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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2006

Court Upholds Ruling that UBC President Acted Unreasonably

Lance Rucker’s department head and dean thought he should be promoted to full professor. So did the university’s senior appointments committee, a labour arbitrator and the provincial Labour Relations Board. Now, the B.C. Supreme Court agrees as well, leaving university president Martha Piper out in the cold.

Events began almost five years ago when Rucker, an associate professor of dentistry at the University of British Columbia, became eligible for promotion to full professor. The promotion had a green light coming into the president’s office, but Piper turned it down. The refusal came despite positive recommendations from below and Rucker’s considerable career achievements, including international renown for ground-breaking work in the teaching and practice of dental surgery. Piper advised Rucker that the reason for her negative decision was the “small number of publications in peer-reviewed journals.”

The faculty association at UBC filed a grievance, alleging that Piper’s decision was unreasonable in the face of the evidence and fraught with procedural error. The case went to arbitration, where the collective agreement’s test for promotion became the main issue.

In April 2004, the arbitrator found that the agreement clearly stated that for faculty in professional schools, “distinguished performance in professional fields” was as equally valid a consideration as an extensive publication record. In her ruling, arbitrator Marguerite Jackson Q.C. stated:

“Her (Dr. Piper’s) decision was unreasonable as she acted contrary to, or ignored, the agreement between the parties. It is obvious from Dr. Piper’s decision and from her viva voce evidence that she did not consider the possibility of evidence of scholarly activity other than peer-reviewed publications. A decision is unreasonable when evidence that the parties have agreed should be considered is ignored or excluded from consideration. Dr. Piper was obligated under the terms of the agreement to consider evidence beyond that of peer-reviewed publications. She did not.”

The arbitrator upheld the grievance and by way of remedy reversed the president’s decision. The university appealed the ruling to the B.C. Labour Relations Board. The board rejected the appeal. Following this second defeat, the university appealed that decision to the B.C. Supreme Court. On March 13, 2006, the court handed Piper loss number three by upholding the promotion.

UBC faculty association president Elliott Burnell said the ruling is significant because it provides for an independent review of the president’s decisions about promotions, tenure and discipline, consistent with standard labour practice.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision,” Burnell said. “The record indicates that Dr. Rucker is an exceptional professor who met the appropriate criteria for promotion.”

He said the university administration has yet to indicate whether it will appeal further, but he’s hopeful the clear message from the Supreme Court will end the issue.

CAUT executive director James Turk said the case “underscores that universities and colleges cannot be governed by administrative fiat.”

Unionized academic staff and campus administrators are bound by mutually agreed upon rules set out in collective agreements, he added.

“If one side thinks these rules are being broken, a neutral third party adjudicates the dispute and issues a decision binding on everyone, from the most junior assistant professor to the institution’s president,” Turk said. “No one is above the law.”