Monday, November 26, 2007

Foresight: UBC's annual report; AGM today!

UBC, over the last several years, has adopted the practice of holding an Annual General Meeting, to coincide with the release of its annual report. The AGM is happening today at 12:00-1:00, in downtown Kelowna. It is being broadcast live (at 12:00) in two ways so that we can watch it too:

This year's report, "Foresight" is a short, spiffy, and readable document outlining the major accomplishments and programs at UBC in the past year. You can read it HERE. The report is structured around the personal narratives of individuals, who are featured in attractive colour photos on half the pages. Summary graphics of finances, donors, and sustainability targets constitute the remained of the report to complete a gushing profile of our illustrious institution. I learned about a few new things from the report. For instance , there's a new fancy rowing facility in Richmond for varsity athletes. There's a new Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution, funded by a $7 million investment from the Tula Foundation, being headed up by Patrick Keeling, who does awesome research on understudied protists. (This is especially cool, since most types of microbes are almost completely unstudied). Anyway, the report supplies an optimistic, incomplete glance at the positive accomplishments at UBC. By looking briefly at the financial summary page, you'd have no idea about the recurring structural deficit.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

The townie theory of social engagement, or lack thereof.

ACF is one of the only UBC events I attend. I'm lazy and antisocial, so I don't prioritize things like beer gardens and storm the wall and pit night and whatever else. When I do socialize on campus, I'm getting drunk with a few friends at Koerner's or the Gallery.

I really have trouble believing that the u-pass and bad financial aid policies are the reason people don't party on campus. Personally, I blame townies such as myself, who can go home after school to unwind. When you know the city real well, there's less reliance on the campus scene as far as finding fun goes.

There's the simple matter of competition - I'd like to state for the record that I think rational choice theory is overrated, overused, and oppressive as it obfuscates the role of systemic discrimination and power in things. As we are discussing something as minor as 'where Ainge gets sloshed and why', I'm going to apply it, as this is its place. If anyone wants to chime in with some critical theoretical analysis of my drinking habits, please, feel free. I'd also like to state that this is purely anecdotal, as is most of the stuff you'll read on the internets.

I drink where I drink because I appreciate a good beer on tap, and a nice booth or patio. Standing around Buchanan D holding a dixie cup with a bunch of strangers I may have seen in class or on the bus just ain't my thing. I make a little money, and I want to maximize the enjoyment. See, it's simple.

Being a townie has definitely influenced my indifference towards campus events. Spending twenty years in this hamlet means I get that sense of community elsewhere. I coach debate at my old high school, I involve myself in local politics, I hang with my ridiculous Italian family, and I stay in touch with people I've known for ages.

My experience is not universal - some townies do throw themselves into campus life. The thing is, UBC events compete with everything else the city has to offer, and the sentimental ties that should be keeping us on campus to party just aren't there. We don't mythologize our college experience that much here in Canada. It's seen less as a life-changing experience and more as gettin that there diploma thing whut helps ya get a job . When I was applying for university, 80% of my grad class ended up staying in Vancouver. By virtue of its lower mainland location, UBC complements my life as it already is. I'm here for the courses.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Three green-tinted notes

A few notes of interest that come to mind for the environmentalist-lite on campus:

  • UBC Farm Fee referendum: Yesterday I was at the farm. Getting there was a bit of a hazard due to the South Campus construction bedlam, and I ended up getting tangled in a barbed wire fence while attempting a shortcut, and shredding my favorite pants. Not that it wasn't worth it. In between sorting butternut squashes and bunching kale and collard greens, I checked in with Mark Bomford, the director of the UBC farm, about recent farm developments. As you may have noticed, the UBC farm is collecting signatures to introduce a 4-dollar student fee. Two of these dollars would turn into sustainable yearly funding for the UBC farm's programming. Two of the dollars would be put in a fund to be allocated to students engaged in climate-action related projects. More accurately, they are actually collecting signatures to place a question about the student fee hike on this year's referendum ballot. All new AMS fees need to be approved by referendum. 1000 signatures are needed for referendum questions to be put on the ballot without the approval of AMS council. They're a few hundred signatures short so far, but it's expected to reach the goal. The money would mean that students, not the university, are the ones supporting the Farm in the most substantial and sustainable way. Currently, the farm functions from a combination of temporary grants (chielfy a TLEF grant that expires this year). It has no core institutional funding, though it does receive support from the faculty of land and Food Systems. If the fee is approved in referendum, the governance structure of the Farm would change to include AMS representation. This would probably take the form of AMS representatives on the current farm advisory committee. This committee reports to the dean of the faculty of Land and Food systems, and makes the major steering decision about the farm. Eventually though, says Bomford, the goal is to have the farm acknowledged as an official unit of the LAFS faculty in the Senate. This new funding, he continued, will allow the farm to meet its goals in sustainability, student services, and outreach. These will be student dollars for students, he said. I've had reservations about students saddling the financing of the Farm. Too me, this is an example of a program that should have core university funding - it meets the University's trek 2010 vision perfectly. Does students taking up the cause of the farm send the wrong signal? Bomford and Jeff Friedrich, the AMS president don't think so. They think that if students approve this fee, it will put pressure on the university to match funding. This will be interesting to watch.
  • Elizabeth May at UBC: The leader of the federal Green Party was at UBC to speak today. This is the second time I've heard Ms. May speak, and I have to say, I've just been floored both times. She is incredible. First, she really is a talented speaker. She's very sharp, very insightful, and a wonderful aura of leadership surrounds her. Even in a dingy physics lecture hall, she was both comfortable, and respectable. And the content! oh the content! I haven't heard so much actual content out of a Seriously. She was full of information, science, and points of view. She talked about policy solutions in a very concrete, non-hand-wavy way. She summarized, explained, and illustrated with a near-perfect balance of vision and detail. There were absolutely no platitudes. If this is what Elizabeth May can deliver in Hennings 200, I cannot wait to see her in the official debates, not to menetion the House of Commons.
  • Terry speaker series: 100 mile diet authors: Today, Friday the 23, is the kickoff of the Terry Project's high-profile speaker series. For the uninitiated, Terry is an innovative project at UBC whose aim is to address big global issues (environmental and social) from a multidisciplinary perspective. There are several branches of the project, including a brand-new undergraduate course (ASIC 200), a very cool website (, a writing contest, lots of neat collaborations, and, of course, the speaker series. Among previous participants are notables like Stephen Lewis, David Suzuki, and Vandana Shiva. Tomorrow it's going to be James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith. From the terry website:
    These are the authors of "The 100-Mile Diet," a bestseller and buzz worthy book that uses a social experiment (can we subsist on only eating things produced within a 100 mile radius?) to look into the world of food politics, economics, and culture. Extra bonus is that James and Alisa also happen to be Vancouverites, so their story has this wonderful local angle to it.
    The talk is tomorrow at the Chan at 12:00, and there's still some (free) tickets available.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

More ACF Post-Mortem

Maayan keeps nagging me to post. I never do. Quite frankly, there's little UBC-related stuff that can raise my ire and I'm able to comment on in a public forum. This is one such issue.

