Wall Scholars urge Ono to hire interim director, respect external review

Scholars at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) worry that a mandated external review of the institute is already hitting delays.

Director Dr. Philippe Tortell quit in November to protest a directive from the PWIAS Board of Trustees which would have ended the institute's academic independence and gutted many of its programs.

The directive attracted a storm of protest from faculty, who voted at the December 12 UBC Vancouver Senate meeting to launch an external review of the institute’s governance.

But that review can’t begin until the institute has a director. Last week, 63 faculty members — including 27 Wall Scholars — penned a letter to the Board asking that the role be filled as soon as possible.

“We are concerned that if the Institute remains without a Director, the procedural integrity of the External Review would be compromised,” reads the letter.

UBC President and Chair of the PWIAS Board of Trustees Santa Ono responded to the faculty letter on January 18 by opening a self-nomination process for a PWIAS director, to close on February 1.

Scholars worry programs still at risk

But Wall Scholars worry the lack of a director is already crippling the Institute.

“It’s having a negative impact on the prestige and the environment,” said Dr. Kalina Christoff, a Wall Scholar who has been prominent in mobilizing faculty since Tortell’s resignation.

Christoff and other sources indicated that at the end of December, PWIAS staff and faculty were asked to assess the “impact” of their work in terms of publication rates and numbers of citations.

“We were asked to provide information about things published — the usual metrics that the university seeks,” said Christoff. “One of the big issue with that is that the staff doesn’t really have the capacity to carry out meaningful analysis of all this data… again, because of the absence of a director.”

Faculty also worry the internal assessment might have foreshadowed program cuts in advance of the external review.

“We are concerned that crucial decisions concerning the Institute’s programs are being made in the absence of a Director and without consultation with Wall Professors, the Institute’s Faculty Associates and the wider academic community,” reads the letter. “Such decision making does not accord with the principles of academic freedom and integrity.”

In a letter addressed to Dr. Christoff that was also sent to The Ubyssey, Ono said the Board would not make any “abrupt programming changes” for the upcoming budget.

When The Ubyssey reached out to Christoff for additional comment on Friday, she said she had not yet received the letter.

What is the Wall Institute?

While UBC has officially launched the search for a director, Christoff says Wall Scholars are still concerned that the institute’s goals and mandate have not been clarified, which she sees as essential following Tortell’s resignation.

“[T]here needs to be a discussion which we haven’t had in a meaningful way,” said Christoff. “There are some incompatible visions as to what the institute should be.”