Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Departure of Dr. Chaudhry from the #UBCBoG

The seat for an elected Vancouver faculty member on the Board of Governors that is currently held by Ayesha Chaudhry will become vacant as of June 30th, 2018.  To fill this vacancy, this is a by-election for one (1) eligible faculty member from the Vancouver campus to serve for the remainder of the 2017-2020 triennium, for a term beginning July 1, 2018 and ending on February 29, 2020.
It is a disappointment to lose a scholar and public intellectual like Ayesha Chaudhry from the Board of Governors at UBC.   Over the year that I have served with her on the Board at UBC I have found my own understanding of our world broadened. Not a scholar of religious studies or classics I will confess to having been unfamiliar with her research prior to meeting her on the board. What a revelation, what a privilege to get to learn from her through her engagements on the board and through exploring her publications.  When the university publicity people talk about excellence at UBC it is colleagues like Dr. Chaudhry who give actual meaning to that often empty term.

In the discussion of her departure colleagues have speculated as to why she has left.

Dr. Chaudry has pointed to her coming sabbatical as the primary reason for her departure. 

Sabbaticals of course are not guaranteed. At the start of the year we might apply and not know the answer for some time.  Sabbaticals take time and require our focus on research.  When we are provided with a sabbatical opportunity it's important we follow up on it and make it productive. In addition, when we take leave for a sabbatical we are supposed to step aside from our various administrative commitments.

We do get a hint at Dr. Chaudhry's impression of work on the board when she tells The Ubyssey that
she plans to apply what she has learned at the Board to her research “turn[ing] historically white, heteronormative institutions into spaces that celebrate diversity in a way that is equitable and sustainable, without tokenizing and exploiting the very people who are brought in to diversify a space.”
I can't help but wonder had the Board acted differently might Dr. Chaudhry still be a governor.

Dr. Jennifer Berdahl posted a comment to her blog earlier today that compares her own experience on the Presidential Search Committee to what she imagines Chaudhry experienced on the Board.  At the heart is the way the current power structures create a sense of futility for those of us intersted in effecting real, meaningful change.  As Berdahl notes: "If Prof. Chaudhry’s experience was anything like mine on the UBC Presidential Search Committee, she quickly realized how alienating it is to be one of only three faculty members on a 21-person corporate-controlled Board. It was likely even worse for Chaudhry as a woman of colour. Combining this with the Board's shenanigans that are designed to manipulate information and process to achieve desired decisions and minimize academic voices, a sense of helpless futility can set in."

It is too soon to say whether anything will change with the new board chair, but the experience over the past year (from my perspective) has been fatiguing.  For Dr. Chaudhry and myself, who were elected on a platform of change it takes a lot of emotional energy to engage in an environment where what we say is either ignored,  dismissed, greeted with an obfuscational answer, or we are explicitly told we are wrong.

Reviewing governance, tinkering with procedures and rules of order for meetings, are all well and fine.  However, if the cultural practices of racialized discourse, gendered power, and inherent valourization of wealth over intellect remain unchallenged no amount of tinkering with rules and procedures will create a better outcome. If the board is serious about engaging honestly with all faculty (not just those that agree with them) and sincerely wants to create the capacity for real diversity, then they will need to address the cultural practices that fundamentally exclude and demean those of us who are not members of the corporate elite.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Privatization, Student Housing, and UBC

UBC quietly announced last Friday the 13th, through a report to the UBC Board of Governors, that they are planning on privatizing aspects of student housing through the creation of Government Business Enterprise. The Ubyssey reports out UBC's argument for privatization.

This new GBE would be joining UBC Properties Trust (UBC's real estate developer) and IMANT (UBC's investment management firm). Both of which operate outside of the view of public scrutiny. Even though they are whole owned by UBC, normal freedom of information requests (FOIPPA): that is, they have no obligation to divulge information in the same way that UBC must comply. Another aspect is that as a GBE these entities are able to raise private debt that does not show up on the government ledger and in ways that UBC itself is legislatively constrained from doing.

