Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: University of British Columbia

June 09

Why we should – and shouldn’t – pay attention to World Rankings

The father of modern university rankings is James McKeen Cattell, a well-known early 20th-century psychologist, scientific editor (he ran the journals Science and Psychological Review) and eugenecist.  In 1903, he began publishing American Men of Science, a semi-regular rating of the country’s top scientists, as rated by university department chairs.  He then hit on the idea of counting how many of these scientists were graduates of the nation’s various universities.  Being a baseball enthusiast, it seemed completely natural to arrange these results top to bottom, as in a league table.  Rankings have never looked back.

Because of the league table format, reporting on rankings tends to mirror what we see in sports.  Who’s up?  Who’s down?  Can we diagnose the problem from the statistics?  Is it a problem attracting international faculty?  Lower citation rates?  A lack of depth in left-handed relief pitching?  And so on.

The 2018, QS World University Rankings, released last night, are another occasion for this kind of analysis.  The master narrative for Canada – if you want to call it that – is that “Canada is slipping”.  The evidence for this is that the University of British Columbia fell out of the top 50 institutions in the world (down six places to 51st) and that we also now have two fewer institutions in the top 200, (Calgary fell from 196th to 217th and Western from 198 to 210th) than we used to.

People pushing various agendas will find solace in this.  At UBC, blame will no doubt be placed on the institution’s omnishambular year of 2015-16.  Nationally, people will try to link the results to problems of federal funding and argue how implementing the recommendations of the Naylor report would be a game-changer for rankings.

This is wrong for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it is by no means clear that Canadian institutions are in fact slipping.  Sure, we have two fewer in the 200, but the number in the top 500 grew by one.  Of those who made the top 500, nine rose in the rankings, nine slipped and one stayed constant.  Even the one high-profile “failure” – UBC –  only saw its overall score fall by one-tenth of a point; the fall in the rankings was more due to an improvement in a clutch of Asian and Australian universities.

The second is that in the short-term, rankings are remarkably impervious to policy changes.  For instance, according to the QS reputational survey, UBC’s reputation has taken exactly zero damage from l’affaire Gupta and its aftermath.  Which is as it should be: a few months of communications hell doesn’t offset 100 years of scientific excellence.  And new money for research may help less than people think. In Canada, institutional citations tend to track the number of grants received more than the dollar value of the grants.  How granting councils distribute money is at least as important as the amount they spend.

And that’s exactly right.  Universities are among the oldest institutions in society and they don’t suddenly become noticeably better or worse over the course of twelve months.  Observations over the span of a decade or so are more useful, but changes in ranking methodology make this difficult (McGill and Toronto are both down quite a few places since 2011, but a lot of that has to do with changes which reduced the impact of medical research relative to other fields of study).

So it matters that Canada has three universities which are genuinely top class, and another clutch (between four and ten, depending on your definition), which could be called “world-class”.  It’s useful to know that, and to note if any institutions have sustained, year-after-year changes either up or down.  But this has yet to happen to any Canadian university.

What’s not as useful is to cover rankings like sports, and invest too much meaning in year-to-year movements.  Most of the yearly changes are margin-of-error kind of stuff, changes that result from a couple of dozen papers being published in one year rather than another, or the difference between admitting 120 extra international students instead of 140.   There is not much Moneyball-style analysis to be done when so many institutional outputs are – in the final analysis – pretty much the same.

March 02

Faculty Power and the Expansion of Administration

There was an interesting little op-ed in the Vancouver Sun the other day, to the effect that faculty are “waking up”, “realizing their voices matter”, and taking collective action to “effect substantive change at UBC”.  You can read it, here.

I think it is a fantastic piece.  It’s great when people in a community realise they have the power to change things, and begin acting together to effect that change.  My only question is: what was stopping them from acting on this before?

The answer, if we’re honest, is “nothing”, and the authors admit as much.  Canadian Senates – or academic councils, or General Faculty Council, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods –  have an enormous amount of power to drive institutional policy; at the faculty level, things differ a bit from place-to-place, but there is no doubt that at most universities, the collective professoriate is able to develop and drive policy, if it wants to.

