British Columbia·In Depth

UBC's board chair is gone. But the issues that led to his departure won't go away

Being a board member at UBC is an inherently public and political position. But partly because of its governance structure, members don't always realize this in time to do effective damage control, not realizing they will be held responsible by the media.

Governance structure has led to issues with board's approach to accountability and cultural changes

The University of British Columbia will be on a search for its fourth permanent chair in less than five years after the resignation of Michael Korenberg. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A few years ago at the University of British Columbia, Michael Korenberg showed up to a board of governors meeting wearing a hat.

The words on the piece of fabric? A little known slogan called "Make America Great Again."

"Yeah, people were completely aware of Korenberg's politics," said Charles Menzies, who sat on UBC's board from 2017 to 2020 as a faculty representative. 

In other words, before Korenberg went on a recent weeks-long spree of liking tweets from far-right figures in the United States — and subsequently apologized and resigned as UBC's chair — people internally knew about his ideology. 

At the same time, his politics were never made an issue because he was respected for the technical aspects of chairing a large organization, he was non-partisan in what is a volunteer role, and encouraged respectful debate. 

For Menzies, UBC has some responsibility in how Korenberg's demise unfolded, even if he did resign of his own accord.

"There's an element of hypocrisy there," he said. 

"I think we need to be consistent all the way along: If it's bad today, why wasn't it bad [yesterday]? Doesn't it mean it should have been dealt with?"

UBC's unique public role

It's important to remember that the University of British Columbia is two different things.

On one hand, it's like dozens of organizations in B.C. that receive government money and operate independently — with a board full of well meaning individuals responsible for oversight and corporate governance. 

Korenberg was elected chair of UBC's board in 2018, and was scheduled to remain a member until 2022. (Michael Korenberg/Twitter)

However, UBC is also a public university with a $2 billion budget, with more than $500 million of that coming from the province. It oversees the development and administration of a community with more than 10,000 permanent residents, but no municipal government. There's a student newspaper dedicated to covering its ins and outs. 

In other words, being a board member at UBC is an inherently public and political position. 

But partly because of its governance structure, UBC board members don't always realize this in time to do effective damage control, not realizing they will be held responsible by the media. 

"I don't know whether board members received any sort of media training," said Sam McCabe, who covered UBC's board from 2016 to 2019 as an editor with The Ubyssey newspaper.

"It always seemed they were surprised if they were ever asked for an interview, or to clarify their opinion on something that they had tweeted about or mentioned."

In the past five years, one UBC president resigned abruptly under pressure from the board, two board chairs have resigned, and the university's policies on sexual assault and harassment have come under intense scrutiny. 

In each case, issues of transparency and where the buck stops have generally seemed opaque to the public, with board members only answering questions after public outrage reached fever pitch. 

"It's like these people live in a bubble," said Menzies. 

"They all seem to sit ... with no sense that anyone's paying attention to them. I think that maybe that ultimately is a market privilege and class power right there."

Tension with students

Another factor in the governance debate is the ever-present tension between cautious administrators and students demanding change. A UBC president even resigned in the 1960s because of it.

That tension has been on the upswing in recent years — but it appears the board of governors has done little in response. 

"Students are becoming more vocal about issues like gender, like sexual violence, like race on campus," said McCabe. 

"… I think the board needs to make a concerted effort to be more proactive, and its approach on realizing where students are at and the issues at the top of their minds is very reactive." 

In other words, the next permanent chair of UBC might have to navigate the two things Korenberg ultimately wasn't attuned for: the public accountability of board members, and the cultural issue of university values adjusting with the times.  

It's a tall task, but that person might well consider the university's motto: "Tuum Est". 

Which, when translated, means "it's up to you."

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