As presented to the Board on Friday the 13th last Andrew Parr, UBC's head of housing, described how the management plan would essentially be restricted to managing the physical assets - specific details of the presentation, which was presented in open session and shared with governors, cannot be located on the UBC Board of Governor's web page as of today's date. Nor is there mention that any info on this project will be brought to the April 19th Board meeting as posted on the web page.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Enhancing the Student Experience

For the first time ever at UBC the contributions of student tuition fees exceede provincial government contributions to UBC’s core budget. This startlingly fact was the backdrop to a strenuous grilling of UBC’s VP Finance and Provost by governors at the Friday the 13th meeting of UBC’s Board of Governors standing committee for finance.

Given the fact students contribute more to UBC’s budget than the provincial government,  governors asked why more wasn’t being done to enhance the student experience.  By way of explanation the provost reiterated UBC’s commitment to the student experience. In a back and forth with a governor the provost outlined a range of programs that focus on enhancing the student experience. At several points the chair of the board would intervene pressing the provost for more explanations and elaboration. For his part the provost responded in measured and deliberate tone outlining the programs in play, conceding more could be done, and affirming the importance of students in the overall process.

As a faculty member listening to this I wondered about the background discourse undergirding the discussion.  How is focussing upon a student’s experience at UBC related to our core mission: education and research?  What is actually being meant by experience. Why is no one questioning the inadequacy of the government’s core contribution? What about our contingent colleagues? Our part time precarious colleagues pick up a great deal of the teaching responsibilities across our campuses. Is there not something we can do to improve their working conditions? Remember faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.  From my perspective all these questions received short shrift.

I did take the opportunity to ask the provost, given how financially sound our university is, why more funds couldn’t be directed toward improving the living and working conditions of contingent faculty. “I’ll take that under consideration” he said with no further elaboration.

More questions followed highlighting how the student experience needed to be enhanced as a priority to which the provost engaged in lengthy and detailed elaborations of how that might be accomplished.  One could be excused for concluding that it seemed that since students pay so much their experience was to be front and center.

We all come from particular experiences and backgrounds.  Student reps build upon a time horizon of their studies and their annual terms of office. Appointed reps come from outside the university and have varying degrees of familiarity with UBC. Faculty governors tend to be lifers. We often have one, two, even three decades of experience at UBC by the time we consider getting involved at the Board.  We do see things differently than our colleagues on the board.  Some of us are quiet – preferring to speak softly from the margins. Others are more brash and outspoken. But we all share a fundamental material experience of actually working at the front line of the student experience: in classrooms, laboratories, and our units.  We do so from the vantage point of years of hands on experience – we are not transitory visitors on our campuses.

Part of our experience is to see the various fashions of student politics and administrative plans come and go. Sometimes these movements have real effects; often they are fleeting and disappear almost before they are fully deployed. 

There is much about the university as a total institution that seems driven to cultivate experiences. A lot of board discussion circles around ideas of reputation and brand.  Who pays and how much they pay (be they governments, donors, or students) is also a big deal at the board. Cultivating a good experience for students is central to many of these discussions.

What is this experience that everyone is talking about? I hear about classroom experience, residence experience, and student experience writ large. Very little of it seems to be specifically tied to learning (unless it’s about more engaging, entertaining, learning with technology).  While I’m sure board colleagues will disagree with this conclusion, it does seem to me that the experience being touted is really the experience of a customer seeking fulfilment through the purchase of a service. What is seen as important is not what is learned, but the grade; not the productive struggle of learning but the validation of self in a great experience as a member of an imagined community.  A good student experience very likely leads to a productive alumni relationship - one where the alumni feels good about giving money.  

If one is seeking an experience take a year off and hike the Continental Divide Scenic Trail. Go to a circus. If you want an education then head on over to a lecture, read a book, join a seminar. Let’s focus on the real learning that is made possible by your faculty (tenure stream and contingent). Want to improve the student experience? Then bring on board more faculty to teach courses with smaller class sizes. Pay contingent faculty living wages. Better yet, create meaningful job security for contingent faculty.  

If we are interested in improving the student experience then we have to make sure that faculty working conditions are attended to. Our working conditions are student learning conditions. Can't have the latter without the former.   The solutions are pretty simple: reduce class size, increase support for faculty in terms of teaching (in class and for course development and professional growth), reduce reliance of customer satisfaction surveys and delink from performance evaluation (otherwise called student evaluations of teaching), decrease focus on star recruitment, and  improve working conditions and employment security for contingent faculty.