University community members and those close to the Board of Governors have had to reconcile two facts about Michael Korenberg: his performance as Board chair and what critics have called his racist political views.
The former Board chair resigned in June after facing criticism for liking tweets supporting United States President Donald Trump and attacking Black Lives Matter protests. Though some criticized his actions and views after news of his liked tweets spread, many have noted his strong performance since his appointment in 2016.
In a written statement to The Ubyssey, UBC mathematics professor Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub, who served three terms as a Vancouver faculty representative on the Board, described his relationship with Korenberg as “complex” but always “based on mutual respect.”
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Despite his concerns about breaches in good governance and exclusion from working groups and task forces, Ghoussoub said that he and others at the Board “lived with it,” and that Korenberg often showed commitment to what Ghoussoub called “progressive” issues including student aid, divestment and academic freedom.
“He made us feel that his vision for UBC was more aligned with ours, and that he supported us in the arduous task of keeping this administration accountable,” said Ghoussoub.
The CBC reported in June that the former chair’s political views were common knowledge among Board members. Both Ghoussoub and anthropology professor Dr. Charles Menzies, who also served as a Vancouver faculty representative, were also aware of the incident where Korenberg wore a Make America Great Again hat to a meeting, as reported in that story.
However, fifth-year mining student Shola Fashanu, who served as a UBC Okanagan student governor for one year, said she was unaware of Korenberg’s political ideology. She also said she had a positive experience with Korenberg who, at the time, “seemed like an excellent chair.”
Fashanu was disappointed to discover Korenberg’s liked tweets, both at his political views and the apparent inaction by the people at the Board whom she looked up to with respect.
“As someone whose family comes from a country that Trump called a shithole, I am very sad to see someone would to your face be very respectful, but then be supporting someone who actively emboldens white supremacists, racists, homophobia.”
While Fashanu and Ghoussoub both believe that personal politics can be separated from work, they emphasized the distinction between a conservative political affiliation and support for people who Ghoussoub said “trade in racism, xenophobia, anti-antifascism and other scourges.”
“You cannot separate someone’s views on someone else’s value in society, someone else’s humanity, someone else’s ability to love somebody else,” Fashanu said. “ ... That’s not politics, that’s inequality.”
Underlying issues persist
Korenberg’s resignation occurred amid increasing attention to anti-Black racism worldwide.
At UBC, a Black student alleged racial profiling by Campus Security in early June, and the subsequent month has seen many statements by President Santa Ono, with the university pledging to work against systemic racism.
Incidents of racism and discrimination on campus are not isolated. Coupled with other equity, diversity and inclusion issues across the university, systemic racism at UBC has spurred calls for structural changes for years.
This latest controversy has made it apparent that those changes need to extend to the Board of Governors, with some wondering why Korenberg’s political views are only now being addressed.
“It’s not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of holding [to] the values of UBC … it shouldn’t have taken a student-led organization [Students Against Bigotry] to bring to light [something] that should have already been something that was addressed,” said Fashanu.
For Menzies, who served a three-year term on the Board from 2017 to 2020, the problem lies in the university administration’s treatment of UBC as a corporation, for whom “profit motives … [are] the sole thing that should be used to manage and make decisions.”
As long as people like Korenberg have “utility,” Menzies said, other issues won’t be addressed until they cause public controversy. He believes that the administration gives its attention to issues such as systemic racism only when there is a potential to undermine the “marketing and sale” of the university experience.
“That’s the wrong reason to pay attention to it,” he said. “We need to pay attention to it because we actually believe that the combination of capitalism with this systemic oppression works in a way that is unfair and unjust.”
He believes that the Board needs fewer governors with business-related backgrounds and more people like community organizers, trade union activists and housing advocates. Fashanu also pointed to longer student terms as a potential solution to allow student governors to become more comfortable in the space and advocate more effectively. All three former governors wanted more careful vetting before the selection of a Board chair.
Two current governors contacted for this story declined interviews, telling The Ubyssey that they had been told to direct media requests to UBC media relations. In the past, governors have routinely spoken to The Ubyssey and other media outlets despite the Board of Governors’ code of conduct expectation that governors “acknowledge that the Board Chair is the only official spokesperson of the Board.” It is unclear whether enforcement of the rule in the agreement — which all governors sign at the start of their term — has changed.
In the days after Korenberg’s resignation, Ghoussoub tweeted that, in his mind, “every major crisis” at UBC since 2015 has “had to do — in one way or another — with race.”
He elaborated on his concern to The Ubyssey that public controversy at the top levels of the institution are indicative of problems at the bottom, too.
“[There] are clear manifestations of unhealthy interracial relations at the very top of our institution … What could be happening at the other less visible levels of UBC’s power structure, and who is paying the price for our yet-to-be-decolonized institution?”