There are two universal UBC experiences. Imagine UBC, and Arts County Fair. Seriously. Think about it - is there any event, beyond those two, that impacts essentially every student at UBC (well, the Vancouver campus)? Even if you've never gone to ACF, you've still gone to a res breakfast, or hung out with friends, or taken a day off because everybody else was partying. It's campus-wide party, on a campus with a dearth of campus-wide cohesion.

That's why its demise is sad. Very, very sad. Sure it's a drunken booze-up, but this one was special. It's as essential a part of the UBC year as literally anything else.

So, who's to blame? First, not the AUS. They've been soldiering on for years, swimming upstream. It's to their credit that they created a campus-wide institution, and kept it going so long and so successfully. I place blame in three areas:

  • The University Neighbourhood Association. All those condos around T-Bird stadium, along Wesbrook Mall? Those are filled with people who complain loudly every time there's a loud concert at T-Bird, and every time there are drunk students stumbling around. Their constant pressure has resulted in massively inflated police and security costs, and additional planning headaches. Sure, nobody wants loud, drunken people around their property, but you moved to a university campus - what were you expecting?
  • UBC Administration. Several reasons. For putting up roadblocks to the event, rather than helping to remove them. For translating the UNA concerns into pressure brought to bear on the organizers. For shoddy financial aid and admission policies (see below).
  • Students. It's a great event. Go to it.

There has been much said about the demise of the drinking culture. I don't believe that, per se. But I've long had a beer garden theory of social engagement. Beer gardens weren't about the drinking - they were about the community. Just happened to involve sweet, delicious beer. There used to be 6-7 on any given Friday. No longer. Their demise coincides with the tuition hike, and corresponding (relative) decline in need-based financial aid. People need to work more, maybe are more likely to need a part-time job that takes away their Fridays. Maintaining your scholarship becomes more important, so people are less likely to go out and party, more likely to spend Friday working on the essay. And you're more likely to stay at home to save money, meaning you spend your Fridays with high school friends, not on campus.

I also reserve a special bitterness for the housing lottery. Peoples' social networks moved off-campus when housing became lottery-based and people and their friends got kicked out of housing. People were less in tune with the campus social culture, and less likely to come out. By contrast, res was filled with 18 year-olds who couldn't even get in to (the good parts of) ACF.

What's the solution? There are two. First, the University administration can step up. Recognize the value of ACF to the campus and help support it. I'm sure the AUS could provide a fulsome list of ways the University could help. Second, perhaps other undergrad societies could step up to the plate. AUS will have some institutional memory, other campus groups could help absorb the financial risk, and, hell, maybe the event could even be bigger and better.

My big fear is that once this event is gone, it'll be impossible, in today's climate, to bring it (or anything similar) back.


Arts County Fair is no more

The yearly campus festival of music and debauchery synonymous with the last day of classes is no more. Ats County Fair, the last-day-of-class drinking extravaganza that has marked the end of the school year for 16 seasons of students at UBC has come to a sad end. The Arts Undergraduate society cancelled the event for the year at a Tuesday meeting.

Citing the increasing debt that the even has incurred over the past two years, the press release from AUS president Stephanie Ryan expressed regret about the need for the cancellation. Essentially, he financial reality of running an enormous festival with security have gotten out of sync with the revenue from ticket and alcohol sales.

In the press release Stephanie blamed a lack of engagement on campus and change in the sense of community and drinking culture for the declining popularity of the event. Looking over pictures of ACF crouds with AUS old timer (and blog hero) Gerald Deo revealed a pretty stark trend - simply less people.

I've never been to ACF, and don't know too much about it, but this seems unfortunate even to me. The cancellation of this event will only make people more convinced of the dearth of fun on campus, and ignite more feelings of disappointment in campus life, and detachment from the campus community. Facts is facts though - the AUS can't go on losing tens of thousands of dollars every few years. Happily, the AMS will be running an event on the last day of school as something of a substitute for ACF this year on McInnes field. And it's anything like the welcome back BBQ, it will probably rock. So we can still look forward to that.

The interesting thing about this is to speculate about the AUS itself. With the fair out of the way, they will actually be able to reclaim the second term of the year. There's great potential for any number of creative and interesting events now. Who knows, this may even result in a better and stronger AUS that has a more sustained focus on Arts students throughout the year, instead of the typical form of a fairly small clique of ACF-planners.


AMS meeting Nov. 21- Frustrations

An excruciatingly long agenda was set for this last meeting before the winter break. After sitting on their laurels for a whole term, the Arts caucus decided to put everything they ever wanted in the AMS into this one meeting and throw it at us like a brick. Items of interest included re-establishing "unofficial" slates (whatever that means), a default role-call vote for all non-procedural motions, and code changes to try and make people submit documents earlier. The first one failed, the second carried, and the others I forget about. Whatever.

I want to spend this post talking about something else though. Now, journalism in general, and blogging in particular is the ultimate form of political passive-aggression. One can critique, bitch, call people out, and watch. One doesn't have to do anything, or be accountable to anyone - and that's what makes it fun to write (and presumably to read). Well, dear readers, right now I'm going to commit the tacky act of trying to both do, and blog at the same time.

I haven't talked much about this on the blog (if at all) but I've been chairing an AMS committee for a few months now. This committee was originally envisioned to look at the idea of a randomly selected student's assembly to supplement the AMS democracy and make it more representative of all students. Its mandate was broadened to include any form of improving political representation and engagement in the AMS democracy, and the committee was accordingly christened "the ad-hoc representation and engagement reform committee". We've been looking at a variety of ideas to improve political representation over the last six months, ranging from changes to elections systems, to council composition, to the creation of new populist bodies like a student's assembly or wisdom council, to more internal issues like committee reform and executive office hours.

