‘You're too late’: Faculty, Wall scholars criticize Wall Institute restructuring in wake of director’s resignation

“I’m here now,” said UBC President Santa Ono. “I’m here now and I’m listening to you and we’re taking feedback.”

“You’re too late,” responded Faculty Senator Philip Loewen.

Ono and other members of UBC’s administration were fielding intense criticism over a directive that faculty say is stripping the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) of its academic independence.

The directive would eliminate the majority of existing PWIAS programs and move the institute’s research under existing UBC research clusters to better align with the university’s strategic plan.

Earlier this week, PWIAS Director Dr. Philippe Tortell resigned in protest during a presentation to UBC unit leaders, saying that the directive would “completely remove [the PWIAS’s] independence.”

The decision was approved at a closed session of the PWIAS Board of Trustees, which includes Ono, two faculty representatives and two members of the Wall family.

Tortell and two Wall distinguished scholars, Dr. Derek Gregory and Dr. Brett Finlay, also complained they were not able to attend the closed meeting where the decision was made.

Ono said at Senate that the Board had consulted with Tortell and Wall scholars on the plan since September and it “should not have been a surprise.”

But this afternoon, Finlay and Gregory released a statement criticizing the opaqueness of the directive and urging the PWIAS Board of Trustees to enact a strategic plan drafted by Tortell.

“The Directors Strategic Plan was arrived at through an extensive consultation — not least with our Faculty Associates, who know the work of the Institute best,” reads the letter.

Faculty, including over twenty Wall scholars, also wrote to voice their concern.

“Many of us feel that academic freedom has already been violated by the directive that would force UBC researchers at the Institute to align with top-down mandated research clusters,” wrote current Wall Scholar Dr. Evan Thompson in a statement to The Ubyssey.

“My hope is that this directive will be withdrawn so that academic freedom will be fully and truly respected.”

Ono said in a public statement that he regrets Dr. Tortell’s decision to leave. He also “took ownership” over the lack of communication at Senate that evening.

“We could have as a board been more consultative,” he said.

However, the decision will not be reversed.

Controversial clusters

Former UBC President David Strangway, who co-founded the institute, agreed with Peter Wall that it should be a place to “generate new ideas and initiatives that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

“The Peter Wall Institute exists within a very special space within the university administrative structure,” said Tortell. “It does not belong to any other department, it does not belong to any other faculty.

“It exists above all the other silos — and that’s an important word — of the university, that inadvertently in many cases act as barriers to the free exchange of ideas.”

But under the new directive, PWIAS research would be folded into the portfolios of VP Research and Innovation Gail Murphy and VP Academic Andrew Szeri, who are both official observers on the Board of Trustees.

Wall scholars and associates worry that will remove what makes the Institute special.

“... we believe that every University need a place where scholars are encouraged to think outside the box (and the cluster),” reads the statement from Gregory and Finlay.

“There is of course room for clusters, but to limit the work of the Institute this way is as exclusionary as it is destructive.”

At the Senate meeting, Ono insisted that the flexibility of the 33 existing Research Excellence Clusters would not stifle the Institute’s research.

“There was a desire for more focus,” said Ono. “There was a sense among several Board members that even an institute of resources of the Peter Wall Institute has finite resources.”

PWIAS Faculty Representative Max Cameron added that moving the PWIAS under the clusters represents “an enormous opportunity” and that it will not threaten the Institute’s independence.

“There was never an intention to diminish that,” he said.

Some faculty raised concerns that Cameron and Dr. Judy Illes, the other faculty representative on the PWIAS Board, are both directly involved with research clusters.

Cameron leads a cluster entitled “Global Challenges to Democracy: Rights, Freedom and Self-Determination” and Illes is a researcher on “RESTORE (Regeneration and Stem Cells for Organ Rejuvenation).”

“This is something wrong,” said Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub, a UBC Board of Governors faculty representative. “... They should have recused themselves from the decision.”

Cameron said that he and Illes fully disclosed their involvement in research clusters to the Board of Trustees and that they confirmed with staff that it did not constitute a conflict of interest.

“Both Judy and I immediately indicated that we are involved in research clusters,” he said.

“There’s no conflict of interest, everything was disclosed and there’s nothing improper there at all.”

Ghoussoub also questioned the decision to fold PWIAS funding into the clusters given that the existing Excellence Fund is “overflowing with money. “

“It’s the first administration to decide that the money going to this institute should support things being done by the central administration,” said Ghoussoub. “So regardless of how great these programs are. ... Why are you going to pull some money from elsewhere?”

Gregory and Finlay’s letter calls for a “reconstituted Board of Trustees [to] reconsider the Strategic Plan for the Institute,” but does not directly name any specific Trustees.

At the Senate meeting, Ono stressed that moving the PWIAS under already-existing clusters was largely a matter of pragmatism.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

But Loewen and other faculty weren’t convinced.

“I think you’re breaking something that you’ve called wonderful,” he said.