‘We need to be heard’: UBCO professor elected to Faculty Association after polarizing election

After an unusually polarizing and public election, the UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) has elected a UBC Okanagan (UBCO) professor for the second time in its history.

The UBCFA — which represents more than 3,700 faculty at UBC in labour relations matters — announced Friday that Associate Professor Dr. Shirley Chau of UBCO’s School of Social Work won a seat on its executive committee of 14.

Members of the UBCFA executive committee serve two-year terms that are unpaid and oversee the operations of a professional staff of six. Chau was the lone winner of eight candidates from UBCO who made unprecedented bids to contest all but one available seat. This was the first time in UBCFA history that UBCO candidates rivalled Vancouver’s in number.

“Okanagan faculty are tired of being treated poorly by the university and by our Faculty Association,” said Michael Pidwirny, a UBCO associate professor of geography who ran for UBCFA president.

“But maybe they will hear us better after this election.”

Okanagan faculty make up 13 per cent of the UBCFA electorate, according to estimates from UBC’s official faculty counts. They get one guaranteed spot on its executive committee, meaning their average proportional representation is about 7 per cent. Chau’s victory puts UBCO’s representation on the UBCFA at 14 per cent.

For many of the Okanagan candidates, however, it wasn’t about winning the election. They knew it was a long shot, since Okanagan faculty are outnumbered by their Vancouver colleagues in the UBCFA by more than seven to one.

“This is a protest run … we don’t think we’re going to be elected, necessarily,” said Associate Professor Dr. Peter Wylie, the Okanagan candidate for UBCFA vice president who advocated for “sweeping changes.”

“But we need to be heard.”

Wylie’s allegation

This year’s UBCFA election cycle was dragged into the spotlight by Wylie on March 19.

Wylie is a former member of two UBCFA standing committees, the Okanagan Faculty Committee (OFC) and the Member Services Grievances Committee (MSGC). He stepped down to run in this election.

On the morning that polls opened, Wylie emailed a 31-page document to more than 400 faculty alleging that some UBCFA staff are colluding with UBC administrators against faculty interests in a “sweetheart union deal.”

The next day, the UBCFA executive committee sent an official advisory to its membership of almost 4,000 saying Wylie’s allegation was unfounded and constituted bullying and harassment of staff.

Dr. Mark Mac Lean — a UBC Vancouver (UBCV) mathematics professor, former UBCFA president and chair of this year’s UBCFA elections nomination committee — also criticized Wylie in his blog. He said that Wylie’s allegation of collusion was false and accused him of failing to follow UBCFA policy by making his complaints public.

But Wylie claimed he did follow proper channels in this case, and shared complaint letters and email records that support his assertion. He filed a complaint internally about a UBCFA member service officer in July 2017 and received an emailed response that it will be discussed in a November executive meeting. However, his emailed query in January 2018 for update on the discussion appears to have been ignored, despite repeated follow-ups. It was not until March 20 that he received a reply from current UBCFA President Dr. Nancy Langton, saying that she was “hesitant to respond” due to her inability to find the notes from the November discussion.

“If anybody is being bullied or harassed, from my perspective, it’s Peter Wylie.”

— Professor E. Wayne Ross

These emails have not been verified with the UBCFA because they declined an interview as well as a request to clarify why they announced that Wylie’s allegations were “unfounded.”

“I found it strange that the UBC executive [committee] sent out the advisory about Wylie’s email,” said Pidwirny. “A more reasonable approach would have been to promise an investigation of Wylie’s claims by an external body.”

Dr. Margo Tamez, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at UBCO, supported Wylie. “The intensity of reactions speaks to a troubling climate which seems inclined to quash the faculty voices who bring different lenses, experiences and world views.”

Professor Dr. Paul J. Quirk, Professor Dr. E. Wayne Ross and Associate Professor Dr. Martin Schulz all responded to this advisory with similar concerns. They said they could not verify Wylie’s allegations, but affirmed that Wylie was within his rights as a faculty member to publish evidence questioning the UBCFA. They said if anyone had overstepped, it was the UBCFA.

