UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

An edited version of this piece was published at The Tyee as “Latest Uproar at UBC May Present an Opportunity: Why the Tussle over Peter Wall Institute is a Teaching Moment for Every University”.


Backs to the Wall: UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

A few years ago, the then Director of the University of British Columbia’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies asked me to write a Wikipedia article about the Institute. I did, but almost immediately another Wikipedia editor tagged my contribution for deletion on the grounds that its subject was insufficiently notable, because I had not cited independent secondary sources about it: newspaper articles, magazine stories, and so on.

The snag was that almost nothing had been written about the place. I searched (and asked the Director) for sources, but none were to be found. As far as the press or the general public were concerned, it was as though the Peter Wall Institute did not exist.

That is not so much the Institute’s problem any more. Its recent public events, particularly its “Wall Exchange” downtown lecture series, have enjoyed a high local profile. And now it has attracted the attention of the national and international media.

Unfortunately, this follows the spectacular resignation of its Director, and the headlines are not what UBC would have wanted: ”Academic Independence of UBC Research Institute Under Threat”; ”Head of UBC Research Institute Resigns over Academic Freedom Concern”; ”Canadian Institute Loses Boss in Showdown over High-Risk Science”. Light is being shed on the Peter Wall Institute just as it is at the eye of a darkening storm that threatens the university’s highest echelons.

UBC has been plagued by discord for a while: from the departure of its previous president, Arvind Gupta, after only thirteen months in office, followed swiftly by the resignation of the Chair of its Board of Governors, who many felt (and leaked documents seemed to confirm) had pushed Gupta out, and a Faculty Association vote of no confidence in the Board, to the controversial dismissal of novelist and professor Steven Galloway, this has been a difficult time for an institution that claims to be among the world’s top twenty public universities.

Now, once again, UBC is making the news for all the wrong reasons, as very different philosophies of the role and functioning of the university clash.

These disputes are not all simply accidental misfortunes; nor are they mainly petty matters of personality or style. They concern governance and collegiality, transparency and accountability. Above all, what is at issue is the question of what universities are for and who gets to decide. These are large concerns that are under dispute at institutions across the globe. The fact that things have repeatedly come to a head here, perhaps more than elsewhere, may in fact reflect well on UBC. It shows that there are still people who care enough to protest.

Philippe Tortell, Director of the Wall Institute, for instance. In a letter outlining the reasons for his resignation, he argues that the Institute, by bringing together scholars from across the university to meet and discuss their research outside of department and faculty structures, offers “a model for truly creative and unconventional thinking in the increasingly bureaucratic culture that is spreading across universities around the world.”

So when the UBC president, Santa Ono, issued what Tortell describes as “a series of directives” that would “eliminate the majority of PWIAS programs” and appropriate “a large fraction of PWIAS funds” for programs run by central administration, this came across as “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” The bureaucracy was taking over, in the name of a “strategic plan” that elsewhere Tortell calls “a total travesty and a total sham . . . an empty, hollow document of which the administration should be wholeheartedly embarrassed.”

On the one hand, then, you have top-down directives from the university hierarchy. Ono’s Vice-President for “Research and Innovation,” Gail Murphy, helps to oversee the “Research Excellence Clusters” to which Peter Wall funds are now to be tied. The UBC Plan’s primary definition of “research impact” for such clusters cites “spinoffs that take advantage of technological developments.” This model may work in some areas of the Sciences. A Computer Scientist, Murphy’s work is on “improving the productivity of knowledge workers, including software developers,” and in line with the Plan she directs a spin-off company that trumpets its links to firms such as Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman.

On the other hand, you have an Institute that offers scholars some autonomy from administrative or market demands, with a mission to promote “deep and unconstrained research into some of the most profound questions and challenges facing humanity.” Its most visible activity within the university is the Wall Scholars program, whose main requirement is no more and no less than that scholars be in residence at the Institute and meet regularly. In addition to Director Tortell, an oceanographer who studies the concentration of gases such as carbon dioxide in the Antarctic Ocean, it has Distinguished Professors such as Derek Gregory, a geographer dedicated to “a critical study of the techno-cultural and political dimensions of air war.”

It is not hard to see that there are very different visions at work here. There is a widening gulf between what the British critic Stephan Collini calls the “outer bluster and inner defensiveness” of “current HiEdspeak” and the more modest aims of an Institute whose method is to bring people together and see what happens when they work without the constraints of directives from above or the injunction to seek yet more revenue from outside.

