meetings. Does the Board’s current practice of holding some full Board and committee meetings without published meeting dates, agendas, and motions passed (and hence of decisions taken) meet the expectations for accountability and transparency for BC public bodies, and the obligations placed on the Board under the law?
  2. Has the Board been properly constituting and documenting all of its committees and their work? For example, a previously unknown ad hoc committee appears to have been created to manage the Board’s interactions with Dr. Gupta in the time leading to his resignation. Where is the documentation for the motions that created this committee? What processes were used, and what records kept of these processes? How many other such committees are there? Why is it necessary to keep the existence of any committee secret? Do all Board members know about each of the ad hoc committees? Is the Board operating in a way that meets all of its obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the general guidelines for public bodies? Is it lawful for secret committees to take actions that are not publicly recorded and not available for public scrutiny?
  3. Two related concerns pertain to patterns of email business conducted by Board members. First, why are all Board members not using a UBC email address for all of their Board work? Second, how does that Board ensure that the work of the Board is properly recorded and archived? For example, the University’s response to one of the Faculty Association’s Freedom of Information requests for the Chancellor’s email correspondence around a critical event claims that Mr. Gordon had no emails that were captured by this request. However, other individuals covered under this same request provided several email chains relating to the event that included multiple emails to and from Mr. Gordon. Why were Mr. Gordon’s emails, which were clearly about University business, not provided by Mr. Gordon as the law provides? How are Mr. Gordon’s emails about university business thus archived? More generally, do the email processes of the Board meet all legal obligations applicable to the Board and to UBC as a public institution?

In addition to the UBCFA’s open letter to the UBC Board, momentum is gathering among faculty for a no-confidence vote on UBC Board. A rank and file group of university faculty members are currently mounting petition for a resolution to be presented to the UBC Faculty Association Executive Committee:

Whereas the UBC Board of Governors is required by law to act in the best interests of the University (BC University Act 19.2);

and whereas it has come to light that the Board has held secret, unannounced meetings of the Board, leaving no documentation of its activities;

and whereas Board members have formed secret ad hoc committees in which governance activities have been pursued without oversight and contrary to policy and procedural norms;

and whereas these committees and the Board have taken decisions or engaged in actions—such as declaring no confidence in the President with no formal review or input from faculty, declaring full confidence in the Chair after his role in interfering with a faculty member’s academic freedom, interpreting fiduciary duty to the university as pertaining to donors rather than its faculty, students, and staff—that are not obviously in the best interests of the University;

and whereas the Board has declined to explain such actions to the University community;

and whereas, consequently, we faculty members in good standing at UBC find that we cannot know—indeed, we have strong reason to doubt—that the Board has been operating in accordance with its legal obligations to the people of British Columbia;

therefore be it resolved that the Executive of the UBC Faculty Association, as soon as possible, bring a motion to its membership expressing no confidence in the UBC Board of Governors.

The UBC Alma Mater Society also publicly called for a review. The AMS urges the Board to enact the following changes:

  • That the incoming Chair of the Board of Governors instigate an external review process into governance practices;
  • That the Board of Governors delay approving any candidate proposed by the Presidential Search Committee until such time as the suggested external review is complete and incorporated.

UBC’s 100th year is turning into a year of memorial events, but it’s not the planned  superficial PR.

UBC faculty, staff, and students protest Board of Governors meeting #UBCClean [UPDATED]


UBC faculty are not generally a rowdy bunch, but there were a couple of hundred out today protesting the Board of Governors meeting and demanding UBC management and Board accountability.

UBC faculty, staff and students were protesting the UBC Board of Governors Meeting held on campus at the R. H. Lee Alumni Centre, and demanding a clean up of the Board and university administration, in particular that:

  • the Board of Governors stops holding secret, undocumented meetings
  • the Board honours its duty to operate in a transparent and accountable fashion
  • an external review of its past practices takes place immediately.

For more background on the issues leading to this protest, see this letter from the Faculty Association of UBC, which details how the BoG has, among other things, held committee meetings that left no official record, and made decisions about personnel matters without formal assessments or performance reviews.

News coverage of protest:

The Tyee: UBC Faculty and Students Protest Board Handling of Gupta Departure

The Province:  ‘Secret’ board meetings prompt UBC protest

The Ubyssey: Protest disturbs Board of Governors meeting

CKNW: Protesters crash UBC board of governors meeting

Here are some photos and videos from today’s protest:

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image



The Courage of Hopelessness: Democratic Education in the Age of Empire [Video]

banner seminar for web

Dr. E. Wayne Ross| Professor, EDCP

January 15, 2016

Short Bio:
E. Wayne Ross is Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC. He has written and edited numerous books including: Critical Theories, Radical Pedagogies and Social Education (Sense, 2010); The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems and Possibilities (4th Ed., SUNY Press, 2014) and Working for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom (Peter Lang, 2016). He also edits the journals Critical Education, Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, and Cultural Logic.

