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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 1997

A Whole New Meaning for Office Politics

Bill Bruneau
One summer morning five years ago, the UBC Faculty Association staff had a visitor, the business agent of one of the Canadian Union of Public Employees locals on campus. He arrived in a foul temper, having just discovered the administration planned to construct a residential college for Asian graduate visa students.

At first we thought St. John’s College, as the residential college was to be called, was to offer academic programs in international studies, and would practice a kind of discrimination by not accepting Canadian-born students.

We turned out to be wrong on both points. We sent an association staff member over to President David Stangway’s office to do some sleuthing. She returned with a large unmarked envelope. Inside was a beautifully printed brochure for "St. John’s College."

The document had drawings of sea and mountains. The text told of a group of wealthy Asian businessmen who proposed a UBC version of the original St. John’s College in Shanghai, a foundation that disappeared after China’s 1949 Revolution.

Meanwhile, as it happened, the UBC Faculty Association had been trying from 1990 to 1993 to persuade the administration to lease land on which to construct faculty housing. Although we were willing to pay a good price, the administration declined in favour of market housing on campus. We figured that if we couldn’t have campus land, there was no especially good reason anyone else should acquire it, not without broad campus consultation and discussion.

How wrong we were! Now, in 1997, construction of the new Asian College is far advanced. For St. John’s, the problem of land was miraculously solved. In private discussion, the board of governors approved the college and its construction. Meanwhile, there were occasional references to the college in the senate, but little sustained argument. Its residential program did involve both Canadian and Asian students in the end, and its programs are propaedeutic to the work done by official departments on campus.

Like many in the UBC community, I think the St. John’s idea is a good one. But like most colleagues, I (and the association executive of the day) were stunned at how easily the wealthy "Johannines" got access to the office of the president of the university.

It all began with quiet visits to David Strangway, president at the time. The next stages occurred in the development office, in the planning office, in the confidential minutes of the property management sub-committee of the board of governors. And the university is no longer the same. The senate has been weakened by an administration concerned with markets and products, unable and undisposed to offer a persuasive vision of the undergraduate curriculum. The "physical plant" is in good shape where it has benefitted from the direct gifts of wealthy individuals; but "ordinary" classrooms are slowly disintegrating.

Over the past three years at least, the UBC scenario has been played out on one campus after another. At York, the iniversity now offers donors the opportunity to name courses, not just buildings and chairs.

At Toronto this month, the politically inevitable finally occurred: it became known that two donors might have stepped over the invisible line, and gained some degree of control over academic programs or academic careers (the Rotman and Nortel affairs). They, too, had made the trip to the privacy of the president’s (in this case Rob Prichard’s) office, and had emerged a little poorer — but more powerful in the university’s internal life.

Universities have always accepted — and sometimes thrived on — private money. But universities worth the name are not dependent upon the givers. Their autonomy is their gold.

It’s mildly funny to contrast the shenanigans of Mssrs Prichard and Strangway with CAUT’s policies on university governance, transparency, and public funding of higher education. Can we all be on the same planet? But of course we are very much living on the same planet, and it’s time for us to make it plain to Rob and Dave that the privacy of their office is not the best place to do university business.