Not that the Institute is perfect; far from it. There is some irony to the fact that it is only thanks to a wealthy donor–the eponymous Peter Wall, a Vancouver property developer, who in 1991 gave the then extravagant sum of $15 million in his own corporation’s shares to the university–that the Institute has been able to maintain some distance from a central administration increasingly focused on figures and funding. Members of the Wall family, moreover, make up two of the five seats on the institution’s Board of Trustees, a fact that complicates and compromises its independence. There could have been more in the way of intellectual leadership, and not simply via fiery statements of resignation. At times the atmosphere is too cosy, too much like a somewhat sedate Faculty Club.

Above all, the Institute could undoubtedly have been making a better case for itself, and for its alternative vision of the university. This is its responsibility, and it may have led to more press coverage and attention, and not just in the face of the imminent dispossession of its autonomy. It would also have made it easier to write about it for Wikipedia.

Right now, the Institute’s Wikipedia article is basically a puff piece, crafted largely by its own staff, and prefaced with an official Wikipedia warning that it “is written like an advertisement.” The temptations to vacuous self-promotion are many and strong, and few in the contemporary university are immune to them. “Please help improve it,” the warning continues, “by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links.” The university, like a Wikipedia article, is a work in progress that can always be improved, and that task should not be left to the administrators.

The fight is not over. In the face of overwhelming disapproval of his decision, President Ono has taken a qualified step back and promises “a fulsome conversation.” Better late than never, though the sword of Damocles is still poised over what has been an intellectual oasis for many of us.

And perhaps this crisis can become an opportunity. With the spotlight on the Wall Institute, now is the time to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary research dedicated to critique and innovation rather than utility or financial profit. If the university can come together for an open and thoughtful discussion of the very nature of “advanced study,” it would be a move in the right direction. What is at stake is the nature of the institution itself, and the university’s distance from the the logics of state or market. This means that the university needs to be accountable to the Wall Institute, as much as the Institute needs to be accountable to the university.

It would be a positive outcome of the current controversy if UBC emerged with increased powers of resistance, more democratic and more certain of why we need universities in the first place.

See also: excellence, From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise, Warwick University Ltd, From Here, Universities at War

From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.


Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

Read this as a PDF document.

From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise

UBCIn a marvellous essay of a couple of years ago on the gutting of British academia, Stefan Collini compares the British Government’s White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System with the celebrated Robbins Report on higher education, which was published in 1963. (He had already reviewed the Browne Report, which lay behind much of the White Paper.) As Collini points out, the 2011 White Paper cites Robbins, but

It may have been unwise for the drafting team at [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way.

Quoting at length from the 1963 Report, Collini observes that

what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

It is not, Collini continues, that we should “indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago.” Rather, he concludes:

To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Similar conclusions can be reached, if on a smaller scale, by comparing the language and arguments employed within my own institution to describe its educational ambitions (or lack thereof) in two key documents: first, from 1963, Discipline and Discovery: A Proposal to the Faculty of Arts of the University of British Columbia; and, from 2011, A Place & Promise for Arts: UBC Faculty of ARTS Strategic Plan, Fall 2011.

The point of such comparison, however, is neither nostalgia nor critique for the sake of critique. It might, by contrast, help prepare us better for the challenge we currently face. That challenge has only become more acute over the two years since the UK White Paper and the UBC Strategic Plan were published, as the dramatic expansion of the commons promised above all by digital and online technology is met by a ferocious drive towards enclosure and “monetization” on the part of for-profit enterprises from Blackboard to Elsevier, Taylor and Francis to (most recently and most insidiously) Coursera.

More, anon.


I pass this poster every Monday, in the building where I teach a class on Human Rights. Seeing it always induces a kind of cognitive dissonance, as my class is explicitly not a defence of human rights, but a critique. I happen to think that that’s the business of universities: critique, questioning, critical reflection.

Anyhow, the poster is an advert for UBC, featuring a solitary figure on a mountain top and with the slogan “Human Rights Defended… From here.” I have little idea what it’s supposed to mean, and there’s not a word of explanation either on the poster itself or anywhere on the UBC website. The image certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do either with the university or with human rights.

Any ideas?


