Peter Wall Institute called 'a reputational liability' in external review

An external review of the UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies found that the Institute’s governance was out of alignment with standard practice.

UBC hired four reviewers — Dr. Alan Bernstein of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Dr. Margaret Levi of Stanford University, Dr. Jane Ohlmeyer of Trinity College Dublin and Dr. Veronica Strang of Durham University — to investigate and make recommendations pertaining to the Institute’s governance and structure.

The team relied on documents shared by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) Interim Director Dr. Kalina Christoff along with interviews from individuals connected to the Institute over a three day period last January, according to the final report.

Further details into the review process are unclear due to a confidentiality agreement between the review team and the university. All reviewers contacted declined to comment.

At the end of the 14-page review, the team made 15 recommendations, including calls to update existing governing practice and increase community engagement with students and faculty.

“This is a crucial moment in the life of the Institute. While it should and can be a place that brings reputational luster to the university, it has instead become — hopefully only for a moment — a reputational liability,” their final report reads.

The UBC Vancouver Senate initiated the external review back in December 2018 following the surprise resignation of Director Philippe Tortell over a PWIAS Board of Trustees directive that would have ended the Institute’s academic independence and shrunk many of its programs.

Reviewers did not believe it was academic freedom that deserved attention, but rather the “autonomy of PWIAS leadership relative to the Board” to make decisions relating to the academic mission of the Institute and UBC. The review team also highlighted the importance of the PWIAS within UBC by providing opportunities to both students and faculty to conduct research.

The report was submitted on January 24 last year, but was not publicly released until last month when it appeared on the Institute’s website along with a formal response from PWIAS leadership, completed in November 2020.

Mission control

The first and only recommendation pertaining to the Institute’s academic mandate calls on the PWIAS to reform its current scholar programs in order to clarify its mission.

“What best defines the PWIAS within UBC is its internal scholars programs that allow selected UBC faculty from multiple disciplines to have time together away from the usual tasks of teaching and administration,” the report reads.

The reviewers note, however, that the current reach of these programs is limited to only a few disciplines and remains largely unknown at the international level. Increasing the visibility of these programs will help define the Institute’s unique mission.

In their response, PWIAS leadership committed to “streamline and focus its programs” in an effort to refine the Institute’s mission.

“A thematic component was seen as desirable and a good way to amplify connection and spur discussions between scholars from diverse backgrounds,” wrote Christoff in a statement emailed to The Ubyssey.

“The theme for the 2020 cohort is “crisis,” while the 2021 cohort is expected to focus on “complex systems.”

Constitutional makeover

PWIAS’s current governance structure was an area of concern for the review team who made seven recommendations pertaining to the Institute's leadership.

Specifically, the report described the designation of UBC’s president as chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees (BOT) in the PWIAS Deed of Trust as “unusual” and a possible source of conflicting interests. The reviewers recommended that President Santa Ono appoint a senior academic to serve in his place.

The review team wrote that the deed — signed in 1991 by Peter Wall and UBC during the formation of the Institute — has “ambiguous language that does not easily reconcile with the University Act and usual academic/university governance structures.”

They urged the PWIAS leadership to work with Wall to modernize the deed, or create an additional governance document if necessary.

The review team also stressed the importance of communication and engagement in improving the Institute’s reputation locally and abroad. They recommended including “a stakeholder and communications strategy” in a new strategic plan.

The Institute has already acted on one of these recommendations and is working on addressing the rest. In September last year, Ono stepped down as Chair of the Institute’s BOT, naming Dr. Moura Quayle, vice-provost and associate VP of academic affairs, as his replacement.

“It takes some time…[but] I'm anxious to get [the framework and strategic plan] approved and underway. And it's my expectation that will happen."

— Dr. Moura Quayle, vice-provost and associate VP of academic affairs

A new Governance Framework and Strategic Plan aimed at addressing several of the review’s recommendations is being drafted and is expected to be completed by Spring 2021. It will also draw upon the findings from the Governance Diagnostic review by Watson Inc. that was commissioned by Ono and Christoff in Fall 2019, separately from the Institute’s external review.

“It takes some time…[but] I'm anxious to get [the framework and strategic plan] approved and underway. And it's my expectation that will happen,” Quayle added.

It’s all about the money

Despite the reviewers recommending leadership to sell Wall shares and having the resulting funds managed as part of the UBC endowment, the Board of Trustees does not plan to do so.

The cash flow from these shares have been unpredictable in the past, making long-term financial planning extremely difficult. The review team also notes that such procedures break with “standard UBC and most not-for-profit organization practice.”

In their formal response, the Institute remained committed to use the Wall shares.

“The Deed of Trust sets out clear circumstances under which the shares may be disposed of. This requires Peter Wall’s approval. We will adhere to those,” the document reads.

Directing the director

Many of the Institute’s previous directors have only served short tenures — generating “long-term uncertainties” and “hampered successive directors in developing and carrying through their respective visions,” according to the report.

The reviewers recommend that PWIAS leadership develop a job description for the role to clarify the position’s scope and outline responsibilities. The appointment process should also involve key stakeholders.

The Institute’s response indicated that the role description would be complete by December 2020, but Christoff said that the description was still being worked on.

“We’re hopeful that the search for the next director will begin shortly after the new academic trustees join the Board of Trustees,” she wrote in an email to The Ubyssey.

Later in her email, Christoff suggested that these new members will join the Board in early Spring.

Supporting role

The reviewers also suggest that the PWIAS director and key stakeholders create supportive academic and administrative frameworks that assist with the facilitation of the exchange of cross-disciplinary knowledge.

Previously, directors and faculty within the Institute described a secretive environment where faculty members were left out when major decisions were made.

To address this recommendation, PWIAS leadership will consider introducing new academic positions within the organization, as well as increasing its involvement in the academic community.

“[Christoff's] answer is always ‘How do we make this work?’ rather than ‘No, you can't do it.' For me it's been a really exciting place.”

— Dr. Michelle Stack, a current Wall scholar

Dr. Michelle Stack, a current Wall scholar, said that she feels she has had “tremendous” support from leadership.

Stack credited Christoff with helping create an open and collaborative environment.

“Her answer is alwaysHow do we make this work?’ rather than ‘No, you can't do it,’” Stack said.

“For me, it's been a really exciting place.”

Beyond the wall: Next steps

PWIAS leadership have committed to all but one of the external review’s recommendations.

As the Institute works to make the suggested changes and improve its reputation, Stack hopes that the original mission of expanding knowledge remains at the forefront.

“When we talk about international reputation what’s important to me is that we don't just think about it in terms of what we can financially get … but what aim do we make in terms of our contributions as academics to public debate.”