Monday, November 16, 2009

UBC Responds to Metro-Vancouver Incursion

UBC responded to metro Vancouver's proposed zoning by-law for the UBC area with a press release to the public and a letter to all staff, students, and faculty (see below).

According to UBC the problem with the zoning by-law is that it represents an attack on academic freedom. That may well be the case, though it is a bit of a stretch. More realistic threats to academic freedom on campus come dressed in a far more subtle veneer. But that's not the topic of this post.

UBC is right to be concerned over the imposition of a zoning bylaw on our community. However, the threat is not to academic freedom, but a further degradation of responsible democracy. At present there is no real nor effective local governance of the university town. All authority to govern resides in the hands of a Board of Governors, the majority of whom are government appointees. While it may well make sense to have such a body in charge of the university, it is not appropriate to have this same board act as the erstwhile government of and regional administrative of the affairs of the several thousands of people who make the University Town our home.

The democratic deficit exists irrespective of whether it is Metro Vancouver's appointed Electoral Area 'A' committee or UBC's majority appointed Board of Governors who make the decisions that shape and impact the lives of our residential community.

The University Neighbourhoods Association is a local level organization. However, it is not a democratic agency of governance; it administers at the pleasure of UBC's Board of Governors. As such, the capacity of the UNA to act independently in ways that disagree with UBC is severely and structurally limited.

It's a strange contradiction that while UBC celebrates it's place of mind and production of global citizens and highlights the university's role in creating a place of academic freedom that those thousands of us who live in the university town are denied the very basic civil liberties that responsible democratic government should offer us.

Isn't time that both UBC and Metro Vancouver got out of their board rooms, rolled up their sleeves, and set to work building a real democratic community rather than throwing barbs ate each other.

Email sent to UBC community Saturday, November 14, 2009
To: All UBC Students, Faculty, and Staff

Earlier today, Metro Vancouver moved forward with a proposal that would restrict and regulate how we use our academic lands.

This is an attempt to intervene in the governance of UBC in a way that could be devastating to our academic freedom.

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that UBC continue to fully and responsibly govern its academic land use. The freedom to learn is fundamental to why universities exist, and that freedom must be underpinned by autonomy to decide what, where, and how to study. World-changing learning and research requires cutting edge facilities, and the infrastructure to attract leading thinkers.

As you well know, we are in an intensely competitive global environment, for talent and for funding. Our ability to respond quickly and nimbly is critical. To secure CFI (Canadian Foundation for Innovation) funding, and recent KIP (Knowledge Infrastructure Plan) funding, for example, we are required to begin projects promptly, not wade through multiple layers of municipal controls. In some cases we would have to seek permission through rezoning processes to proceed with academic projects, with no guarantee of approval.

As we witnessed with delays over the student housing project on Marine Drive (a diversion that cost students more than $20 million and reduced the proposed student housing by a third), Metro Vancouver interventions can be incredibly time consuming and expensive, without adding anything that improves the situation for students, faculty or staff at UBC.

By way of background, Metro Vancouver has certain responsibilities for delivering services to UBC and the UEL. For UBC, those responsibilities are spelled out in a Memorandum of Understanding, which gives Metro Vancouver considerable control over the planning and development of family housing property while UBC retains control over the planning and development of academic and institutional lands.

Notwithstanding this agreement, Metro Vancouver has begun the process of pre-empting UBC's control over planning on its own academic lands. A heavy-handed set of additional land-use provisions would impose nine new zones on the greater UBC area, including seven zones on academic land. Metro also proposes a costly series of development permit restrictions, which would create a regulatory morass that would put a choke-hold on our future.

No other university in British Columbia faces this type of restriction. Others are permissively zoned into one 'institutional' category.

UBC is conscious of its responsibility to be a good neighbour - with those in the University Neighbourhoods and with communities in all of Metro Vancouver. We are also conscious that our robust development of academic infrastructure over the past two decades has created challenges, some of which we responded to more slowly than our community would have liked. Our consultation processes have not always been perfect.

We have listened to our communities and have improved our public consultation processes to meet or exceed standards anywhere in Canada. For example, we are nearing the conclusion of a four-year consultation process that has engaged thousands of people in developing a new Campus Plan, and which provides a twenty-year planning framework for our academic lands.

Our consultation and planning processes are among the best in British Columbia. We have become leaders, not just in academic excellence, but in sustainable design and development. The flexibility that Metro Vancouver is now trying to challenge has been essential to our ability to become a global sustainability leader.

UBC is, without question, one of the leading universities in the world. Our $1.8 billion direct annual economic impact pales in comparison to the overall $10 billion we annually generate in education and innovation. From fish to forestry, philosophy to law, to opera and beyond, every aspect of the B.C. economy and society is enriched by UBC's efforts and accomplishments. We cannot allow that role to be compromised. UBC's autonomy over its academic land is fundamental to the mission of the university.

We have issued a press release summarizing our concerns about this proposed process, and plan to do all we can to urge Metro Vancouver to withdraw this unprecedented and intrusive bylaw. I will keep you apprised of our efforts and progress. If you would like more information, or wish to support UBC's academic freedom, contact

Stephen J. Toope
President and Vice-Chancellor

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