Academic committee will decide future of Peter Wall Institute after creation of new fund

The Peter Wall Institute’s future will be in the hands of an academic committee.

On October 24, UBC announced the creation of a Peter Wall Legacy Fund to support sustainability research projects. Along with this announcement, UBC said the future of the Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies (PWIAS) will be considered by an academic committee, with any decision requiring Senate approval.

The Peter Wall Institute is an advanced research institute at UBC established in 1991 by a 15 million dollar donation from Peter Wall. It currently serves as a place where faculty from UBC and around the world can conduct interdisciplinary research.

Vice Provost and Associate VP, Academic Affairs Moura Quayle, spoke about the “exciting” direction that the Institute is headed toward along with the recent changes that have taken place within the organization. In 2020, she was appointed by then-President Santa Ono as chair of the Peter Wall Endowment Board of Trustees. During her time on the board, she was involved in finding ways to respond to a 2020 external review.

“This new Peter Wall Legacy [Fund] provides us with the opportunity to put academics in the driver’s seat, which is so important in terms of academic freedom,” Quayle said.

The academic committee’s role will be focused on managing the $4 million scholarship fund, used to shape the future of Peter Wall awards and fellowships.

Quayle said the committee will consult with the Senate on the membership, and the UBC president would take that advice in the appointment process.

“My presumption would be that the Institute and any academic would be happy to have academics making the decision on the shape of the awards and fellowships.”

As for the current cohort of Wall scholars, Quayle explained that there is enough funding in place for them to finish their time at the Institute. As for future scholar appointments, an academic panel will provide the PWIAS with advice on how to proceed.

After August 31, any future programs, including the Peter Wall scholars, “will depend on the findings of this academic committee.”

Tom Scholte, a 2021 Wall scholar and professor from the department of theatre and film, said the program gave him the “gift of time” to spend on his personal work.

The Wall Scholars program is similar to a sabbatical year, in that members are released from regular teaching, but it greatly differs in its fostering of “interdisciplinary connections,” Scholte said.

“I’m sharing an office with a pediatrician, and amazingly, we discover we have common research interests,” Scholte said. He said he found it valuable to meet and work alongside scholars pursuing other disciplines.

“It’s been a unique opportunity at UBC,” he continued. He recalled some Wall scholars in his cohort “really [took] advantage of the opportunity to work across disciplinary boundaries.”

The rocky history of the PWIAS

The PWIAS has a controversial history with a 2020 external review calling the Institute’s governance a “reputational liability.”

The 2020 external review was initiated by the Vancouver Senate after then-PWIAS director Dr Philippe Tortell resigned in protest over a Board of Trustees directive that he argued impacted the institute's academic freedom in 2018.

“The previous Deed of Trust that we were operating under presented us with some serious governance issues,” Quayle said. One issue revolved around the criteria for Peter Wall’s donation, which required two members of the Board of Trustees to be Wall family members.

Quayle said the governance structure outlined in the Institute’s website is “outdated,” as new practices are in place post-external review.

For example, she said the PWIAS Board of Trustees and Deed of Trust are now gone — the governance of the current PWIAS is now under the graduate and postdoctoral studies, where the original Peter Wall governance sat.

Quayle added that the Wall shares have been sold to provide stable funding to academic proceeds, such as the Peter Wall Legacy Fund.

“Our governance problems are gone,” she said.