“It was a declaration … so the email kind of indicates that the UBCFA is acting as judge and the jury,” said Ross. “If anybody is being bullied or harassed, from my perspective, it’s Peter Wylie.”

Pidwirny favoured a quieter campaign, but said that he understands Wylie’s frustration.

“Some of the UBCO candidates, like Peter Wylie, have truly been poorly treated by UBC admin and by UBCFA, and have reason to be angry,” he said.

Lost autonomy

The tension began in 2005 when Okanagan professors lost autonomy over their union.

UBC absorbed the Okanagan University College’s (OUC) North Kelowna campus, creating UBCO. The government did not consult OUC before the announcement. OUC’s president was also fired along with 11 of the 14 board members, leading many to perceive it as a “hostile take-over,” Wylie among them.

“There was a feeling among the older faculty of having had a deal done on them,” said Doug Owram as UBCO Vice-Chancellor in 2010.

UBCO began mostly with teaching staff who transitioned from OUC. Today, UBCO is still 35 per cent ex-OUC faculty, according to UBCO media relations.

Prior to the take-over, OUC faculty ran their own active trade-style union where faculty represented faculty. The UBCFA, however, is run by a professional staff of six that is overseen by a faculty-elected executive committee. The UBCFA and its one collective agreement were imposed on UBCO during the transition.

“So is it UBCFA’s fault for misrepresenting faculty at UBCO?” Pidwirny said. “I would say only partially because they really don’t know what’s going on at our campus.”

None of the UBCFA staff currently work in the Okanagan despite having office space, according to Wylie and Pidwirny. Staff members travel there once or twice a month to address specific faculty cases.

A 2017 faculty workplace experience survey (WES) from the Okanagan campus obtained by The Ubyssey suggests that Okanagan faculty have been frustrated for a long time. Some of the WES satisfaction responses from UBCO were low enough that they warrant an “investigation,” according to the WES rating scale.

Screenshot from the 2017 Workplace Experience Survey for UBCO

According to Pidwirny, these surveys’ results have been consistently dismal since OUC became UBCO in 2005, and UBC has made little attempt to fix the problems.

“UBCO has been poorly managed from day one because its strategic operational vision to be like the Vancouver Campus of UBC is simply impossible,” said Pidwirny. “Despite that, administrators at UBCO are told to treat the operation of the campus like its big brother in Vancouver.”

Not just an Okanagan problem

Mac Lean framed this issue as a “culture clash” due to the 2005 take-over, saying that “some of our Okanagan members are deeply dissatisfied.”

But it’s not just Okanagan faculty who are dissatisfied.

Ross told The Ubyssey that Wylie’s allegation of a “sweetheart union deal” is “an accurate representation of the perspectives of many faculty on the Vancouver campus too.”

“This might seem like a flash in the pan about a university faculty association election where professors are nipping at each other, like a tempest in a teapot,” he said. “But I actually think the root causes of what we’re seeing in this flash are serious issues … systemic not only to [UBC’s two campuses], but to the entire post-secondary industry.”

Ross then tweeted his criticisms of the UBCFA. Having already published a blog post about the election on March 19, a faculty representative on UBC’s Board of Governors — Professor Charles Menzies of UBCV’s anthropology department — later engaged the discussion further on Twitter.

Menzies, like Mac Lean, was critical of Wylie’s approach. After Wylie joined the debate, Menzies blocked him and Ross, saying it was a matter of “personal well being” because Wylie was acting too aggressively.

Dr. Rose-Marie Déchaine, an associate professor of linguistics at UBCV and chair of the African studies minor, agreed that similar problems exist at the Vancouver campus.

“The concerns that Wylie highlights are not specific to UBCO,” said Déchaine. “As a faculty member at UBCV, I have witnessed the drift of the UBCFA into a more corporate culture, and the steady encroachment of ‘management-style’ governance within UBCFA, to the detriment of the membership.”