Some of these ideas are pretty substantial, and have the potential for inconclusive philosophical debate. Some would take a fair amount of money and effort to implement. Others, we thought, were fairly straightforward and non-controversial. One such idea was a change in the voting system for AMS executives from First Past the Post (a terrible system) to Condorcet (an empirically better one). The basic idea of Condorcet voting is that it selects a "consensus" candidate to win. That is, the person that most people prefer over most other people will win. If that sounds vague, think of it this way: strategic voting is impossible. Vote splitting is impossible. The candidate that would win against all other candidates in 1-on-1 matchups is declared the winner. Condorcet offers substantial differences from FPTP, and also from the more widely known instant runoff voting, particularly in campaigns with three or more strong candidates.

This voting system is carried out by a ranked ballot (you mark candidates according to preference 1,2,3), and a fairly straightforward counting procedure which bases the winner off of a hierarchy formed by one-on-one matchups. For more information, see the wiki article on the method HERE.

Our committee learned about this system over the course of about four weeks. As soon as members of our committee understood the system, they agreed that it was superior. It was not controversial in our committee discussions, unlike other ideas that had been much more divisive. A few of us tried our hand at writing up the necessary code, since the researcher/archivist who normally would help with this task wasn't up to it. So here we were, with code all drafted up (albeit a bit hurriedly, but with at least 5 revisions), unanimous approval within our committee, and the honest opinion that this is a really good, if small, change to the AMS democracy. We invited an expert on voting systems to give a presentation to council about the benefits of the Condorcet method. A member of the committee took council through a detailed simulation of how the counting procedure works, covering even unlikely scenarios of concern. We did a little demostration of the method and carried out the procedure on the spot. Then there was debate.

In this debate, several things began to dawn on me.

The quality of this debate was one of the poorest I've seen at AMS (though there's probably been worse - I've only been around for less than a year). AMS council is often capable of really insightful, careful, and interesting debate. And when that's the case, good decisions tend to follow. Here, there was clouded, misguided, and wrongheaded debate - and quite obviously, the results were less than ideal. What really disturbs me is the apparent incapability of most councilors to pay CLOSE attention, understand, and reach a decision on a slightly involved piece of code in the council chambers. It is well acknowledged that the council chambers is more or less the worst place to grasp code, improve wording, and micromanage technicalities. What disturbs me even more though is that given this (well-known) fact, council still doesn't trust its committees - the working groups of the society - enough to take their advice! So given this mistrust, council needs to truly grasp ideas before they vote on them. Unfortunately, they get paralyzed and confused whenever they're asked to understand and really concentrate on something a bit involved (like say, a voting system). Then they need only cry ignorance and confusion as a basis for turning that thing away, and before we know it, all technical and structural changes are nearly impossible.

I don't take a pessimistic view on this: I think that nine out of ten moderately intelligent people have the intellectual wherewithal to listen, understand, and respond to a clear presentation. After all, we're in university. But people emailing, facebooking, and dreaming when slightly involved material is being presented really doesn't help. Closed minds don't help either - and I saw some of that tonight.

In our committee we spent considerable time trying to decide what level of detail would be the most convincing to AMS council in regards to this particular motion. Our initial tendency was to keep it general and hope that council would believe and trust our unanimous judgement as a committee of council. Then we got cold feet and decided it would be a good idea to include the detailed simulations so that each councilor could make a informed, down-to-the-mechanism, decision for him/herself. Both these objectives failed abjectly. Not only did many councilors and an executive seem to distrust our motives (by making ludicrous conjectures about Condorcet favoring certain political stripes), but the greater proportion of councilors had absolutely no grasp of the system we were proposing and its very real benefits - as was made depressingly clear by strings of irrelevant comments, inapplicable criticisms, and illogical questions.

There were a few fair criticisms. Precious few. One was the "non-standard" code language we had chosen, which described a protocol in more mathematical language than usual. A few others regarding the breaking of ties and vote thresholds for candidate re-reimbursement were fair, and certainly worth a few more clauses. The significant one was how such a system would be implemented given the dire reality of an inflexible, expensive, and apparently non-functional computer system the AMS has purchased. Other comments ranged from the old standby of "it would cost to many resources," at the most benign, to "but it won't increase voter turnout!!!111" at the most irrelelvant, to "why would we elect the second best person form some random thing with vote-splitting," and "what is the success rate of this system?" at the most bewildering. (paraphrases).

So, zooming back out again, here's a generalized question. Given this example, (of a fairly small change that should be a no-brainer, but due to it's slightly involved technical nature, turns out to be a quagmire of misunderstanding), how do we as students expect the AMS to function at a level that reflects a degree of intellectualism? Especially when it come to structure and administration changes of a slightly involved nature? AMS has passed, and I hope it will continue to pass initiatives far more over-arching, radical, and serious than this trivial example. The thing is that some cool and necessary good ideas can be explained by expressive words and hand-waving, and some cool and necessary good ideas cannot. They simply require detailed, painstaking, sequential procedures. Unfortunately, most structural reforms fall into the latter category- and this is the category that our current structure handles so very poorly. I'm sure the irony of this catch 22 isn't lost on you.

That's my frustration for today. I'll probably regret it in the morning.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Jam spaces on campus - grassroots!

Two new posts today. Don't forget to scroll down.

So today I was walking along on the upper floor of the SUB, about to head downstairs to the pottery studio, when I heard this alluring jazzy music coming from the ballroom. I thought it might be a recording. So I headed over, thinking that I might catch the dance club practicing or something equally exciting. The ballroom was deserted - but the music kept coming. It was emanating from my right. I turned around to peek in the window of the servery door. There I saw a girl in a knitted toque rocking out on a piano. She was producing the most wonderful music, totally in her own world - jammed up against the wall among the sinks, fridges, and portable bars, on the clammy tile floor.

I stood there and listened to her for a while - she didn't notice - and then I went on my way. This reminded me of a cool project that GSS councilor Roderigo Nunes has started. It's about establishing music-friendly jam spaces on campus, in environments that aren't formal, or linked to alcohol. They're trying to get pianos tuned, refurbished, and placed in public areas. It's based on the idea that music is good. I'm pretty sure we can agree on that. Since Roderigo is in social sciences, there's lots more big words in the official description, including a reference to Henri Lefebvre.
Check out the Jam Spaces project, being organized on facebook, (the natural home for all activism, apparently) HERE.

