Nassif Ghoussoub: Why I resigned as the chair of Learning and Research committee on the UBC Board of Governors

On September 12, I resigned as the chair of the Learning and Research (L&R) committee of UBC Board of Governors.

I chose to do it in an open session because I happen to believe that transparency is key to accountability and therefore most sessions of the Board should be open. As to why I have decided to resign can be summarized in the following three reasons.

First, my main objective as chair of L&R was accomplished: Learning and research are certainly back at the core of the Board’s priorities. Through a series of presentations that our committee solicited from the administration, the VP academic and the VP research provided detailed appraisals of the state of the academy.

Historical and current data on student enrolments, faculty recruitment and academic capital projects were provided to the governors, who eventually sounded the alarm as to the current state of academic affairs. We also heard from the dean of graduate studies. The L&R committee requested an academic renewal plan from the administration to urgently address the stagnated state of research faculty, which contrasted the huge increase in undergraduate students’ enrolments of the last 10 years. Governors also questioned the relatively low number of graduate students compared to our peer institutions as well as the inadequacy of the financial support available to attract the best of them with guarantees of decent working and living conditions.

This eventually led to the establishment of a working group led by the Board chair that includes senators, deans, heads and students. I would have preferred — due to the urgency — a swifter action on this front and a process that respected the delineated roles of the administration from those of the Board, but what is important for now is that the ball is starting to roll in the right direction towards academic renewal and the enhancement of our graduate program.

Second, my resignation opened the door for Dr. Charles Menzies, the other Vancouver faculty member on the Board, to take a turn in the chair. Let me be clear and say that Dr. Menzies and I have diametrically opposite views and priorities on many aspects of the university — be it our understanding of the role of excellence in recruitment and tenure, our views on the international vs. local role of UBC, on its prospects for growth vs. retrenchment, on the densification of South campus vs. a freeze on development and many other matters.

But it is my opinion that Dr. Menzies has, through his election by the faculty, earned the right and the opportunity to lead the L&R committee according to his own priorities.

The last reason for my resignation is a mixed bag of a partial success and a consequential disappointment. My appointment as chair of L&R had broken the unfortunate cycle of sidelining of the UBC Vancouver faculty representatives on the Board. Indeed, since their election in 2017, Drs. Chaudhury and Menzies had been denied roles on search committees, working groups, committee chairpersonships and the executive of the Board. Not anymore. Had the chair refused to assign me the chairmanship of either the Governance committee — that I had requested — or the L&R committee, I would have followed in the steps of Dr. Chaudhry and resigned immediately right after my election. This did not happen.

Unfortunately, a series of subsequent actions have effectively frustrated my role as chair of L&R. Never before have we witnessed a chair of the Board chairing university-wide “working groups” consisting of non-governors and dealing with core academic issues that are the purview of the university executive. As much as I agree intellectually with the current chair on most academic priorities and appreciate his commitment to UBC, I believe that this is a dangerous precedent that contravenes the very basis of good governance.

This newly devised modus operandi of the Board also led to the exclusion of certain governors from participating in and contributing to important discussions. The chair of the L&R committee was kept out of all the current working groups. I was told membership in working groups is a privilege, not a right, hence effectively negating the mandate I was given by the faculty to be their representative “at the table.”

So, I chose to use my right to resign from the chair of L&R hoping that, in the best interests of the university, my successor could be awarded the privilege of contributing adequately to shared governance, “comme il se doit.”

Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub is a member of the UBC Board of Governors and professor in the faculty of mathematics. The opinions expressed are solely his own.