A UBCV associate professor of organizational behaviour and recent candidate for UBCFA president, Schulz shares concerns with Wylie and Pidwirny about improper treatment of faculty and proposes giving faculty a stronger voice to reduce faculty abuse.

“The faculty are our core asset and we need to look out for them," he said. “They need to play a stronger and more direct role in a lot of decision making processes at UBC and the UBCFA.”

Faculty clash over future of UBCFA

Results were announced following the UBCFA Annual General Meeting, which was held at the end of voting on April 5 at 1 p.m. Eight of the fourteen executive committee members were absent including the president and executive director, and no official explanation for these absences was given, according to Pidwirny and Wylie.

Bronwen Sprout, UBCV’s head of Digital Programs and Services Digital Initiatives at the Irving K. Barber Learning Center, won UBCFA president over Schulz and Pidwirny.

“I’m honoured to have been elected to serve as President and would like to thank all faculty who voted in the election,” said Sprout in a statement. “Contested elections are a sign of a strong FA.”

Sprout said one of her goals will be increasing voter turnout in future elections, and that she would like to hear from colleagues as to how she and the new executive committee could improve the UBCFA.

“The oligarchy won, but we got pretty close,” wrote Schulz on his blog after the election. “We will be back. The days of the establishment are counted.

“We will make UBC academic again.”

Schulz was put on leave by UBC during the campaign, but neither he nor the Sauder administration was able to provide comment as to why.

For UBCFA vice-president, philosophy Professor Dr. Alan Richardson defeated Wylie.

“I look forward to working on behalf of the membership with the new executive,” he said in a statement to The Ubyssey. “Contested elections are good for the Association, and I thank all who ran for office.”

Neither Richardson nor Sprout commented on the issues raised by Okanagan and Vancouver professors during the campaign. Richardson’s platform says that he would foster a supportive environment for the UBCFA staff.

Richardson and Sprout were the only candidates out of 17 to endorse other candidates in their platforms. Mac Lean also endorsed Sprout and Richardson, as did Menzies on his blog.

“We can vote for a narrowly focused single issue group or we can select colleagues who will be considerate of issues and concerns from across the membership,” wrote Menzies.

Wylie responded to this by email, telling Menzies that his framing of UBCO concerns as niche issues was “somewhat smug and arrogant” and a “a put-down” to Okanagan faculty. Menzies posted this email publicly on his blog.

“The oligarchy won, but we got pretty close.”

— Associate Professor Martin Schulz

As the current president of the UBCFA, Langton is its spokesperson, but she did not reply for a request to comment. UBCFA Vice-President Dr. Vinayak Vatsal has been fielding media requests for unknown reasons.

Mac Lean said Langton appears to be on leave, while Wylie claimed that Langton had been sidelined for supporting faculty over staff.

“It is faculty members who have to live with decisions made by staff, and therefore faculty members should be providing clear guidance on matters that directly affect them,” wrote Langton in her candidate statement. “It is really important that the Association be faculty-led and driven.”

Ross stressed the importance of Langton’s comment.

“I think one of the key indicators here is Langton’s statement,” he said. “I was surprised to see it because she’s been UBCFA president and prior to this, I had not really seen an indication of that kind of tension.”

Associate Professor Dr. Jim Johnson of UBCO’s economics department, who has been the Okanagan Faculty Committee chair for 12 years, could not comment on the election because individual executive committee members can not speak independently.

The Ubyssey reached out to the UBCFA executive committee on March 22 and again on April 10 for comment. They declined an interview and have yet to provide a statement.

The incoming candidates will take office officially on July 1.

This article has been updated to clarify when Professor Charles Menzies joined the discussion and the link to his blog post. It also corrected that Dr. Margo Tarmez is a UBCO professor and moved her quote to better reflect its now clarified context.