In this talk I argue there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of democracy in North America that subverts traditional approaches to democratic education. The tropes that have historically dominated the discourse on democracy and democratic education now amount to selling students (and ourselves) a lie about history and contemporary life. Our challenge is to re-imagine our roles as educators and find ways to create opportunities for students to create meaningful personal understandings of the world. Education is not about showing life to people, but bringing them to life. The aim is not getting students to listen to convincing lectures by experts, but getting them to speak for themselves in order to achieve, or at least strive for an equal degree of participation and a more democratic, equitable, and justice future. This requires a new mindset, something I call dangerous citizenship.

Did UBC School of Kinesiology just scam its students to help fund a new building?

Tonight the University of British Columbia Alma Mater Society (AMS) Council—the elected student government—will consider approving results of a referendum in which undergraduate kinesiology students voted to increase their student fees by $250 to help fund a new building for the School of Kinesiology.

Yesterday, UBC Insiders reported that the School of Kinesiology spent over $40,000 on the referendum, including employing two people to work on the campaign. Based upon documents UBC Insiders obtained via a Freedom of Information request it seems clear that the the School of Kinesiology and its employees, including administrators, were the primary forces in the referendum, while the Kinesiology Undergraduate Society (KUS) was merely a veneer that made it seems as if the initiative to have students pay for UBC infrastructure on top of their already high tuition and fees was a grassroots idea and campaign .

According to UBC Insiders, the School of Kinesiology outspent the entire KUS budget on the student referendum:

In March 2015, the Kinesiology Undergraduate Society held a referendum for a new $250 student fee. This referendum was unusual for a number of reasons. First, the fee would go entirely towards paying for a portion of a new academic building on behalf of the School of Kinesiology. Secondly, it also became known that the KUS had little involvement in the referendum process and it was instead being led by a group called “Make Your Mark” (MYM). Thirdly, the MYM campaign carried the school’s branding and was being headed up by two individuals who were employees of the School of Kinesiology.

Despite these irregularities, the referendum passed. In May 2015, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was filed asking for various records and correspondence about the referendum held by named employees of the School of Kinesiology. The results of that request, containing over 300 pages of records, can be downloaded here.

It’s quite unusual in the first place that a department of the university would be able to produce 300+ pages of documentation on a referendum supposedly run by a student group. Yesterday’s post contained a semi-narrative timeline of events outlining the School of Kinesiology’s involvement over 16 months.

Across its reporting on the referendum, which goes back to 2014, UBC insiders have identified myriad questions and concerns regarding the referendum (see four articles linked here: http://ubcinsiders.ca/tag/referendum/), including issues of ethics and conflicts of interest.

Here’s a summary of what UBC Insiders has learned:

The School of Kinesiology was involved in the planning and execution of a student referendum for a period of more than a year. It is an idea that had been contemplated by Bob Sparks, the school’s Director, as early as 2012. The School hired two employees who were specifically tasked with passing the referendum, and who reported to Bob. In doing so, the School likely spent more on this one project than the entire annual KUS budget.

Make Your Mark was a “yes” committee, led by employees of the school, that was allowed to write the very referendum question they were campaigning in support of. At various junctures, attempts to muddy the waters were made by trying to claim it was simply an informational campaign.

Bob Sparks and other employees in the School of Kinesiology were definitely kept in the loop of referendum-planning activities: helping to set up meetings, developing budgets, and encouraging faculty and staff to participate in the campaign. The involvement continued throughout, including approval of campaign materials, drafting of the referendum question, and asking UBC legal counsel for advice (presumably) on how to navigate the AMS. Even after questions were publicly raised about the appropriateness of the school’s involvement in the this referendum, nothing seemed to change, with school employees weighing in on media responses, and even editing the notice of referendum results submitted to the AMS.

The KUS, on the other hand, seemed to have little direct involvement in the referendum while it was being planned, a level of engagement which appeared to continue during and after the vote. It would be unfair to say that the KUS was deliberately marginalized from the campaign and referendum, but of everyone involved, the KUS seemed to have the least werewithal to run their own referendum, or even understand the process of doing so. The person eventually recruited to ensure elections rules were followed had been involved in the initial discussions with the school about hiring staff to organize the referendum campaign.