But the plain simple fact of the matter is that at most universities, most of the time, they don’t want to.  There was a time, when universities were much smaller, cheaper, and less complex, when academic staff could take on a lot of non-academic work as part of their day jobs, and universities could run more or less without professional non-academic staff.  But with massification and the growing importance of research in academia, staying engaged in senior levels of academic governance is a real struggle for many.  So they do what they are supposed to do: delegate to professionals, and hope these people do a good job.

And for the most part, they do.  Or at least they do it well enough that there is no concerted movement by professors to turn back the clock and put more academic oversight into the system.  It’s tacitly understood that a university that doesn’t hire good communications professionals, good fundraisers, and good government relations people is likely to be a smaller, poorer university.  We might bemoan this fact a bit, but everyone knows it’s true.  And so by and large, the expansion of administration over the last 30 years has tacitly been endorsed by faculty, because otherwise they are the ones who would have to do that work.  And, y’know, thanks but no thanks.

Where administration becomes an issue is when those professionals are no longer seen to be of good value: that is, they are paid too much relative to their value, or when they are perceived to put their own interests ahead of those of the academic enterprise.  And while rare, this does happen every once in awhile.  And when it does, there is nothing to stop academics re-taking the wheel.  Which is as it should be.

So in sum, it isn’t a matter of faculty “re-taking” power in universities.  Faculty have always had power in universities; they’ve just chosen for the sake of convenience not to use it very much.  If this is changing, and faulty  want to exercise power to a greater extent, as the UBC editorialists suggests, that’s perfectly A-OK.  Just remember that everything has trade-offs.

February 02

Boards of Governors

One interesting piece of fallout from the UBC imbroglio is a newfound focus on governance.  A new group called Take Back #Tuumest (“Tuum est” being UBC’s Latin motto, meaning “it’s yours”) has started up, with the goal of reviewing how the university’s Board of Governors functions, and reducing the proportion of its government-appointed members (you can read their initial manifesto here).

So what should we make of this?  Is UBC’s Board too subservient to government, not attuned enough to actual campus issues?  To answer that, let’s take a quick tour of external governance around the world.

Board governance in Canada varies quite a bit from province-to-province.  As a general rule of thumb, the presence of government-appointees on Boards increases as you head from East to West.  In many places in eastern Canada, the institution pre-dates the province and so they never had government appointees to begin with (McGill, for example).  These Boards are, in effect, self-perpetuating oligarchies – similar to Boards at private US institutions.

In Canada, government appointments are given to friends of the government of the day.  As a result, Boards usually do not become overly partisan.  When governments change, the Board members appointed under different administrations stay in their positions for awhile, and Governors of different political stripes get along reasonably well, reflecting a fairly wide consensus about how universities should be governed.  In most instances, political appointments are more or less free to act and vote on their best judgement.  In the US, on the other hand, we are increasingly seeing state boards (often entirely made up of government appointees) acting like appendages of the Governor’s office, which makes them hyper-partisan.  This isn’t just bad for governance, it’s ridiculous – why have 100% government appointees when government is paying less than a third of the bill?

If you go further afield – say, to Europe where universities began – the tradition of external boards is not nearly as strong.  Indeed, there are some countries where governing boards are entirely free of external representation.  But the movement in much of Europe towards increased external oversight has intensified over the last two decades, or so: universities in Denmark and the UK are both required to have 50% plus one external governors (note: “external” does not necessarily mean government-appointed).  The reason?  Essentially, governments simply don’t trust universities to spend public money properly without external supervision.

The trade-off is essentially about what kind of relationship publicly-funded universities want to have with government.  Refusing government oversight through external board members just means government will try to re-impose control through other, more intrusive means – audits, budget control, greater control over procurement, you name it.  It is not, to be honest, a productive use of anyone’s time.

Is there a “magic proportion” of external governors – whether appointed by government or not – which is “right” for universities?  Not really.  There’s nothing particularly sacred about 50% plus one, other than it gives governments assurance that the lunatics (from their point of view) can’t start running the asylum.  At the University of Toronto, the proportion of externals on the Governing Board is considerably lower than 50%; though, in part, this is because the University’s anomalous unicameral system means that the Governing Board also acts as Senate.  And there’s nothing saying that external appointments have to be government appointments: McGill has proved a good steward of public money simply by appointing its own external overseers (direct government appointments in Quebec are arguably much less successful at doing this – see UQAM’s half-billion dollar construction fiasco).