There used to be a piano next to the SUB art gallery that students used regularly. Not sure where it went, but it not there now. It's pretty bizarre that the only usable piano in the SUB would hidden away in an upstairs kitchen, of all places. It was wonderful to hear that music today though; it would be wonderful to come across spontaneous music around campus more often. It's also pretty neat to see a grassroots type of group come together to forward a great topical issue like music spaces - one that wouldn't really ever come up from traditional student government circles.


AMS meeting Nov. 7th - Nancy and Arts

Lowdown on yesterday's meeting: it was exhausting, and sort of charged up for some weird reason. I think order was poorer than usual somehow. Maybe it's the pressure of the end of the year building up.

Anyway. The meeting began with Nancy Knight, the Administration's AVP campus & Community Planning. Nancy always puts on a good show, and her presentations to AMS council always bring about some interesting discussion. She was presenting about the re-consultation results and new recommendations she's put together for U-Blvd. Or rather, the subset of the University Boulevard Neighborhood known as "University Square". As outlined a couple posts ago, the consultation and revised plans have been going on in collaboration with students over the past several months. Nancy summarized the results from both the July and September consultations, and then went on to describe a preliminary revised plan for the square area. You can see the "before and after" diagrams for the building plan below. Outlined in yellow is the university-boulevard neighborhood, as specified in the Official Community Plan. Outlined in red is the University square subset of that plan.

Above, is the diagram for the plan before last May's Board meeting. note the buildings on both sides of the proposed plaza, and the lack of a knoll, and the boxed-in entrance to the SUB.
Here is what Nancy showed us yesterday. The blue building footprints on the west side (ie. over top of Hennings, Hebb and Ladha) aren't new buildings - they're just there to indicate that the border of the square precinct is being pushed back and integrated with the academic buildings. Note the re-appearance of the knoll. The U-shaped building is the only one that would have residential of the upper levels. It's left tip is meant to be some sort of alumni/welcome centre/ community hall/SUB expansion concept. The ladder-like thing is a prospective covered walkway from the opening of the underground loop to the SUB. The Square in the trees is supposed to be some sort of student lounge or social space.

for more riveting details, check behind the jump

Nancy talked about four elements in the revised open space plan:
  • Knoll (re-created green space)
  • Plazas (with green elements)
  • Walkways (with green elements)
  • Patios and seating areas

Also five elements in the revised building program (130000-160000 sq ft, depending on SUB renew plans)

  • Offices/Classrooms/meeting rooms
  • Student lounge/social spaces
  • Food outlets/ student businesses
  • Student housing
  • Community hall (ie. alum, welcome centre, etc)

She emphasized the importance of having a "mixed use" space in the square: that is, one with both daytime uses (shops, offices) and 24-hour ones (residential, study spaces). Clearly, in some ways this vision of a complete cocktail of uses doesn't always jive with what people want. For example, in the cases of offices, most commercial, and residential, the results from the surveys were very negative. I asked Nancy yesterday what she does as a planner in instances like these when feedback tells you something that you disagree with. She replied that you try to deal wit the underlying qualitative worries. For instance, with the housing, a lot of the qualitative concern surrounded the ideas of unnaffordability, market housing, non-student residents, and so on. So even though residential is still included in the new plan, it's half as much, she's guaranteed that it will be only for students, and it will be in the price range of the residences, run by a non-profit. I found this fairly convincing. I still haven't heard a great case for office and classroom space to be included though.

That said, this thing is a vast improvement to me. The aren't buildings boxing the square, and the knoll is the central green feature. It feels more open, and the shift in emphasis from commercial uses to community and student-focused uses are quite good. Also, this isn't final. A lot depends on what the AMS depends to do regarding SUB renewal. Expanding SUB into the square could mean AMS administered social space, and more AMS businesses in the square area. I think that's pretty cool.

In other council business, the Arts caucus had a bit of a show of strength yesterday. They came decked out in faculty colours, wielding purple pom-poms, sporting a minty-fresh representative (AJ Johal), and ready with THREE motions (in varying degrees of silliness and obsolescence) from the floor (much to Jeff's frustration {and much to my rage, when a notably trivial issue was referred to code and policies}). A feisty AUS Pres Stephanie Ryan put it this way: "we've decided to be more effective. We do this by wearing purple, and reading documents before council". And indeed, read documents they had. SAC minutes, which are usually ignored, and rubber-stamped, were dissected by Arts councilor Sam Heppell before they were finally approved. Recent questions about SAC (specifically the rules governing how they constitute and de-constitute clubs) have potentiated their forthcoming presentation to council.

Other stuff on the agenda was approval of policies coming out of Blake Frederick's housing document. These were deferred to the next meeting, since they had only been sent out half an hour before council. The document itself had been sent out way before, and the policies didn't differ in content from the document, but, the arts caucus, in a self-righteous tizzy, (and ironically having just proffered three motions from the floor) said it was not enough time. As a result, the document can't be used to lobby administrators until the new year. I guess there always has to be a balance between good "process," and common sense. Having read the document, and discussed it with Blake, I'm think it was as ready as it's going to be.

Time is a pretty sensitive issue all around. Not enough time, people wasting each other's time, and so on. I happened to be sitting next to one of the new Education reps (I think her name was Dana). It was her first council meeting. When asked how she liked it, she said something like "Very interesting...but I think some people should be more careful with how they use other's time". Amen to that.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Things to notice when the lights go out

So two times today, power failed at UBC. The first time was around 1 in the afternoon. Sebastian, from my plant genetics class recounted to me that someone else in his lab had lost 100 PCR reactions that had been in the thermocycler due the 20-minute outage. I sympathized absently, and wondered how much money of wasted taq that was. When the second outage hit, at 7:25, I was in the lab myself, waiting for some media to cool. Being in the basement, it went pitch black. According to the EOS facilities manager, a transformer failed in the afternoon, and the power was rerouted to another one. But according to his email this afternoon, there was no guarantee that it wouldn't happen again.