One narrative that has emerged from referendum supporters is that despite any issues surrounding how it was conducted, the results should be ratified because students voted in favour of the proposal. This point of view represents a willful blindness to the elephant in the room; if the student support expressed during this referendum is a genuine reflection of the opinion of the Kinesiology student body, why did the School of Kinesiology feel compelled to mount a $40,000, 16-month campaign? Beyond ignoring significant conflicts of interest and other unethical aspects of the campaign’s structure, this also implicitly posits that Make Your Mark had no effect on the outcome of the vote. On a more basic level, it manages to ignore the underlying fact that in the absence of MYM, there would have been no referendum. This referendum only existed because the School of Kinesiology wanted it to.

The issues raised regarding the School of Kinesiology student referendum demand a full accounting. I have requested that the conversation on these issue begin at the next Faculty of Education meeting on November 16, 21015. (The School of Kinesiology is a unit in the UBC Faculty of Education.)

In addition, I have requested that the Dean of the UBC Faculty of Education initiate an independent fact-finding investigation into the alleged conflicts of interests/ethic breaches related to the School of Kinesiology student referendum and deliver a report of its findings to the members of the Faculty of Education as soon as possible.

It seems to me the AMS council should at least ask some pointed questions, if not conduct their own investigation, before ratifying the referendum to raise the fees of kinesiology students.

Why the UBC Leadership Crisis Matters Beyond the Ivory Tower

The ongoing drama at University of British Columbia may look like a tempest in a teapot, but the dispute among university governors, managers, and faculty has implications that reach beyond the ivory tower.

Two principles are at the heart of the crisis: transparency in governance and academic freedom.

The early August announcement that Arvind Gupta had suddenly and immediately resigned as president was startling, coming just 13 months after his term began. In March 2014, UBC Board Chair John Montalbano said “The opportunity to lead one of the world’s great universities attracted outstanding candidates, but Dr. Arvind Gupta clearly stood out as the best choice to lead this great university.”

What happened?

Well, Montalbano and the UBC Board are not saying. The Board justifies its silence by pointing to non-disclosure agreements, which they drafted and signed, as did Gupta.

Non-disclosure agreements protect secrets. The Board ruled out issues of competence, discipline, and health as reasons for Gupta’s departure. Which makes many wonder why no reasonable explanation has been offered.

Why shouldn’t we just accept the Board’s decision and move on? Because effective oversight of government and public institutions requires transparency, access to information, which helps to hold officials accountable and ensure public interests are served.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who is responsible for appointing a majority of the UBC Board, says “open government is about giving people a sense of confidence that government is working for them, not trying to do something to them.” And, that is exactly the point. Clandestine Board meetings – which are the norm at UBC – and refusal to fully disclose information lead people to believe that something is being done to them.

Mark Mac Lean, UBC Faculty Association president, has argued that in “the absence of an informed explanation” any non-disclosure provisions related to Gupta’s departure are “contrary to the public interest and contrary to the best practices expected of a major public institution.” If you support open and transparent government, I do not understand how you could disagree.

Two days after the Gupta announcement, Kris Olds, a UBC graduate and global higher education expert, wrote that a key lesson from recent university leadership crises is that an early lack of transparency and full communication heightens the risk of a major crisis erupting.

And just days later, as predicted, UBC was in damage-control while the crisis went from from bad to worse, with a faculty revolt and full blown public relations disaster.

A major complicating factor is the allegation that Board Chair Montalbano interfered with the academic freedom of Professor Jennifer Berdahl, attempting to silence her. A charge he has denied.

Following the announcement of Gupta’s departure, Berdahl wrote that perhaps Gupta had “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

Some in the media have dismissed Berdahl’s analysis; made jokes about it.

Research on the gendered nature of work is no joke, but only a few insiders know whether this dynamic applies in Gupta’s case. Berdahl’s perspective isn’t constructed out of thin air, it is based on her experience of UBC as workplace and her academic expertise.

As the Montalbano Professor in Leadership Studies, Berdahl studies power, discrimination, harassment, and diversity. Her mandate is to promote diverse leadership. One of the research groups she leads focuses on work as a masculinity contest, an effort that is, ironically, funded by donations from Montalbano and his employer, Royal Bank of Canada.

So when the board chair – who also happens to be on the advisory board of your faculty, and a major donor to the university ­– calls to discuss your critical analysis of the decision he just announced, direct threats do not have to be made. The power imbalance makes it nearly impossible the conversation to be a collegial exchange.

Obviously, Berdahl was not cowed, but it’s fair to say that in similar situations many others would be. As a recent New York Times article puts it “when you’re in charge, your whisper may feel like a shout.”

Universities exist for the common good, not to further the interest of an individual or institution as a whole.

