Allie Slemon, a fifth year English student at the University of British Columbia, was surprised to find a strongly worded email from President Stephen Toope in her inbox.
Toope warned of Metro Vancouver’s proposal to regulate academic lands on the Vancouver campus. He said this would be “devastating” to academic freedom and could put a “choke hold” on the university’s future.
Currently, Greater Vancouver’s governing body, known as Metro Vancouver, has the power to regulate family housing property on campus while UBC maintains control over its academic lands.
In November, the city proposed to extend its power to include academic and non-residential buildings through a contentious new zoning bylaw.
The university administration sees this as an invasive threat, while the city maintains it is an overdue update.
Rezoning would change decision-making at the university’s highest levels. But students interviewed said they feel disconnected from the debate surrounding Metro Vancouver’s technical and lengthy proposal, especially if they aren’t already engaged in campus politics.
Toope’s passionate email was not the ideal primer for Slemon.
“In universities we’re taught to read and think critically and to receive this email from the president was kind of an affront to that,” she said. She would have preferred to receive unbiased information that would let her form her own opinion.
Changing face of UBC
Metro Vancouver argues that UBC cannot continue as the sole and unelected supervisor of the use of its academic lands.
“Let me put it in clear terms: we’re not prepared to continue with the status quo,” said Derek Corrigan, the mayor of Burnaby, on behalf of Metro Vancouver.
He argued that the way UBC is run leaves the city in a situation where they are “responsible for things [they’re] not actually in control of.”
“When you chose to have 6000 people living in the neighbourhood, UBC changed, and you have to accept the reality of that,” said Corrigan, addressing UBC administrators at a recent meeting.
The city’s rezoning proposals closely follow the October release of the final draft of the UBC Vancouver Campus plan, which will effectively guide development and decision-making on UBC’s academic lands for the next decade and beyond.
The Ubyssey, the official student paper, has been covering the re-zoning issue since Metro Vancouver first announced its intentions.
It published four big articles in the paper, including a full-colour front page story complete with an eye-catching robot.
Still, news editor Samantha Jung admits the paper has had next to no response, especially from students who do not have official ties to organized groups.
Listen to Samantha Jung explain why students are disconnected from rezoning issues:[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/html/wp-content/themes/WpAdvNewspaper/audio/SamanthaJung.mp3]
The timing of the rezoning row is awkward. As well as cramming for exams, most students are preoccupied with the plight of a different president at UBC.
The limelight is on Blake Frederick, president of the Alma Mater Society, UBC’s student council. Frederick is up for impeachment after filing a complaint to the United Nations without consulting the rest of the AMS.
As the two issues unfold side-by-side, students seem more interested in who controls the council than in who controls the campus.
The low response toward the Ubyssey’s coverage of re-zoning is in sharp contrast to the overwhelming feedback that the paper has received on stories about Frederick’s potential impeachment.
“We got about 1500 hits on our website when we first put up the original story. Just a huge conversation and a huge backlog of information,” said Jung, who also described the high interest on Twitter, Facebook and on their live-blog.
Many students are interested in both issues, but Slemon admits the impeachment has been far more engaging for her.
“What gets me excited about administration, about politics, about student involvement in issues has not been the issue of zoning,” she said, “I don’t think it’s because it’s a less contentious issue inherently or because it’s a less interesting issue inherently. It’s just not what students have decided to pick up.”
Students already engaged in campus politics have a range of opinions about Metro Vancouver’s proposal.
Angus Cheung is a student representative in UBC Vancouver Senate, the body responsible for academic governance. Although Cheung said Frederick’s impeachment “seems to be so much more important to students these days,” he has also thought through UBC’s concerns.
“I am a very big proponent of keeping academic land within the academic administration. Personally, I have met Toope many times and other members of the faculty and they’ve always been really receptive to student opinions,” said Cheung.
Frederick sees it differently. Speaking as AMS President before the threat of impeachment, he said the Board of Governors doesn’t respond in the way that elected politicians do.
“It’s an issue of representation and it manifests itself in different ways,” said Frederick. “Under the current structure, students don’t have as much say in their campus as they should have and that affects their ability to shape the university which they’re paying into. We’re the reason the university exists.”
Actively engaged students recognize that many of their peers are not as informed.
“What we see so much at the university is that decisions are not made in a way that students can relate to,” said Andrew Carne, a fifth-year undergraduate engineering student who sits on the AMS council.
“The biggest problem is that this is so confusing,” said Bijan Ahmadian, a student representative on the Board of Governors. “People don’t know exactly what’s going on because it’s deep in the governance and unless you’ve been involved you’re scratching your head and wondering how this is different from what we had before.”
Fewer than ten students, all with official ties, were present at the first meeting between UBC administrators and Metro Vancouver representatives on Nov. 25 after news of potential rezoning broke.
The two parties faced one another, with an audience of thirty-odd community members sitting behind them. The participants did not clearly introduce themselves and spoke with a great deal of presumed knowledge, dropping acronyms like OCP (Official Campus Plan) and MOA (Memorandum of Understanding). There was no question period at the end.
UBC defended the style of the meeting, saying it wasn’t aimed directly at students.
Stephen Owen, vice president of External, Legal and Community Relations at UBC, said joint committee meetings between UBC and Metro Vancouver are not the space for consultation. The university runs both “meetings that are open to the public” and “public engagement meetings.”
“There are intricate and repetitive and lengthy consultation processes where the public, including students, are directly engaged in campus and community planning,” said Owen.
Some see room for improvement in these channels.
Brendan Guy, a fourth year undergraduate, said that students who want to voice their opinions to the Board of Governors often have to go through a variety of representatives, many of whom don’t necessarily have a strong connection to students at large.
Guy has experience with facilitating cross-campus discussion, as he is the Education, Dialogue & Training Coordinator for an emerging network of community members called Common Energy UBC. He said the line of communication between students and administrators “could be a lot more transparent and a lot more inclusive.”
“The obvious solution is educating people in the university community, and students in general, about their options in who to go to when they have concerns about land usage issues,” said Guy.
Owen acknowledged the possibility for change. “It’s complicated but I think whenever changes are forced upon an institution, as this is, then there’s still an opportunity to make things better.”