I noticed a few things:

  • UBC has no auxiliary power to the labs in the biology building. Only a few hallways had some lights.
  • The incubators in which our experiments reside have no automatic backup. Neither do our freezers, including the -70. There are numerous fish labs in the bio building. Prolonged lack of refrigeration could get ugly.
  • The SUB was completely dark
  • Many windows in Gage seemed to have mysterious sources of light. By contrast, the windows in the new condos behind Gage were brightly lit as normal.
  • the bus loop has no emergency lights
  • People love it when stuff goes wrong. It seems like we just wait for problems, however mundane (or maybe, especially mundane), as long as they're a little bit universal. Everyone on the incredibly packed bus home was in the most elated mood: seats were shuffled to the most deserving-looking people promptly; if you swayed, you would be grabbed and stabilized from a couple directions; pleasantries and smiles were exchanged.
  • Simple phones, with no additional functions, are good. You can still dial by them feeling around in total darkeness.

Where does the power on campus come from? Is plant ops in charge of it? How come the new condos have better backup power than research labs? How many thousands of dollars will it cost when the power surge destroys all manner of expensive electronics in labs all over campus (not to mention the wasted taq!)? Any enlightenment would be most welcome.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Unpublished U-square consultation results!

Well, results from the September U-Square consultation have been compiled, but not yet published. I thought they were pretty interesting, so here they are, in handy graphical format. Click the graph images to enlarge them. Thanks to Margaret Orlowsky for sending me the results.

If you filled out the forms, you'll recall that the 1-5 ranking represents a range from 1 ("would not meet vision") to 5 ("would meet vision").

This graph (above) has the results from the first part of the survey form, which asked about individual prospective elements for the U-Square space. I didn't include all of them, but the main ones are there. As you can see, housing and store retail are the most unpopular, with most people ranking then at 1. Food retail fares better with a more even distribution. Surprisingly, neither the Boardroom (intended for conferences, BoG and Senate meetings) or Alumni Centre were especially popular - I like both these elements quite well. The grassy knoll and open space elements are the most popular. "Grassy Knoll substitute" (some sort of structured green space) was fairly was popular. The only buildings with an upwards trend in the whole questionnaire are a SUB expansion and student social space, and more moderately, the vague "community hall" (which nobody seems to be able to define). All the others, including the university's development office, and continuing studies do poorly.

This graph shows the results for the four combinations of elements that were suggested on the feedback forms. Combo 1 (with housing and retail as well as service stores) is essentially what the plan for U-square was before May, when the student petition and AMS policy opposing the plan convinced the BoG to redesign. So it's not surprising that it's the least well-received. Combo 4 was put on the form due to the efforts of the student representatives on the U-square planning committee, and contains less built space than the others.

To me, these results show that a combination with minimal building, mostly open space, a knoll, and some public social space would be the most welcome option. I think an alumni/welcome centre and boardroom in the centre of campus, would be great too, but most of the respondents seem to disagree. Looking at the results from the individual elements, it looks like none of the combos integrate the most popular items. The important thing to remember is that we can't really have it all. If we want a SUB expansion, that's less open space and less green space. It's important to keep in mind that only about 300 people answered the forms - not a great sample. It's possible that the results are skewed towards the organized "save the knoll" faction.

About the committee process: This feedback form and the responsiblity for dealing with the results resides with the U-Boulevard planning committee, which includes 3 student reps: Brendon Goodmurphy from the AMS, Matt Filipiak from the GSS, and Margaret Orlowsky, at-large. This committee was touted by the President as the harbinger of a new era of working together with students on development issues. It seems that according to Matt and Margaret, the process hasn't been exactly what they expected - the students on the committee are giving input and coming up with ideas, but the actual decisions are made by Nancy Knight, and Joe Stott, the two university representatives. Like all committee structures, the people who do the actual work (ie. the writing) have the real power: in this case, these are people that work in Nancy and Joe's offices. Now we're hearing that Nancy and Joe are unhappy with the results I've just outlined. Since they're the ones that give instructions to the architects, and there's no binding vote on the options, we may have reason to worry, despite the presence of student representation. To quote Margaret "they keep asking what meaningful consultation is - it's asking what people they want you to do, and then doing it". It seems like the university still has problems with this concept - especially when the people doing the consultation are the same people that were responsible for (and are still personally attached to) the old and failed plans.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

AMS meeting October 24th, or boo to code & policies.

Yesterday there was an AMS council meeting. I missed it, but since everyone loves hearing about the machinations of democracy, or better yet, themselves, here's a summary written up by Blake Frederick, the AVP Academic and University Affairs (otherwise known as Brendon's minion), on his brand-new blog: I also have word that a certain illustrious blog was featured to encourage more people to run for office! woot!

Reading Blake's summary over, it strikes me that the code and policies committee is a bit ridiculous. Yesterday they brought forward a policy restricting sound recording and video recording at AMS council and committee meetings. This is a topic that when you really think about it, might actually be important a couple times a year. Whatever. But code & policies has pro-actively taken it on! It almost instantaneously devoted attention to this (in my opinion silly) topic, to introduce (in my opinion silly) code amendments, when at the same time, code & policies has been sitting on some big items that have literally been waiting for attention for years. Big items like committee reform, and a students' assembly. These are initiatives that actually had council support, and partial approval, but were sent to the committee for some more work and expertise. Hah - the committee is basically a junkyard of abandoned policy. Apparently, committee chair Scott Bernstein's personal aversion to the gaze of video lenses (the horror!) is more important than council's priorities.

This actually brings up some bigger topics:

  • Council tends to bundle things off to code & policies when anything of a slightly technical nature comes up, or when they can't seem to agree. This means that any complex or controversial policies end up being delayed indefinitely, and council can conveniently forget about them. This is also symptomatic of the fact that other working groups in the society don't seem to draft policies at all. There isn't a great venue for policy consultation other than the committee, and the whole council itself. Both have proved agonizingly inefficient in different ways.
  • In the terms of reference for the committee (code section V article 6), it is clear that the body is to be used by council as an expert group. If the code & policies committee doesn't follow council's priorities, in favour of (in this year's case) bylaw changes and the chair's personal initiatives, there's a problem.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

VFM intro, or, how complicated can counting be?

Voter Funded Media, the contest that saw the birth of this and other (now defunct) charming student publications, is soon to be re-launched for this year. Yay! The media-reform project is meant to improve media culture, and by extension democracy in general. This is theoretically accomplished by making media into a public good: you reward media by votes, from a public fund, that voters pay into. In our case, that means that when you vote in AMS elections, you'll also have a ballot for your favorite elections-media group, and prizes will be allocated accordingly. Also, our "voter funding" is actually being proffered (to the tune of $8000) by VFM-originator Mark Latham, not a public fee.