And, as the influential 1940 statement of American Association of University Professors argues, the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression. These are principles that are clearly stated and even extended further in the policies of UBC.

Transparency in governance and academic freedom contribute in profound ways to the health of democracy and the common good.

Secrecy is an obstacle to good and open governance.

Actions that have the effect of intimidating or harassing (whether intended or not) undermine the ability of people to “freely work, live, examine, question, teach, learn, comment and criticize,” activities that the UBC Board of Governors state they are committed to maintaining at every level of the university.

It is time for the Board to start walking its talk, if they don’t they are damaging more than a university.

[This article was published August 27, 2015 in the Times Colonist (Victoria, BC).]

How not to run a university (Part 3): The art of misdirection [updated]

If you thought UBC was actually investigating the charges its board chairman breeched the academic freedom of a professor, you’d be wrong. 

Following the University of British Columbia Board of Governors’ secret  meeting on Monday, Angela Redish (Provost Pro Tem) and Martha Piper (Interim President) released a statement on academic freedom.

This statement was widely reported as an announcement that UBC was initiating an active investigation of the charges made by Professor Jennifer Berdahl against UBC Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano for breeching her academic freedom in his response to her analysis of the sudden departure of Arvind Gupta as UBC’s president. Details here and here.

Sample headlines:

UBC statement: “Serious” allegations of breaches of academic freedom to be investigated [Georgia Straight]

UBC to investigate Prof. Jennifer Berdahl’s claim she felt ‘gagged’ [CBC]

UBC to investigate complaint over blog post about former president [Globe and Mail]

Problem is the Redish/Piper statement does not actually say that there is or will be an investigation.

The Redish/Piper statement only describes the existing UBC policies on academic freedom and grievance and arbitration procedures.

Redish and Piper state,

UBC has rigorous processes in place – established with the agreement of the Faculty Association – to investigate any allegation of breach of academic freedom. It is imperative that we follow this impartial process embedded within and protected by the collective agreement before pre-judging unproven and untested allegations at this time.

The high and mighty tone of the statement regarding UBC’s commitment to the principles of academic freedom and “rigorous processes” is a misdirection from the fact that this statement does not announce an investigation of Berdahl’s complaints that Montalbano breeched her academic freedom.

All the bluster about academic freedom is followed by a non-sequitur describing a non-existent investigation.

The facts will be gathered and all parties will be heard before reaching any conclusion. We welcome this process and it would be entirely inappropriate to comment further on the allegations until this process has been concluded.

Presuming the process would actually ever start.

It is curious that the Redish/Piper statement focuses on the university’s collective agreement with faculty and does not mention the UBC Board of Governors Policy 3 on Discrimination and Harassment.

Investigation of the academic freedom charges via the collective agreement requires an individual faculty member (or the UBCFA) to file a complaint. This raises interesting questions: Why would Professor Berdahl file a grievance via collective agreement processes? What kind of remedy could she possibly receive as a result of the process?

Berdahal’s blog post on academic freedom says as much, that is, as a tenured full professor she can continue to exercise her academic freedom, albeit in an hostile environment. And, as she points out, the most deleterious of the effects of Montalbano’s meddling will be on faculty and students who do not have the protection of tenure, creating a chilling effect on critical discourse.

Indeed, today’s announcement by the UBC Faculty Association describes how the usual collective agreement processes have been already ben undermined by Montalbano and the university:

… the University itself has sidestepped standard protocols for handling grievances. More specifically, the Chair of the Board of Governors, the Board’s chief spokesperson, gave public, personal testimony related to the case in a University media release. We were shocked that this happened in a formal University media release posted on a University website. (This media release seems to have been removed from news.ubc.ca late Tuesday evening. We have a downloaded copy.) Mr. Montalbano has confused personal interests with the University’s interests. …

While the University has publicly said that a grievance involving Mr. Montalbano could be managed under our usual collective agreement processes, this no longer seemed possible.

So, if UBC leadership is serious about investigating the alleged breech of academic freedom in the Montalbano/Berdahl case they could and should proceed via Policy 3 on Discrimination and Harassment, which is what they should have done in the first place.

Policy 3 begins with this statement,

The University of British Columbia has responsibility for and is committed to providing its students, staff and faculty with an environment dedicated to excellence, equity and mutual respect; one that is free of Discrimination and Harassment; and one in which the ability to freely work, live, examine, question, teach, learn, comment and criticize is protected. Academic Freedom and freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression carries with it the expectation that all Members of the University Community will conduct themselves in a responsible manner so as not to cause, condone or participate in the Discrimination or Harassment of another person or group of persons.

There is no doubt Policy 3 is relevant in this circumstance.