But this observation cuts two ways: on one hand, there’s nothing particularly dangerous about #tuumest’s push for fewer government appointees; on the other, there’s nothing saying that altering the proportion of appointees is actually going to change much, either.  Boards are made-up of people: some are good and some are bad.  Nobody gave much thought to the UBC Board’s composition until it made a decision with which many disagreed.  And it’s not clear that moving a board member or two around at the margin would have changed the outcome.

February 01

Questions and Answers about UBC

So, what happened last week?  On Monday, pursuant to a freedom-of-information request submitted last fall, UBC finally released documents – mainly emails – related to the events surrounding the departure of Arvind Gupta.  Much of it was redacted, including a flurry of fairly long exchanges that happened in May and June.  On Wednesday, somebody figured out how to un-redact the document in adobe, and all of a sudden everyone could see the crucial exchanges.  Then on Thursday, in view of the fact that the UBC leak effectively violated the privacy clause of the non-disclosure agreement with the former President, Gupta himself decided to give a couple of interviews to the press.

What did we actually learn from the documents? Apart from the fact that folks at UBC are really bad at electronically redacting documents?  Less than you’d think. 

We do have a better understanding of the timeline of where things went wrong.  A discussion about a proposed strategic plan stemming from the February Board meeting seems to have been the start of the deteriorating relationship between Gupta and at least a portion of the Board.  Clear-the-air talks about weaknesses in Gupta’s performance were held following the April board meeting.  And then downhill from there.  The documents make clear there were a lot of complaints within the Board about Gupta’s leadership: in particular, his relationship with his own leadership team and his handling of relationships with the Board.  Read the May 18th letter from Montalbano to Gupta: it’s rough.

Some of the specifics were new, but frankly there isn’t much surprising in there.  You didn’t need to know the details to realize that the heart of the whole affair was that Gupta lost the backing of the Board, and that this was something that probably happened gradually over time.

What has Gupta said in his interviews?  He has said, first: the released documents provided a one-sided representation of the events of the spring, which is true enough.  Second, that despite having resigned because he had lost the confidence of the full Board, he now regrets not having pushed back hard and wishes he could have fought back, which is puzzling (if you’ve lost the confidence of a body, how would kicking back have aided anything?).  Third, he doesn’t understand why the Board didn’t support him because he had lots of support from professors, which seems to be a major instance of point-missing.  Fourth, that the whole push against him on the Board came from an ad-hoc, possibly self-selected sub-committee of the executive committee.

Wait, what?  There’s a lot of quivering about the fact that much of the Board were bystanders to the interplay between Montalbano and a few other key Board members, and Gupta – look, it’s a cabal, they had it in for him, hid it from the Board, etc.  But some of this is overwrought.  Generally speaking, a CEOs performance review is handled by the Chair of the Board and a few others, rather than by full Board.  The unanswered process question here is: what was the relationship of this group to the executive?  Was it duly constituted, or was it just a few people the Board Chair thought were “sound”?  In the grand scheme of things, this is kind of beside the point.  The fact that not a single other person on the Board has stepped forward and said “yeah, we were wrong about Gupta” suggests substantial unanimity on the key point: that even if something was amiss procedurally, any other procedure would have led to the same result. 

(Similarly for the argument that there wasn’t “due process” for Gupta because he didn’t get the job performance evaluation that was in his contract: once the person/people responsible for evaluating a CEO decide the CEO needs to be replaced, what’s the point of a formal job evaluation?  If you were the CEO in question, wouldn’t you resign rather than go through a formal review where a negative outcome is certain?)

Is any of this going to change anyone’s mind about what happened?  I doubt it.  Gupta’s backers will say “it shows the Board had it in for him for the start”; any evidence that could be read as saying “gosh, maybe relations weren’t going so well” is simply regarded as “a pretext” so the mean old Board could stitch Gupta up.  A new set of rhetorical battle-lines seem to be forming: Gupta as champion of faculty (a point he himself seems keen to make) and the Board as the enemy of faculty.  There is little-to-no evidence this was actually the reason for Gupta’s dismissal, but it’s nevertheless the hill upon which a lot of other people want to believe he died.