Last year the contest had many successes and some failures. This year there are some changes afoot. Here's an intro to a few features of the contest:

  • Contestants - VFM is open to both established media, and new media. So, for example, last year the established Arts undergrad paper, The Underground, entered the contest and won. Tim and Gina started this blog from scratch, and also did a great job. As the contest matures, and more "new" media sources stick around and get established, the name-recognition advantage for established groups will decrease. The Ubyssey, our official student newspaper, didn't enter last year, to leave the field more open for new groups. They even paid the entrance fee for a bunch of new media groups.
  • Start time - This year, the contest will be launching several months before the AMS election campaign begins. The ultimate intent of VFM is to establish permanent, healthy media choices, not just during elections time. This will give media that start early a chance to establish credibility and a reader base. Last year, the contest was pretty rushed, due to last-minute planning and approval at the AMS.
  • Formats - Contestants can use a wide range of media formats: internet-based, paper-based, magazine-based, whatever. The mix is pretty fun.
  • Media strategies - Last year, a fair number of styles surfaced through the contest. There were some joke entries, ranging from great (Radical Beer tribune) to lame (Cameron Funnell). There were more serious, issue-focused entries like The Knoll and this blog. There were some informative, but unenlightening elections newspapers like Election Erection and The Underground. And there was of course, the Duncan-Kearny group that did no media coverage whatsoever, but got people to vote for them based purely on personal popularity.
  • Allocating prizes - At the simplest level, prizes are allocated on the basis of voter's preference. Theoretically, they reward the media that best served them. It gets more complicated though: this year's VFM committee has decided upon a rather complex, unintuitive voting system for the contest, which they claim will minimize the impact of "strategic" votes and narrow-appeal media groups. The system involves each voter weighing the contestants by giving them more or less theoretical money. Then some percentile (not the mean) of the allocations determines how the prize pot is "sliced". Don't worry, a primer on this later.

Last year, VFM sparked some really decent debate. The candidates had to learn alot, and know the issues. It established a lively discourse during election time that was great to be part of. The new media that popped up was exciting and fresh. However, VFM didn't increase overall voter turnout, which is still mired at about 10%. Arguably, the best media contestants did not win. And FVM took up alot of candidates' time, preventing them from pursuing more traditional campaigning methods and getting out the vote. The good thing about VFM though, is that it improves with maturity: with more years, the contest will have more momentum to begin with, and the quality of contestants will be progressively pushed up leaving little room of get-rich-quick punks and deadbeat hacks.

We'll see how things go this year. UBC Insiders' awesome VFM roster is being established as we speak, so stay tuned. Here's to media! *clink*

FYI: The VFM contest is hiring an administrator. This person would be reporting to the AMS Elections Administrator, Brian Peiovesan, and they're offering 750 bucks. The job posting is found HERE, for those interested.

A chat I had with Mark Latham, and revelations thereof, can be found HERE


Trek Park update, and related topics.

Trek Park, the space "liberated" from the old bus loop as a protest for the U-boulevard re-development project, is looking a little worse for wear. The park, consisting of some grassy areas, a large checkerboard, and some benches and furniture, was set up to create a student-friendly, free public space, and raise awareness and opposition to the underground bus-loop that the UBC Board of Governors is planning to give final approval to this year.

The 'park' was set up by a group of students loosely affiliated with The Knoll newspaper and AMS resource groups on the first day of school this September. It has since become somewhat of a fixture in the campus centre: but lately, a bit of a decrepit one. Moldy furniture sponges up the rain, bits of wood and metal collect in rickety piles, and the once-emerald grass is drowning in a little lagoon. "Trek park is in shambles," admits park originator Nathan Crompton, "but we still love it!" he adds. "People keep trashing the park...more than once a week" he explains. It seems like some students are sick of the protest park, and willing to show it. When Trek Park volunteers tried to throw out some of the weather-damaged furniture, taking it to the dumpster on the north side of the SUB, it was placed back by the next day. The dome, some artwork, and other areas of the park have been vandalized too. Park signs have been removed and one showed up near the fraternity houses. Someone put a foot through the "free speech" park notice board a few weeks ago.

"I think they've made their point" said one student from my genetics class, as we were walking by. "A few weeks was fine, but I think everyone has seen it by now," said another, "and who had the idea to put grass on an impermeable surface?" Some students view the park as vaguely "too hippy," or for the slightly more political, a rag-tag protest effort that won't make a difference. Others simply think it's a scar on the landscape.

Stephanie Ratjen, another trek park volunteer, said that while students may have seen the message already, the university administration still hasn't taken the action they're demanding. The things that the park is there to protest are still unresolved, she said, adding that the consultation now going on about the above-ground portion of the U-boulevard has been "a failure," despite student representation on the consultation planning committee. The process she refers to is the result of a turnabout in the U-boulevard planning process that occurred in May. At that time, a student petition opposing the plans for the area, and pressure from the AMS and GSS, persuaded the BoG to scrap the above-ground plans, and create a new consultation process. This process is being conducted now (remember the free burgers and booths in the SUB this month?) to find out what land-use options were best for the area. It's being led by a committee that includes student representatives from the AMS and GSS. The BoG remains steadfastly committed (or so they say) to the underground bus loop, though it has yet to gain final approval. "They just want it to go away, " says student BoG rep Darren Peets, "they'll approve it to get rid of it."

Whether or not it's worth fighting the bus loop, and whether or not this renewed consultation is failing or not or not, is up for debate. Perhaps the park protest is a case of the vocal few making a fuss while the rest of us just want get on with life. Maybe some of their rhetoric makes park volunteers look like clowns, not serious players. Maybe they are alienating people that should be worked with. But the thing I like about this protest is it's pro-activeness, it's creativity, and the ideas coming out of it. No it's not a picture of urban design, but at least the park is trying to lead by example. At lest the people doing it are bringing up the real problem issues behind campus development and planning: the democratic deficit in UBC's governing structure, the skewed balance of power in committee processes, and an administrative culture that is only lately waking up to the real stake the student community wants in its physical surroundings.

To me, the protest also brings up a conversation that's really important: strategies for activism. Where's the effective balance between defying the status quo and working within its structure to have an inside voice?

