Wall Institute to undergo external review, re-establish advisory panel

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) will undergo an external review after concerns about academic freedom.

The PWIAS Board of Trustees announced in a statement today that they would also reinstate an advisory panel and fulfil staffing needs at the Institute just weeks after its director resigned over threats to the institute’s independence.

Last month, Dr. Philippe Tortell suddenly announced his resignation after the Board of Trustees directed him to cancel most of the PWIAS’s programs and to align its research under existing UBC research clusters — dedicated pools of funding around specific themes.

Faculty and Wall Scholars saw that as being contrary to the actual mission of the Institute.

“‘Research that doesn’t happen anywhere else’ is the Institute’s founding mandate,” said Dr. Philip Loewen, a member of the Senate’s academic policy committee. “And research [in clusters] is 100 per cent happening somewhere else because the university has already endorsed and funded it.”

Tortell’s resignation set off a wave of protest among faculty, former Wall Scholars and the Institute’s senior professors. It also triggered calls to look into the matter from the Canadian Association of University Teachers and members of the UBC Senate.

The Board has quickly backpedaled on one of its changes, announcing that incoming Wall Scholars would not be expected to align their research with existing clusters. The status of the cuts to other PWIAS programs is unclear.

Wall Scholars and associates met earlier this month and agreed that “transparency of process and ongoing consultation with the academic community should be an integral part of PWIAS governance moving forward,” according to a December 4 statement from Wall Scholars Dr. Kalina Christoff and Dr. Evan Thompson.

The PWIAS will now re-establish an advisory panel “to help ensure the focus and impact of the Institute as it decides on programs and projects.” The advisory panel was first established as a committee in 1996 to advise the director, although that position is now unfilled following Tortell’s departure.

Board of Trustees under scrutiny

As the Institute prepares to undergo an external review, the Board itself will likely receive more attention.

The Board already came under scrutiny after it was pointed out its two of its five members, Dr. Maxwell Cameron and Dr. Judy Illes, are leaders of research clusters. They both told The Ubyssey that they had been vetted and cleared for any conflict of interest.

“Professor Cameron and I have both foregone access to funding opportunities that we may have previously enjoyed when we accepted the invitation to serve,” wrote Dr. Illes. “In this regard, we actually have lost opportunities for potential funding rather than gained.”

But many scholars raised concerns about the Board’s composition. Under the Deed of Trust, two of its five members are UBC faculty; two more are members of the donor family and the chair is UBC’s President.

President Santa Ono himself acknowledged the complications this can pose at the November 21 Senate meeting.

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

While the proposal did not promise any changes to the Institute’s governance structure, it did hint that they may be necessary.

“The Board acknowledges concerns about governance that have been expressed in recent weeks,” reads the statement. “... The Board is committed to the terms of the Deed, but it is also open to improving its governance within that framework.”