That’s unfortunate, because it entirely misses the point about this affair.  Whether Gupta was popular with faculty, or whether he was a good listener and communicator with them, is irrelevant.  Presidents have to run a university to the satisfaction of a Board of Governors – some directly elected, some appointed by an elected government – who are there to maintain and ensure that the public interest is being served.  They have to do a large number of other things as well, but this is the really basic bit.  Whatever other beneficial things Gupta did or might have accomplished – and I think he might have done quite a lot – this wasn’t something he managed to achieve.  However nice or progressive a guy he may have seemed in the other aspect of his job doesn’t change this fact.  And so he and the board parted company.  End of story.

January 26

Tenure and Aboriginal Culture

You may or may not have noticed a story in the National Post over the weekend relating to a scholar at the University of British Columbia named Lorna June McCue, who has brought a human rights tribunal case against UBC for denying her tenure.  The basics of the story are that UBC didn’t think she’d produced enough – or indeed, any – peer-reviewed research to be awarded tenure in the Faculty of Law; Ms. McCue argues that since she adheres to an indigenous oral tradition (she is also a hereditary chief of the Ned’u’ten at Lake Babine, a few hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver), she needs to be judged by a different standard.

Actually, Ms. Mcue brought the case in the fall of 2012; UBC moved to have it dismissed; the hearing last week was on the motion to dismiss, which failed.  So now, 39 months later, the hearing can proceed (justice in Canada, Ladies and Gentlemen!  A big round of applause!).  Anyways, I have a feeling this story is going to run and run (and not just because of the glacial pace of the legal system), so I thought I would get some thoughts in early on this.

A couple of obvious points:

The spread of the university around the world, mainly in the 19th century, eliminated a lot of different types of knowledge preservation/communication traditions.  They basically wiped out the academy tradition in East Asia, and did a serious number on the madrassas of the Indian subcontinent and the middle-east (though as we have seen, these are making a comeback in recent years in some fairly unfortunate ways).  And though universities do exhibit a lot of differences around the world in terms of finance and management, and to some extent around mission, there is no question that due to the strengths of the disciplines it houses, it has had some extraordinarily isomorphic effects on the way we think and talk about knowledge.  So it’s not crazy for non-western cultures to once in awhile say: look, there are other ways to construct and transmit knowledge, and we’d like a bit of space for them.  Maoris have done this successfully with their Wānanga, or Maori Polytechnics as they’re sometimes called.  Why not in Canada?

And there’s nothing immutable about the need for research as a professor.  Hell, 40 years ago in the humanities, research certainly wasn’t a hard pre-requisite for tenure; even today in the newer professional schools (I’m thinking journalism, specifically), people often get a pass on publication if they are sufficiently distinguished prior to arriving at the university.  Different strokes, etc.

But of course, all that said, the fact is that accommodation for different knowledge paradigms is the kind of thing you work out with your employer before you start the tenure process, not afterwards.  It’s not as though McCue’s views render her incapable of writing; the university hired her on the basis of her 1998 L.L.M. dissertation, which was a good 250 pages long, and presumably expected they’d get more work of similar quality.  And yes, it’s probably a good idea to have and fund institutions that more fully value Aboriginal ways of knowing, and are prepared to take a broader view of what scholarship means (the relevant tenure criteria at First Nations University, for instance, is “consistently high achievement in research and scholarship useful to First Nations’ communities”).  But even if it is located on unceded Musqueam land, UBC ain’t that institution.

I have a hard time imagining this will go anywhere, but Human Rights cases are funny things.  Keep an eye on this case, anyway.

August 28

Boards, Senates, and Myths of University Exceptionalism

If there is one thing that the departure of Arvind Gupta has demonstrated, it’s that there are a large number of faculty (and others) who either misunderstand or dispute the role of Boards of Governors at universities.

Here’s the deal.  Regardless of whether an organization is for-profit or not-for-profit, there is some kind of committee at the top, which usually has the word “Board” in its title – Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, whatever.  The job of this board is threefold: first, make sure the organization meets its strategic goals. Second, make sure it meets its financial goals (in for-profits, these two are pretty much identical, but in non-profits they’re different).  Third, hire and hold accountable a chief executive for getting those things done.