This Thursday from noon to 8, Trek Park is hosting Knoll Aid, a jam session and general jamboree. Lots of music is lined up, should be fun.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

AMS elections buzz

As a disclaimer: this is a list of mere speculations, which is by no means complete, accurate, or in any way official. Some of the people on it are still undecided. If only more people would dish gossip *on* the record.

It's that time of year again!! Midterms are here and the rumors are flying.

Here's the speculation on the grapevine, (only as far as I know, I'm sure there's plenty more):

President: Matthew Naylor (current VP External), Michael Duncan (current SUS president). Also, joke candidates from some Arts undergrad clubs. Woo!
VP Academic: Possibly (undecided) Blake Frederick (current AVP academic)
VP Admin: re-run Sarah Naiman (current VP admin)
VP Finance: Chris Tarantino (SUS dude), Omid Javadi (current EUS VP and and engineering councilor)
VP External: no word yet!
BoG Reps: Conor Topely (current CUS president and CUS councilor), Tahara Bhate (current Science Councilor)

Alex Lougheed (current SUS secretary and science councilor) will almost certainly be running for something, not sure what. I've heard some talk of several people from the Resource Groups side running, but I'll update on that when I get more sources. An arts club is purportedly putting together a joke slate of epic proportions. Costume speculation anyone?

I'm sorry to report that Stephanie Ryan and Sam Heppell of Arts are both apparently graduating. I was hoping they would run. They're the type of councilors that bring good critical analysis to the council table, and I know they'd do the same in a campaign. Perhaps they will still reconsider?


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Want to be consulted? It's your fuckin' week.

There's a veritable cornucopia of consultations going on right now. So get your voices and obnoxious views into those final reports, dudes. For serious.

Sub Renew - AMS is starting the consultation process for the prospective expansion and renovation of the SUB. Everything from buying out Pacific Spirit Place (the university-owned and operated cafeteria) to constructing a brand new building in the University Square precinct, to a mere sprucing up of our current digs is on the table. AMS VP Admin Sarah Naiman is heading up the process. The SUB renew committee has been meeting since last spring. They've hired a "space planning" firm for some big bucks to plan the space programming. That means they'll find out what we want and lay out floor plans. Architecture will come later. (If this confuses you, join the club).

Anyhow. Right now there's a focus group consultation phase. Next there will be a round table consultation phase. After that you'll get to vote on which options you like most. (note: will there be a "none of the above" option available?). After that you'll vote in a referendum to approve a fee to fund the preferred SUB renew plan.

Here's the next focus group sessions, organized by constituency:

    • General - Oct. 18 - SUB Council Chambers (room 206)- 5-6
    • REC and Varsity - Oct.19 - SUB Council Chambers (room 206) - 5-6
    • Resource Groups - Oct. 18 - Resource Group Area of the SUB - 12:30-1:30
    • Greeks - Oct. 25 - SUB Council Chambers (room 206) - 5-6
    • Residences TBA
    • Audiology and Speech Sciences, Dentistry, Nursing, Medicine, Occupational
      and Environmental Hygiene, Pharmacy, Rehab Sciences - Oct. 15th - SUB Room 42U (lower level) - 12-1
    • SCARP and Architecture - Oct. 15th - Lasserre rm. 202 - 5:30 - 6:30
    • Commerce - Oct. 16th - SUB 42U (lower level) - 11-12
    • Science - Oct 16th - Ladha Science Student Center, top floor - 12:30-1:30
    • Journalism, Law, LAIS - Oct. 16 - Council Chambers 1-2
    • Education, Forestry, LAFS, Human kinetics, Social Work - Oct. 22nd - SUB
      Council Chambers (room 206) - 3-4
    • Arts and Music - Oct. 23 - SUB 205 (2nd floor) - 12-1
    • Applied Sciences - Oct 24th - SUB Council Chambers (room 206)- 3-4
    • Graduate Students - Oct. 23rd – Penthouse, Graduate Students Center - 5-6

Transit consultation - The AMS is running another consultation about transit issues. That's because, soon the U-pass is up for renewal, and they want to come up with the best deal and know what to lobby for with Translink. Check out the Facebook group "Transit: what's your BEEF" to post feedback.

AMS VP-X Matt Naylor and the External commission are hosting a panel discussion this Friday at the Norm, which should great, with cool panelists. It's from 12:00-1:30 in the Norm theatre in the SUB. Check it out.


NDP Transit Critic Maureen Karagianis
NDP MLA Gregor Robertson (my riding's MLA, and personal crush)
AMS President Jeff Friedrich
UBC TREK Administrator Carole Jolly
NPA Councillor Peter Ladner
U-Boulevard/University Square consultation - The University's Campus and Community Planning office has been conducting some consultations regarding the future of the long-beleaguered U-boulevard neighborhood plan, recently re-christened "university square". You may have noticed a big booth next to the SUB conversation pit last week for four days. Hopefully, you filled out a form and took a look at the options on the table. In case you've been under a rock, the previous above-ground plans were turfed due to student dissatisfaction at last May's BoG meeting, and new land-use options are on the table. The underground tunnel and bus loop are in all likelihood going forward, though the latter still requires the BoG's final approval. According to Student BoG rep Darren Peets, apparently the results of the current consultation for above-ground land-use are not exactly to the liking of some of the university brass. This probably means the responses have preferred less buildings, less density, and more green. Keep your eye out for the final report on that - it should be ready by November's BoG meeting.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

UBC Faculty Association has a bad week: part 2

Israel Boycott debate re-opened

Also in the September's Faculty Focus newsletter (click!), is an article calling on faculty and UBC to open up a debate on an academic boycott of Israeli academia. The article is authored by some familiar faculty members, including the head of the undergraduate biology program, Martin Adamson, and Arts AMS councilor Nathan Crompton. Citing the hardships of Palestinians in having access to higher education, they say that the idea of a boycott cannot be condemned offhand, and must be discussed.

The idea of academic boycotts is not new: they were undertaken against South Africa and Russia by some groups of academics in the 90s. In recent years, academics in Europe and the UK have often attempted to intellectually boycott Israel through their universities and professional unions. These attempts never seem to last very long, since they tend to be ignored, revoked, and renewed with boring regularity. Last May for instance, the UK's largest lecturers' union UCU passed a motion to encourage the discussion of an academic boycott on Israel, urging members to "consider the moral implications of conducting ties with Israeli academic institutions," and calling on the EU to freeze funding of Israeli research. You can find out what I thought of that HERE, and I would have similar feelings about UBC participating in such a boycott. Specific to this article, I thought it was a bit silly that the authors frame the article as a call for "discussion" of a boycott against Israeli academia, instead of actually endorsing such a boycott, since clearly that is their intent.

