In the mid-1990s, water fountains in UBC buildings started disappearing. The university cited poor water quality and said, that instead of repairing the fountains, plumbers had accidentally taken them out altogether. They removed 97 fountains from 17 buildings, former Ubyssey writer Stanley Tromp reported in the Georgia Straight. Then they built new buildings on campus, like the Forest Sciences Centre, without any water fountains.

Whoops.

The move coincided with a joint UBC and AMS 1995 deal with Coca-Cola to become the sole drink supplier on campus. Including water. Vending machine’s selling Coke’s Dasani brand of water popped up around campus.

The deal turned out to be rather insane. Coke was to pay the university $8.4 million over 10 years. But to meet the requirements of the deal, UBC needed to consume 33.6 million Coke products over 10 years. That did not happen. In exchange, UBC had to grant Coke a free, two-year exclusivity extension.  

But students did not find this out for six years because UBC refused to release the terms of the deal. They justified this under the now-repealed Policy 116, which granted private corporations contracted with the university to decide what information to release in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Eventually, the BC Information Privacy Commissioner ordered the university to release the terms of the Coke deal over the strenuous opposition of the university. It was eventually revealed that, in negotiations with Coke, UBC and the AMS had the option to sign a deal with public terms and had decided not to. 

University Counsel Hubert Lai explained the situation: Coke said, “There’s two sets of pricing information we’re prepared to share with you. One is the information that we can share with you if we know it’s going to remain confidential because, if it was disclosed, that would put us at a competitive disadvantage. If you can’t do that ... then we can give you a different set of pricing information which will be higher prices. But if that’s the cost of transparency, then that’s a decision the AMS and the university can make.’”

The university declined to pay the price of transparency. 

An opaque year

This has not been a great year for transparency at UBC.

UBC announced that President Arvind Gupta was stepping down as president in early August, late on a Friday afternoon. In other words, they tried to bury the news.

The statement released said Gupta had “resigned” from the presidency to focus on academia. This was widely considered to be a euphemism for Gupta being forced out of his leadership position.

The president serves at the will of the Board of Governors. The board oversees all the financial affairs of the university — including setting a budget and making decisions on construction and tuition rates. It is also an undemocratic and unaccountable body.

The board has 21 members, 11 of whom are appointed by the province. Many of those 11 have donated significant sums of money to the BC Liberals — the current government — and have little to no experience running a university.

UBC Insiders, an investigative blog on campus, has documented the BoG secrecy quite thoroughly over the past several years. 

In June, Board Secretary Reny Kahlon proposed a new board policy that would ban recording BoG meetings or taking photographs. 

“It was intended to ensure that activities of the board could be handled in a way that was appropriate and efficient,” University Counsel Hubert Lai said in an interview. He added that, while his office was charged with writing the policy, they are required to respond to all such requests. "[It] doesn’t always mean that every policy request is a good idea,” he added.

Neal Yonson of UBC Insiders noted that if the policy passed — which, as of this writing, it has not — this would only compound the secrecy already prevalent on the board.

He wrote that an agenda item covering international tuition increases, detailed in full just last week, had been discussed by the board last spring in a rather opaque manner.

“It [came] with no documentation, no presentation and [was] only allotted five minutes,” Yonson wrote. This item did not appear on the open portion of the Committee agenda the week prior. Motions like this do not appear out of nowhere. Chances are extremely high that, in the closed session of Committees, there was documentation, a presentation and way more than five minutes of discussion.”

Not to mention that Board of Governors contact information is treated like a state secret. When Yonson sought to find that information through a Freedom of Information Act request, the responsive documents included just a handful of phone numbers and no email addresses.

Everything else was considered personal information not subject to disclosure.

Board members are apparently not given UBC email addresses, which would be exposed to Freedom of Information requests. 

The lack of transparency on university’s highest governing body is disconcerting — especially considering that, since the majority of the board is appointed rather than elected, it becomes difficult to hold the board accountable for their decisions and behavior.

“In terms of accountability, they are accountable to their respective constituencies,” Lai, the university counsel, said.

While the provincial government could remove an appointed board member for any reason they see fit, students and others in the university community have little recourse to move against any board members with the exception of handful of representatives elected by students, staff and faculty at the university.

Recommendations

- Board of Governors meetings should be video recorded and open sessions should be live streamed on the internet

- The university should appoint an accountability liaison to ensure the Board operations in as transparent a manner as possible

- Board of Governors members should be given university email addresses and all official board emails should go through these addresses

- Board of Governors contact information should be posted publicly

- Arno Rosenfeld, Features Editor