At this point, I hear the objections: “universities aren’t corporations, how dare you compare us to a for-profit company, etc.”  The first of these is wrong: universities most definitely are corporations.  Corporate status is key to providing the legal framework for pretty much everything universities do.  True, they aren’t for-profit entities (in our country, anyway) but for-profit/not-for-profit is irrelevant with respect to governance: you still need a body at the top of the organizational hierarchy performing those three functions.

What makes universities unique is the degree to which staff are involved in developing  strategic goals.  Both for statutory and practical reasons, this job is more or less left to Senates (or their equivalents), and their committees.  Boards formally ratify these strategy documents, and thus “own” them, but compared to other types of organizations, they are very hands-off about this part of the job.  Senates, in effect, are the source of university exceptionalism.  But there is nothing – literally nothing – that makes universities exceptional with respect to the jobs of maintaining healthy finances, and selection/oversight of the chief executive.  The Board of a university executes those functions exactly the way the board of any other organization does.

When it comes to hiring, people kind of get this.  When new Presidents are hired, no one questions the prerogative of the Board to make the decision.  And while there is sometimes grumbling about who got chosen or who didn’t get chosen, no one parades around demanding “transparency” about why candidate X got picked instead of candidate Y.  But apparently when a President leaves, many people think that the Board owes the faculty all the gory details.  Because transparency.  Because “universities are different”.

Transparency is usually to the good, of course.  But sometimes, if you’re dealing with a personnel matter, the correct way to deal with it is to say goodbye as quickly and as amicably as possible.  By and large, you don’t do that by broadcasting the circumstances of the departure to the world.  Transparency sometimes comes second to expediency, tact, and judgement.  Yet, what a lot of people at UBC seem to be saying is that Boards owe them explanations.  Because “universities are different”.

To keep this short: universities are different – but not in that way.  Regardless of the organization they serve, boards don’t owe anybody explanations about personnel decisions.  They have a responsibility to make sure the organization is fulfilling its mandate (in managerial terms: making sure it has a strategic plan, and is fulfilling it), and providing a public good.  That’s it.   What they have to make clear in a university context is whether or not a dismissal/resignation affects the strategic plan, or (especially) if there was a dispute between Board and CEO regarding the nature or direction of the strategic plan.  And the reason they have an obligation in this scenario is because of Senate’s role in creating the strategy in the first place.

Sure, faculty might want to know details.  They’re curious.  They’d like to know (or impute) the politics of the whole thing.  But there is no right to know, and saying “universities are different” – when in this respect they clearly are not – doesn’t change anything.

August 24

Welcome Back

Morning, all.  August 24th.  Back, as promised.

School starts shortly.  The new crop of frosh were born in 1997, if you can believe that – to them, Princess Diana has never been alive, and Kyoto has always been a synonym for climate change politics (check out the Beloit Mindset List for more of these ).  Stormclouds line the economic horizon.  It’s going to be an interesting year.

In the US, progress on any of the big issues in higher education are likely to be in suspension as the two parties spend months figuring out who their candidates are going to be.  On the Democratic side, the presumptive candidate, Hilary Clinton, has put forward an ambitious plan for higher education, which, barring an absolute sweep at the polls, has almost no chance of passing Congress.  On the Republican side, no one apart from Marco Rubio seems to care much about higher education, except for Scott Walker who seems to want to use higher education as a punching bag, much as his idol Ronald Reagan did fifty years ago.

Overseas, the most consequential potential development is in the UK where – if the government is to be taken at face value – for the first time anywhere, measured quality of teaching might meaningfully affect institutional resources. In the rest of Europe, the ongoing economic slump looks set to create new problems in many countries: in Finland, where GDP contracted for the third year in a row, government funding will be down roughly 8% from where it was last year.  And that’s in one of the countries that thinks of itself as being particularly pro-education.  Germany, Sweden, and (maybe) Poland look like the only countries that might resist the tide.

