Rita Wong: Why can't we elect B.C. university chancellors?

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      What are we learning in B.C. universities about democratic process? Not Enough.

      Charles Menzies, who serves on UBC’s board of governors, proposes that chancellors should be elected through free, fair and open elections. This is what used to happen, until it was replaced with a closed door process in 2008. I would welcome such an open process at universities across B.C., including Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where I work.

      The current provincial government seems too cautious to make more progressive appointments, but someone needs to explain why Libby Davies, who has the respect and support of the vast majority of East Van where Emily Carr’s campus is now located and who I would gladly nominate for chancellor, would be overlooked from playing a role in collegial governance at Emily Carr, whereas the impending renewal of former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant as chancellor would slide by without comment. Until now.

      I feel my silence has been complicity, and I don’t want to be complicit any more. When it was announced three years ago that Plant would be our chancellor, I felt repulsed, but I also felt resigned because I was exhausted. Full-time teaching is a privilege and an honour, but it is also extremely demanding. At that time I did not have the energy to protest what I saw as a horrible choice when there was so much on my plate already.

      So I kept quiet even though I thought it was shameful to have a chancellor who, as B.C.’s attorney general, cut legal aid so drastically that he was censured by the B.C. Law Society for this. He also eliminated the B.C. Human Rights Commission, fired B.C.’s chief human rights commissioner, and implemented a referendum regarding the B.C. treaty process so divisive and poorly worded that many First Nations, labour groups, church groups, and environmental groups boycotted it. 

      Why did Emily Carr art wash this man? Whatever the intentions of the policies that he implemented, the effects have been detrimental to many people, particularly Indigenous people, poor people, and a wide range of equity-seeking people.

      Even his installation ceremony felt like an insult, forcing students out of their scheduled classes into another space, so that the administration could hold a ceremony in their classroom, which was also the university’s lecture theatre. Why couldn’t they schedule it at a time when classes weren’t running, instead of displacing students?

      Plant’s three-year term is coming to a close, but it appears that the alumni association is rubber stamping his renewal. Members of the senate have raised questions regarding why Plant is being renewed but were told by the president that the senate has no vote on this matter. According to the University Act, chancellors are appointed to the board after being nominated “by the alumni association and after consultation with the senate”. 

      The three questions I have are: do Emily Carr alumni know what is being done on their behalf in terms of chancellor selection? If there were open nominations and an election, who would become chancellor this year? What does “consultation” mean if the Senate’s questions are dismissed and not conveyed to or addressed by the board of governors?

      Emily Carr is in an important moment of transition in this new campus, and it needs to respond to changing demographics and contemporary cultural movements. We need leadership that is committed to social justice not only in rhetoric, but in actual deeds and effects. I’ve felt the absence of such leadership keenly as we moved to the new campus, which has seen a marked increase in corporatization.

      This is easily seen as one walks around the campus looking at the John Montalbano Painting Studio or the Ian Gillespie Faculty of Design + Dynamic Media or Rennie Hall or Ron Burnett Library, which are symptoms of a top-down corporate monoculture. None of these names were decided with any faculty, staff, or student consultation. I never consented to any of this and would not have consented if I had ever been asked, which I wasn’t.

      Indeed, the renaming of the whole Faculty of Design + Dynamic Media came as a surprise to the faculty members and students in it. Why is a student population that is racially diverse and roughly two-thirds female-identified now suddenly surrounded by rich white men’s names? What kind of environment is that to foster creativity, respect for diverse practices, and education in general? What would happen if spaces were named after Coast Salish words and beings, or after the racialized cleaning staff who keep the place running?

      I miss the repurposed wire factory on Granville Island, which was quirky and had character. There are good things about the new campus as well, but also new obstacles that arise with the corporatized space of a public-private partnership. For instance, students have to request permission to install art from the private company that manages the building; this is problematic in terms of both pedagogy and academic freedom.

      As one colleague has observed, where we once had ponds, wharves, and hills to make outdoor installations, we now have parking lots and years of construction surrounding us. There used to be a line of tall, old trees including sequoias near the new campus, but these were cut down for the new buildings. I mourn them, and I think we need to question the mindset that devalues such life. An area that had promise to become more biologically diverse now seems to be defaulting to a sterile and overly managed corporate culture.

      Charles Menzies has also written, “Our academic world is no longer (if it ever was) an isolated ivory tower. Our universities of excellence are at the core of the new world order. Our responsibilities and obligations thus call upon us to directly confront these forces in our workplace and through our actions.”  I walk around the new campus and I see so many contradictions that I can no longer remain silent as people get excluded from decision-making processes that we need to be part of.

      There are so many examples of processes that need democratizing, but let’s start with a symbolic one. Who would you like to see as chancellor of Emily Carr?

      Rita Wong is a poet and associate professor of Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

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