Student sustainability group raises concerns about consultation process of UBC’s strategic plan

UBC says the community consultation on their strategic plan drafts has been “extraordinarily thorough,” but some students disagree.

Throughout the past year, UBC has been working to develop a new strategic plan that will lay out the university’s goals and priorities over the next few years. The new plan will succeed “Place and Promise,” the strategic plan introduced by former president Stephen Toope in 2009.

Over the new plan’s development, UBC conducted a number of community consultations to gather student input. They released surveys and offered open house events for community members to provide feedback, while a number of students have been added to working groups aimed at developing the plan. Most recently, the university gathered feedback on a draft of the strategic plan through two town halls in late November and an online survey that was open from November 23 to December 8.

“I think the consultation has been extraordinarily thorough and wide-ranging, especially compared to other universities where I know well the kinds of strategic planning efforts they’ve undertaken,” said UBC Provost and VP Academic Andrew Szeri. “I think we started from a very strong place with a huge amount of broad, public engagement to get the main themes down.”

However, this harmony has not been completely reflected in student opinions on the consultations.

Consultation based on old drafts

According to Szeri, the draft feedback was very positive.

“If you look at the number of people who strongly agreed or agreed, it was normally in the 70s, 80s percentile range, which to me is is an indication of good success,” he said.

Shakti Ramkumar, a fourth-year geography student and co-director of the sustainability-based club Common Energy, said that her and her club members liked the draft but disliked its ambiguous language and low focus on sustainability. The issue is especially pertinent given that last summer, in response to UBC’s promise to give sustainable thinking a prominent place in the strategic plan, ten environmentally-focused student groups collaborated to create a proposal regarding just that.

“Words like ‘enhance’ or ‘infuse’ were in the draft and we didn’t really know what that meant,” Ramkumar said.

On December 5, three days before the consultation period ended, an updated, smaller draft was presented at a Board of Governors meeting. Due to this update, Ramkumar and George Radner, a third-year economics student and the co-director of Common Energy, feared that UBC would no longer be able to meaningfully use the feedback from the community consultation in November because it was based on a different draft than the one currently adopted by the university.

According to Radner, the two drafts are substantially different — he points out that many strategies were revised, removed or even merged together into new, condensed strategies.

“I have no idea how it’s possible they’re going use our feedback meaningfully on this new document because it just doesn’t look the same,” he said. “Our concern is that the feedback is going to be lost and that the consultation process wasn’t genuine — in that they’re going to take those messages and use them to inform the strategic plan — because the next draft just doesn’t look anything like what we saw.”


Szeri said that the university simply had to continue working on the plan.

“There was consultation being gathered on the version that was being put on the web, and at the same time there was some thinking about whether that was the best version or if we could improve it further,” he said.

He also said that the feedback from the survey would be meaningfully used and that the feedback from the first draft informed the new draft.

“Keep in mind that the kinds of input that we got from the web [was] available to us at all points during the week that it was posted there,” he said. “So I could go in on day two and look to see how such and such a strategy was polling.”

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes agrees that work on the plan had to continue and that that the feedback will be used meaningfully. However, he recognizes that the plan’s development has sometimes been confusing.

“I think one thing that would’ve cleared this up was if it was more clear what the process was going to be,” he said. “As much as it might have seemed that it’s ignoring the consultation process, it really wasn’t.”

‘Systematically challenging’ for student groups

Holmes agrees with Szeri that the university underwent a very thorough consultation process in developing the draft.

“Under this whole leadership process from Santa [Ono] and Andrew [Szeri], what we saw was that they reached out to almost every group that they could,” he said. “Everyone really had a seat at the table.”

In contrast, Radner and Ramkumar were quite unsatisfied with it. In particular, they criticized the university for primarily consulting with students individually rather than in unified interest groups.

“Our individual voices are not the same as a unified voice which can be presented through a presentation or though consultation with a group of students,” said Radner.

That’s not to say that they’ve been completely ignored — Radner, Ramkumar and other students interested in sustainability were able to organize meetings with Szeri and the AMS, respectively. Nonetheless, Radner found that it was “systematically challenging” to have their voices heard.

“There was no structured way for interest groups to participate,” he said.

He also thought that there should be more students on the working groups involved in making the plan.

“There was one to two students on each working group — that is just not enough,” he said.

‘A very useful document’

Another draft of the strategic plan will be presented at the upcoming Board of Governors meeting on February 15, where Board members will vote on whether or not to endorse it. Szeri predicts that a final version of the plan will be completed around March or April.

He feels quite positive about the upcoming final product.

“I believe that the plan is going to be a very useful document in the upcoming years to the university,” he said. “I like the focus on collaboration, inclusion, innovation as the three main priorities — I think these cut across so many areas of great importance in the research and teaching and learning and the kind of community engagement work that the university does globally and locally.”

While Holmes is also looking forward to the final plan, he’s particularly interested in the upcoming implementation plan, which will detail how the university plans to achieve the goals in the strategic plan.

“That’s going to be the plan where you see exactly what’s going to happen,” he said. That’s what will talk about allocation of resources, that’s where you really get into the nitty-gritty.”

He hopes that the process of creating and carrying out this new plan will be clearer for community stakeholders.

“For anything in the future like the implementation plan, there needs to be a clear process and it needs to be clear who’s being involved in that process,” he said.