Here in Canada, the outlook remains that post-secondary education will continue to see below-inflation increases in government funding for the foreseeable future, except in Alberta where the new provincial government intends on giving institutions a big one-time boost, which may or may not be sustainable, depending on how oil and gas prices fare.  This means resources will be scarce, and in-fighting for the spoils will be fierce.  And this, in turn, means a lot of governance, a lot of wailing about “corporatization” (always a good epithet when funding decisions aren’t going your way), and – inevitably, given the recent events at UBC – a lot of arguments about resource allocations, dressed up as arguments about governance.

(In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what happened there, exactly.  I do, however, believe three things: i) in a corporate context, the statements by the Board of Governors and interim President on Gupta’s departure are actually quite easily interpretable, and don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination; ii) if/when the truth comes out, it’ll be a hot mess of grey zones, and some of the wilder conspiracy rhetoric about the departure will seem ludicrous; and, iii) any theory positing that Gupta was fired for a lack of “masculinity” by a Board Chair who not only spent millions of his own dollars to create a dedicated Chair on Diversity in Leadership, but also that replaced said “unmacho” President with Martha Piper of all people, has more than one prima facie credibility problem.)

But behind all this, there’s a broader truth that I think the higher education community is being very slow to acknowledge.  The era of growth is over.  Higher education is not a declining industry, but it is a mature one, and this changes the nature of the game.  In the aughts, Canadian university income increased faster as a proportion of GDP than pretty much any country in the world (Netherlands and Russia aside).  It was a rising tide that raised all boats.   And I mean that literally: as a share of the economy, universities grew by half a percentage point (from 1.4% to 1.9% according to the OECD, which I think is a bit of an underestimate), which is like adding more than the value of the entire fishing industry.

But those boats stopped rising a couple of years ago.  Institutions with smug strategic plans about increasing excellence need to face reality that there’s no new money with which to achieve those goals: funds for new projects are, for the most part, going to have to come out of increased efficiencies, not new money.  It’s tougher sailing from here on out – permanently.  Institutions are going to need to be leaner, better managed, and more focused.  However, the meaning of those terms are hardly uncontested in academia.

This should make for a fun year.  Looking forward to it.

August 19

Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

UBC’s  Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.  Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something.  Finished?  Ok, on we go.

The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon?  Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom.  Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s.  It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer.   The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts.  Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour.  That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.

So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept.  In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing.  She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism.  Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure.  Under anyone else’s?  Not so clear.

(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”.  One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)

Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident.  Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did.  His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure.  But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote?  That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.  

Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded.  I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story.  She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members.  If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part.  But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”

To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified.  The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review.  It wasn’t scholarly.  It wasn’t made in a classroom setting.  She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done.  But protected under academic freedom?  CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.

April 27

McGill vs. UBC

In eastern parts of the country, if you use the words “the three best universities in Canada”, they look at you slightly oddly.  They know you mean U of T and McGill, but they’re not 100% sure who the third one is.  “UBC?” they ask, uncertainly. This is pure eastern myopia.  Today, I will advance the proposition that by most measures, UBC is substantially ahead of McGill, and is in fact the country’s #2 university.

Let’s start with some statistics on size, just to orient ourselves. UBC is the slightly bigger institution, and at both institutions graduate students account for about 26% of all FTEs.

Enrolment and Academic Staff Complement, UBC vs. McGill

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 10.46.38 PM


Now let’s look at money.  The two institutions have similar-sized endowments, a shade over $1.3 Billion, which is a point in McGill’s favour when adjusted for student body size.  When it comes to operating budget, however, there is simply no comparison: UBC’s has a total budget of $2.2 billion, and an operating budget of $1.1 billion; the equivalent for McGill is  $1.4 billion and $620 million.  On an unadjusted basis, UBC takes in $58,500 per FTE student, to McGill’s $40,493 – a 44% gap in UBC’s favour.  If we adjust for student body composition – that is, convert all FTE’s into Weighted FTEs based on field of study, and use the weights used by the Quebec government (see here for more details) – then the gap actually increases somewhat to 48%.  Point UBC.

Figure 1: Total Income per Student and per Weighted Student Unit, 2011-12, UBC vs. McGill














Now let’s look at some measures of research output, like bibliometrics.  This data is taken from the 2013-14 Leiden rankings, which is the most comprehensive publicly available list of bibliometric indicators.  On sheer volume of publications UBC wins, which probably isn’t surprising given its size.  But on measures of publication impact – normalized citation scores, and the percentage of papers among the 10% most-cited in its field in the past five years – UBC is ahead in both, as it is in the percentage of papers that involved collaboration with an industry.  Only in the category of papers with international collaborators does McGill come out on top.  Point UBC.

