Gupta and the state of transparency and democracy at UBC

If you’re anything like me, you spent August closely watching the unfolding drama at the highest echelons of UBC’s administration: a President who left unexpectedly and without explanation, the Board of Governors Chair cracking down on a professor, the AMS’s response, and now a call for transparency in the new Presidential Search process. As the former AMS VP Academic and University Affairs who had an insider’s view into the first 10 months of former President Arvind Gupta’s tenure, I feel like it’s finally time to throw my thoughts into the mix of commentary and speculation.

No one who knows what happened behind the Board of Governors closed doors has actually spoken publicly. But it is clear that there was a conflict between Gupta and the Board, as well as Gupta and his Vice-Presidents, on a vision for the university. You don’t fire the President of the University over something small: Oh sorry, he ‘voluntarily resigned.’ His lack of administrative experience left him unable (or unwilling?) to spend the time to get them on board with that vision (a note on that below). The Globe and Mail did a fantastic job teasing this issue apart – the grumblings from faculty and administrators that the Globe heard are very similar to the grumblings I heard as VP Academic and University Affairs – that the President was off creating a new vision without input or consultation from the top administration and Board,  that he was separating himself from them.

(An aside: much has been said lauding Gupta’s vision for the university, especially by the Faculty Association, but I am skeptical about whether this vision truly pushes us away from the increasing corporatization of the university, or whether it in fact is an increased corporatization under the guise of more faculty support and research funding. This lecture that Gupta gave last year would suggest the latter.  However, since nothing was ever formally published on what he hoped to do, it is unclear what he actually intended to do. At this point, what the actual vision was is less important than how people are shaping it to fit their own views).

For me, what is most troubling about this affair is not Gupta’s firing. If you have a bad President, if the relationship with the Board is not working, better to end it than to have another four bad years. We will not know whether it was a justified firing until the truth comes out. The undemocratic tendency of  a lack of transparency, especially in a colonial institution, is what is most concerning to me, but apparently not to the AMS.

I do agree with the first two points of the AMS’s statement: calling for an investigation into Board Chair John Montalbano’s conduct, and not calling for his resignation until the results of that are clear. To their third point asking people to “avoid speaking on behalf of the student community,” I find it, as others have, a bit of a strange comment, but understand their desire for people to not make grandiose claims about students’ opinions on the matter, partly because – as I know full well as someone who used to have to attempt to represent students’ opinions – there is no issue on this campus that all 60,000 of us would agree on, except for the fact that Pie[R]^2 is a much better name than BOOM! Pizza. For the record, my views are my own.

I find it disturbing, however, that the AMS failed to call on the Board of Governors to speak to the reasoning behind Gupta’s ‘resignation’, rather, they said only that the AMS “will continue to work towards improved transparency and representation of the student voice,” you know, in the future, but not now, not for something that seriously needs explanation.

And I’m not the only one who thinks we need more explanation for his departure. A Facebook page entitled “Transparency for UBC” appeared early September, and has over 1000 likes.

The AMS is now, however, calling for a more transparent and open Presidential Search process. As it stands right now, the composition of the Presidential Search Committee will be “largely an amalgam of the previous two presidential search committees” (September Senate Materials p. 144). Basically, this won’t be a public search meaning there is little obvious change from business as usual.

While of course I share their aim of increased transparency and more democratic structures, I believe this call for a more transparent and democratic search process is misplaced when the reasons for Gupta’s departure, the undemocratic structure of the university, and a larger political context of neoliberalism and colonialism are taken into account. Let me explain why I think this.

Firstly, those who understand the system are more likely to have an understanding of what the presidential role actually is. As a former student leader who saw a great deal more of the administrative underside of this university than most, I can say that electing students, alumni members, staff or even faculty members who are not familiar with the university’s administrative and governance structures to sit on this sort of committee may result in a more democratic process.  However, it is unlikely to result in a new president who understands what the Board of Governors or administration expects of them, and is therefore actually more likely to result in a similar situation again, since Gupta not understanding how to work with the administration and Board of Governors seems to have resulted in his firing.

We may be unhappy about the fact that the presidential role, as well as the roles of Vice-Presidents and Deans, are becoming increasingly administrative, and therefore less connected to the heart of the university – the faculty members and students. They are also  generally more and more corporatized as the university is increasingly reliant on donations (recent local examples are Goldcorp’s donations to the University and the mining institute; for more on the corporatization of the university, see this and this.) However, these issues stem, amongst other factors, from the undemocratic nature of the Board of Governors, not only from the Presidential search process.

For those unfamiliar with the BC University Act, here’s what matters to our discussion:

  • UBC has a bicameral governance structure, meaning the Senates have jurisdiction over academics, and the Board of Governors over finances, land, construction, etc. In practice, the Board has power over the Senate because they control the money.  
  • Half of the Board’s membership is appointed by the Provincial Government, and, under the current Provincial Government, tend to be business people. The other half are elected from students, staff and faculty.
  • All of the Board members have a fiduciary duty to the University, which means having a duty to the university as a whole (which has often been interpreted as a primarily financial duty) rather than the constituency from which the Board member is elected. As Neal Yonson at UBC Insiders reminds us, this means they don’t represent you.

The Board is also notoriously secretive in its dealings (the GSS’s statement, to its credit, at least addresses this issue), with past student Board members saying in private they have been forced to sign nondisclosure agreements and threatened with non-academic misconduct if they speak about what happens in the Board, or even hint at criticism of the Board. A structure where half the Board is unelected, appointed by a neoliberal government determined to under-fund the university, and the other half gagged and told they don’t represent the people who elected them, is clearly an undemocratic one. In such a culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that, as much as they promise to, I’ve never seen a student Board member vote against tuition increases – they all drink the Kool-Aid.

As well, democratically elected representatives making our choices for us is still not nearly as democratic as direct democracy. While I’m sure the Provincial Liberal Government would scoff at this idea as ridiculous, many universities in Quebec still choose their Presidents through an electoral college or assembly system.

Finally, we must always place these discussions within the frame of UBC as being located on stolen Musqueam and Okanagan land. What does it mean to speak about democracy, decision making, transparency and accountability when the Canadian government and white settlers took this land from First Nations without regard for their sovereignty and right to the land? A decolonized university structure would require, at minimum, the free, prior and informed consent of the Musqueam and Okanagan for everything we do on their land. It’s ironic that Board Chair John Montalbano often finds land acknowledgements hollow-sounding while being willfully ignorant of  his role in upholding colonial systems of university and provincial governance.

Calling for a more transparent and democratic Presidential Search process means very little when the Board of Governors to whom the President reports is so undemocratic and non-transparent itself. Rather than latching on to this one incident, we need to be be looking at how neoliberal, austerity-driven, undemocratic and colonial systems in our governments create a situation where the lack of transparency we’ve seen this summer is truly business as usual.