This was the building where I work as it was this past weekend:

A shanty-town, a fence, checkpoints, razor wire, guard towers, signs warning that interlopers could be shot on sight, even a couple of tanks…

Yes, once again the campus had been turned into a movie set. (Rumor has it they were filming Wolverine.) Still, I thought that there was perhaps some poetic truth here about the contemporary university.

(Thanks to Rafa and Tal for the photos.)


How is it that the campus swimming pool is open longer hours than the library?

On Saturday, one library shut up shop at 4pm; the other main library (sorry, actually it’s now a “Rich person’s name ‘learning center’“) hadn’t even bothered to open its doors. And yet the swimming pool was still open when I was going home at around 8pm; indeed, to add insulting extravagance to injury, they had the outdoor pool heated and uncovered despite the snow around and about.

Can’t the university at least pretend it’s an institution of higher learning, rather than a place to babysit 18 to 22-year-olds?

Image courtesy of freedyk on flickr.

While we’re at it, can’t the university shovel its walks? Isn’t there some kind of law about this? Oh yes, there is


76. The Owner or occupier of any parcel of real property shall, not later than 10:00
a.m. of any day except Sunday, remove snow and ice from any sidewalk adjacent
to such parcel for a distance that coincides with the parcel’s property line, except
that this provision shall not apply to real property occupied only by a one or two-
family dwelling.

76B. If an owner or occupier of any parcel of real property fails to remove snow and
ice, as required by either section 76 or 76A, the City Engineer may authorize the
removal by another person and the costs of such removal shall be at the expense
of the owner or occupier as the case may be.

Heck, they could even hire people to do it for them.


Further to previous discussions of the neoliberal university

This is a very dodgy enterprise. It is a limited company established by four local academic institutions, all of which (like almost all Canadian universities) are in the public sector. Its goal seems to be to profit from the local real estate market and what it itself calls “the City’s rapidly growing high-technology precinct”. Yet it is masquerading as itself an educational institution, wrapped up in visions of high-tech cyber-utopia and “digital villages” and the like. This is no doubt to the advantage of its sponsors and investors, both public and corporate. The gaming industry (et al.) gains prestige (as well as human capital) from its association with higher education; the university hopes to rake in the cash (not that it necessarily will) while spouting the requisite terms of art about cutting edge interdisciplinary research.

The gall of it, as far as I can see, is that its corporate name, Great Northern Way Campus Ltd, is easily enough shortened to “Great Northern Way Campus” which on first sight (I was fooled for a long time) seems to imply that it is indeed the campus of some other educational institutional, i.e. an integral part of that institution. In no way is this the case.

No wonder it calls itself “a unique, collaborative university campus environment”. What’s “unique” is that in fact it is not a university, nor is it a campus, however much it may provide an environment. This is the language of set-dressing and interior furnishings. “Not alchemy, but close,” they say. No, it’s just the usual sleight of hand of corporate shenanigans, attempts to ensure rapid conversion of cultural into financial capital, and shed-loads of PR spin.

Of course, there’s nothing too “unique” about this… the Great Northern Way Campus Ltd is a commercial venture like any other, simply one that has managed to wangle an awful lot of money out of public funds for its business ventures (a least $40.5 million, it seems), not to mention the fact of benefiting from an initial real estate donation that one hopes was originally destined for educational purposes. (OK, let’s be real, it was a tax write-off or similar, no doubt.)

Anyhow, I ran into all this by accident. Looking for examples to show my students as to how to edit wikipedia, I discovered that the article on this firm was plagiarized from the place’s own website. I blanked the page (note at this point I mistakenly thought that this was a university campus). But the deleted text was shortly replaced in similarly glowing terms, if now no longer word-for-word copied from other online promotional materials, but more cunningly crafted, by a wikipedian who apparently is paid by GNWC Ltd to write encyclopedia articles about them, sometimes in the name of Gnwc, at other times anonymously.

Ah, the university of excellence!

Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that university bureaucrats still fortunately make such poor technocrats that they managed to lose c. $1.4 million a year over the first four years since the initial donation. This at the same time as the city was undergoing rampant property inflation! Anyhow, no wonder that despite all the investment, both public and private, those few students enrolled at the “Campus” (21 to date) still have to pay, and at rates far above those paid by their colleagues who are studying in honest-to-goodness Canadian universities.

And what’s with the transparent people?