World Position in Leiden Rankings on Selected Bibliometric Indicators, UBC vs. McGill (Leiden Rankings, 2014-15)

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While we’re at the research output game, we might as well see what the “Big Three” (Shanghai ARWU, Times Higher, and QS) international rankings say, all of which are mostly based either on research or prestige (as measured by surveys of academics).  Two of the three say: point UBC

Positions in Major International Rankings, 2014/15, UBC vs. McGill

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Does faculty pay matter?  Here’s the most recent average pay data from the three institutions.  UBC wins again, by about 20% at the level of assistant profs, and 15% above that.  Still: point UBC.

Figure 2: Average academic staff pay by rank, UBC vs. McGill














Now this is from the Statistics Canada, Full-time University and College Academic Staff Survey, 2009-10.  And yes, that’s old, but it’s the last year for which we have data from both institutions because Statscan discontinued the survey, and as far as I know, the COU-led replacement survey hasn’t reported anything publicly yet.  And given both institutions’ limits on salary increases the last few years, I doubt the gap has changed much.

And of course, there’s student experience.  Here are the two universities compared on the main aspects of student satisfaction, using data from the final Canadian University Report.  These are scored on a 9-point scale.  Point: McGill.

Select Measures of Student Satisfaction, Canada

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In other words, UBC comes ahead on most measures.  And when you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising.  It has far more money than McGill, it has huge endowment lands, which represent a huge future income, and it is far better positioned to take advantage of the rise of Asia.  Arguably, given the imbalance in resources, the question is: why isn’t UBC even further ahead of McGill than it actually is? (Or, to reverse that: well done to McGill for being so efficient!)

To conclude: UBC is fairly clearly ahead of McGill – the question now is when will it overtake U of T?

May 24

The Best Idea I’ve Seen All Year

I travel around a fair bit, and I get to see a lot of interesting stuff that’s going on at universities in Canada, and abroad.  People often ask me: what’s the best thing you’ve seen recently?  The answer this year, hands down, is UBC’s Start-up Services Voucher.

Now, UBC’s been a leader in commercialization and spin-off companies for at least twenty years.  They caught a lot of attention when they created a $10 million Seed Fund, capitalized by donations from alumni and the BC Innovation Council, which was designed to promote entrepreneurship by making early stage, pre-seed investments in start-ups founded by students or recent alumni.

But more quietly, the university has done something else which I think is much more interesting: about two years ago, it created the Start-up Services Voucher.  If you’re a UBC student, staff, or faculty member, and want to start a business, you’re eligible for up to $5000 worth of business services (though, in practice, most use far less).  And unlike virtually every other entrepreneurship system in Canadian PSE, there are no requirements whatsoever with respect to using UBC technology, nor is there any stipulation that the business be some kind of technology enterprise.  Want to open a flower shop?  This fund’s for you.

There’s no catch.  UBC certainly isn’t interested in equity, for instance.  All they want is recognition.  All companies that move through the program must display a logo declaring themselves as “UBC-affiliated companies” for a period of five years.

How brilliant is that?

First, it creates a great, dense network between an institution and small businesses in its community (which will no doubt pay off philanthropically, down the road).  Second of all, it allows the institution to get a much better handle on the post-graduation activities of its entrepreneurs, and hence allows UBC to highlight its larger role in job creation and innovation in British Columbia.  Frankly, UBC could pay for this out of the Government Relations budget, and it would make complete sense – how great will it be to be able to walk into an MLA’s office and rattle off the names of all the new, “UBC-affiliated” businesses that have started-up in his/her riding?

Students learn a lot in PSE, and not just inside the classroom.  When they start their own businesses, it’s the ultimate expression of the mix of hard, soft, and creative skills that they’ve gained at school, and are now applying in innovative ways.  It’s a huge, practical impact that universities and colleges have on their communities that no one’s ever been able to quantify or publicize.

Until now.  Bravo, UBC.  A great idea that deserves more attention – and some imitators.

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