The fundamental objective of Policy 3 is prevention discrimination and harassment on grounds protected by the B.C. Human Rights Code, and it provides procedures for handling complaints, remedying situations, and imposing discipline when such discrimination or harassment does occur.

The responsible executive for initiating an investigation under Policy 3 is the Provost and Vice-President Academic, Angela Redish.

UBC is making a quite a name for itself as a result of its lack of transparency in governance and administration.

The shroud of secrecy around the departure of Arvind Gupta is at the heart of the current crisis. And the lack of clarity about the actions of the Board and the administration in responding to Professor Berdahl’s academic freedom charges only compounds how the university’s leadership crisis is undermining academic integrity at UBC.

UBC needs to makes clear if there is an active investigation on Berdahl’s complaint and what the terms of reference are for that investigation. Or, admit that the university is not as dedicated to preserving academic freedom as they have claimed to be.

Related posts:
How not to run a university (Part 2): Intimidation, bullying & harassment at UBC
How not to run a university (Part 1): Secrecy at UBC
Arvind Gupta: Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns …

How not to run a university (Part 2): Intimidation, bullying & harassment at UBC

What should a university do when the chair of its board of governors uses intimidation tactics in an attempt to bully and harass a faculty member who critically analyzes university decisions?

This is the question facing the University of British Columbia today following Professor Jennifer Berdahl‘s revelations in a blog posted last night.

Following the announcement of Arvind Gupta’s sudden and mysterious departure as president of UBC, Berdahl suggested that perhaps Gupta had “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

I was initially skeptical of  Berdahl’s speculation, but it seems that UBC Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano is hell bent on proving her right.

Berdahl’s blog describes attempts by Montalbano and the administration of the UBC Sauder School of Business — where Berdahl is (ironically) the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity — to intimidate and bully her over the issues she raised in her initial blog post.

According to Berdahl, Montalbano phoned her to say that her blog post

was “incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.” He said I had made him “look like a hypocrite.” He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility. He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my Dean about it. He also repeatedly brought up RBC, which funds my outreach activities, to say that people there were on “damage control” should the media pick up on this.

Then the Sauder School managers and bureaucrats started their harassment campaign.

They proceeded to tell me that my blog post had done serious reputational damage to Sauder and to UBC, and that I had deeply upset one of the most powerful donors to the School who also happened to be the Chair of the Board of Governors. They said they had heard he was even more upset after talking to me on the phone that day.

Berdahl was summoned to the Sauder dean’s office, but the meeting was canceled when she said she’d be there with representation.

This might seem small potatoes to folks outside academe, but assuming her account is accurate (and there is absolutely no reason to doubt it), this is a direct attack on academic freedom by the chair of the university board of governors.

Montalbano’s actions along with those of Sauder School managers at the very least creates a chilling climate for professors, staff, and students.

Berdahl’s description captures it perfectly when she writes:

When I imagine being an assistant professor at this university, or anyone without the protection of tenure, this experience becomes unspeakable. I would be terrified, not angry. I would have retracted my post, or not have written it at all. I would avoid studying and speaking on controversial topics.

Imagine a university of scholars so silenced, and the implications for the world we live in.

Not only has Montalbano engaged in a crass attempt to silence a university professor speaking out in her area of expertise, his actions are in violation of the UBC Board of Governors Policy 3 on Discrimination and Harassment, which states:

The University of British Columbia has responsibility for and is committed to providing its students, staff and faculty with an environment dedicated to excellence, equity and mutual respect; one that is free of Discrimination and Harassment; and one in which the ability to freely work, live, examine, question, teach, learn, comment and criticize is protected. Academic Freedom and freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression carries with it the expectation that all Members of the University Community will conduct themselves in a responsible manner so as not to cause, condone or participate in the Discrimination or Harassment of another person or group of persons.

UBC has gone to great lengths to publicize its respectful environment statement, which is based upon Policy 3 and the university has not hesitated to initiate investigations of faculty and staff and apply sanctions based upon these policies.

Given what we know about Montalbano and Sauder School managers’ actions in this case, there should at least be an immediate investigation. The responsible executive for Policy 3 is the Provost and Vice President – Academic, currently Angela Redish.

What should a university do when the chair of its board of governors uses intimidation tactics in an attempt to bully and harass a faculty member who critically analyzes university decisions? Well, if they are actually serious about creating a climate where academic freedom flourishes and bullying, harassment, and discrimination are discouraged then John Montalbano should choose to “return to his career in banking.”


Related posts:
How not to run a university (Part 3): The art of misdirection [updated]
How not to run a university (Part 1): Secrecy at UBC
Arvind Gupta: Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns …