Andrew Weaver's private member's bill shines spotlight on B.C. Liberal government's control over universities

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      Earlier this month, Green MLA Andrew Weaver introduced an incendiary private member's bill in the legislature.

      The University Amendment Act, 2016 calls upon the B.C. government to cease appointing a majority of governors on the boards of the province's four research universities.

      In an explanatory note, Weaver wrote: "The Act introduces a standard of autonomy for the governance of universities to ensure they are free from political interference in their internal operations."

      It also empowers the university senate, which is an academic body, to elect their chancellor

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Weaver said he was going to send a copy of the bill to faculty and student associations across the province.

      "We'll see if they will support it," the MLA said.

      Weaver was a professor at the University of Victoria for 20 years. In the past, he has criticized the B.C. Liberal government for its excessive meddling in postsecondary institutions.

      "To have a board-appointed chancellor when government controls the board ends up turning the chancellor's role perhaps into more of a government role," he declared. "The chancellor is the public image of the academic institution—the representative of the values of the institution. They're the ones who convocate students."

      Bill was a response to James Moore appointment

      The private member's comes in the wake of two controversies. The first was the announcement that former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore is the new chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia.

      The second is the ongoing flap at UBC over the resignation of Arvind Gupta as president last August.

      In 2007, the Prince George–based institution obtained a trademark as "Canada's Green University". Since then, it has promoted itself as being environmentally sensitive.

      However, Weaver said that having a chancellor who served under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "incompatible" with this branding.

      "It should not have ever happened because chancellor is an academic position," Weaver said. "It's an honorific one and hence, should be appointed by the senate—as it used to be done in B.C. until the Liberals stopped that."

      James Moore's appointment as chancellor of UNBC caused a ruckus on campus.
      Stephen Hui

      Weaver compares B.C. Liberals to Harper Tories

      Meanwhile, UBC's board of governors is under the control of provincial appointees, who hold a majority. Elected representatives of the faculty, students, and employees only have eight of the 21 positions.

      "We are an unusual province," Weaver said. "The government likes to appoint majorities on every single board that it has potential influence on."

      He pointed out that the B.C. Liberal government not only controls universities this way, it also keeps a grip over TransLink and other important entities in a similar manner.

      "Today's B.C. Liberals are nothing more than yesterday's Harper Tories," Weaver alleged. "There's a very similar approach to governance: command and control out of central office."

      Brad Bennett is former UBC chair

      Since Gupta's resignation, there's been a great deal of media attention on John Montalbano, who stepped down as chair last year.

      It came after he objected to a blog post by Sauder School of Business professor Jennifer Berdahl, in which she suggested that Gupta had lost a masculinity contest at UBC.

      Less has been said about another former UBC chair, Brad Bennett, son of one former premier and grandson of another former premier.

      Bennett appears to have an exceptionally good relationship with Premier Christy Clark, serving on her technology council and also being entrusted with the chairmanship of B.C. Hydro.

      It's the province's most important Crown corporation and it's the juiciest posting that any premier can deliver.

      Premier Christy Clark appointed Brad Bennett as chair of B.C. Hydro.

      Bennett has ties to Gupta

      Intriguingly, Bennett is also chair of Mitacs, which is a not-for-profit organization that supports research in mathematics and other disciplines.

      Gupta was CEO and research director of Mitacs before being named president of UBC.

      “For nearly fifteen years, Arvind has provided exemplary leadership to Mitacs while fostering innovation and collaboration between Canada’s universities and companies and playing a key role in developing international research linkages,” Bennett said in a news release in 2014. “We are thrilled that he is moving on to lead UBC and leaving Mitacs in a strong position with a very committed and capable executive team and Board of Directors.”

      Another director of Mitacs is UBC mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub. He's also a former UBC board member and was on the search committee that recommended Gupta be appointed president.

      Ghoussoub's blog has become the go-to place for commentaries supportive of Gupta and critical of Montalbano.

      Nassif Ghoussoub's blog regularly rips into those who don't support the UBC Faculty Association viewpoint.

      Faculty members elected to the UBC board have come under intense criticism on the blog. Specifically, they've been condemned for not echoing the faculty association, which happens to be headed by two mathematicians.

      In the meantime, Gupta has been assisted by an establishment public-relations shop, Pace Group Communications. It's not known for acting for Davids in titanic struggles against establishment Goliaths.

      Given the way this story has remained in the media for so long, it's not far-fetched to conclude there's an ongoing campaign underway to bring about major changes in UBC's governance—and, possibly, to get Gupta his job back. 

      How will politicians respond?

      So now, the premier has a choice. Does she ignore Weaver's private member's bill and let it die on the order paper?

      Does she consult with Bennett, a former UBC chair and supporter of Gupta, to determine the next step? She reportedly relied heavily on Bennett's counsel in the period leading up to the 2013 election, so why not do the same in response to the situation at UBC?

      Or does she wash her hands of the whole affair and let Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson call the shots? He's claimed in the past that Gupta's resignation is an issue between the board and its employee.

      The Opposition New Democrats also have choices to make.

      Is the NDP willing to support the notion that provincial governments should not retain absolute control over the boards of B.C. research universities?

      Do they endorse Weaver's bill and use any debate to probe more deeply into the relationship between Bennett and Gupta?

      Is the NDP's advanced education critic, Kathy Corrigan, prepared to interrogate the premier about any input Bennett has had into this situation? Will she go even further and ask questions about how their alliance is influencing other public policies? (Bennett is also a director of the Fraser Institute.)

      Is it conceivable that Bennett's past ties to Gupta and UBC could emerge as a bigger political issue in the months leading up to the next provincial election?

      Premier has attached herself to Bennett legacy

      When Bennett's father Bill died in December, no politician was more effusive with praise than Clark.

      She called him an "iconic leader" who did perhaps more than any other premier to modernize B.C.

      Clark has benefited from her ties to the old Socred regime, which was a haven for right wingers. Her alliance with Bennett helps repel criticism that she's too tied to the federal Liberals. It's also useful to her as the MLA for West Kelowna, where the Bennett name still carries significant political clout.

      It's worth noting that Kelowna is also home to UBC's second-largest campus.

      For his part, Weaver says his private member's bill will only be debated if the B.C. Liberals allow this to happen.

      "I don't think they will," he predicted. "It affects their ideological position that governments should influence the direction of universities."