The reason this particular article in Faculty Focus is interesting is that UBC's president, Stephen Toope has expressed himself in the most strident terms against any such academic boycotts of Israel. In response to the (UCU) motion last May, Toope joined the wave of university presidents across Canada in condemning their action, saying in a statement that "The threatened boycott of Israeli universities by Britain's University and College Union is a dangerous and unsupportable attack on the core values of academic life." I heard president Toope and SFU president Michael Stevenson express themselves similarly in person, when they both spoke as honorary co-chairs of the semi-annual "Stretch Your Mind" conference of Israeli academics at the JCC.

UBC Hillel's director, Eyal Lichtman, has already responded to the article in Faculty Focus, in an email, stating that

any such boycott would be an affront to academic freedom, of course, but when it targets the society with the highest per capita rate of academic publications in the world, the consequences to the advancement of science and other research is incalculable ... The singling out of Israel, where academic and press freedoms are the freest in the Middle East, is a disturbing sign and therefore an indicator that Israel, amongst nations of the world, is being singled out for attention based on premises that must be considered anti-Semitic.
The anti-semetism card is pretty heavy-handed here. The article we're talking about wasn't written in a confrontational or hateful manner by any stretch. But even more annoyingly, Lichtman's response wasn't even shared with Hillel students, but rather sent to outside strategic people (not sure exactly who) - one of whom was so good as to forward it to a buddy of mine. When I asked Hillel staff for further information on this reaction, and why it hadn't been shared with students, I was greeted with stony silence and the statement that "it's out of our hands". I wonder whose hands it is in? or what there is to be in anyone's hands? When I asked further, another staff member said it wasn't a secret, but just not a "public strategy". This is, after all, meant to be open discourse, and this bugs me. This type of overreaction, coupled with annoying non-public strategies does damage to those (and I count myself among them) who want to discredit attempts at intellectual boycotts.

Some background:


UBC Faculty Association has a bad week: part 1

Two items of interest from the UBC Faculty Association this month. See above post. Sources from the Faculty Focus (click!) newsletter.

Teaching evaluation ire

The Association has called upon the university to put an immediate moratorium on the new teacher evaluation system to be implemented this term. The new system would see "modular" forms filled out by students. Some modules would be available only at the professor, department, or faculty level, while one module (the "university module")would be published and available to students university-wide. Instructors would give their consent before the university module for their courses would be posted.

The six University Module questions are HERE. Have a gander and see what you think.

This evaluation system has gone through a lengthy committee process at the university's Senate (a body that makes all academic decisions), and was finally passed last spring. It's generally thought that a greater amount of public accountability for teaching will increase the culture of excellent teaching at UBC. The AMS has been supportive of this evaluation system. Not so the faculty association. In their September issue of the Faculty Focus newsletter, Faculty Association president Brenda Peterson wrote an open letter to UBC president Stephen Toope, calling upon him not to implement the new system. The process and speed of implementation, the online posting mechanism, the questions themselves (which were deemed too focused on the student's "learning comfort"), and the availability of the data were criticized. Essentially, the claims are that any publicly available evaluations would infringe upon their members' privacy, become a popularity contest, and encourage high marks and grade inflation.

Not all teachers think that though. At my lab's Thanksgiving dinner, my supervisor Dr. Curtis Suttle, associate dean of science, said to me that he had no problems with the new system. "I think it's fine. There's no reason why the information shouldn't be out there" he said (in between bastings of the magnificent turkey). "For science, it's not that different from what we already do. It might be a bigger change for others."

Personally, I think that the faculty association underestimates students. We aren't vindictive. We aren't brats. The teacher-student relationship is a relationship like any other: it demands respect and fairness from both sides. Students are perfectly willing to give good teaching scores to the instructors of challenging courses if those instructors were clear, organized, engaging, and willing to help - yes, even if they only scraped a C.

Lots more background on this:


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Deans whip off the gloves in AMS-sponsored Dean's debate

Yesterday the Deans of Sauder, Arts, and Pharmacy faced off in an informal debate during the noon hour at the Norm theatre. All three deans launched with gusto into the topic of debate: "whose degree is better?". Dean of Arts Nancy Gallini seamed to triumph decisively in the tongue-in-cheek verbal sparring, while Dean of Sauder, Dan Muzyka struggled to keep the competition close. Dean of Pharmacy Robert Sindelar took the highroad strategy, sweetly abstaining from too much saucy stereotype-slinging and focusing on his faculty's strengths.

The AMS-sponsored event was moderated by David Farrar, UBC's still-new-smelling VP academic and provost. This position on the UBC executive is responsible for academic matters including teaching, and the 11 faculty deans report to this position. Farrar comes from U of T, where he was the VP students and vice-provost. He's generally thought to be student-minded and committed to teaching, though with only a month in, time will tell. Anyway, Farrar expressed his thanks to the AMS and complimented our beautiful SUB and specifically, the Norm theatre, (since it was his first time in it).

The discussion got serious in the question period, however. The deans of Sauder and Pharmacy fielded some questions about ethics in their respective professional fields. AMS president Jeff Friedrich asked all the deans about UBC's recent poor ranking in surveys comparing UBC's student experience to those of university "peers" (google "NSSE UBC"). While the Deans seemed sweetly personable, idealistic, and earnest up until this point, they fell down hard on this question. Dean Gallini and Dean Dan instantaneously cried poor. They have experienced cuts every year since they arrived at UBC. They are still living the legacy of the starved 90's (ie. the tuition freeze 90's). UBC is a commuter campus, and students don't have time to be engaged meaningfully in their academics. They challenge us, the AMS, to reach out. All these platitudes are familiar, and even legitimate. Yes, we cannot expect gold-standard student services and academic attention if there's no money to enrich and diversify programs. Yes, many student commute to UBC and work long hours. But in face of recent events, I found it insane to listen to Dean Dan cry poor for core academic funding, and have Nancy Gallini wholeheartedly agree with him. To catch everyone up, this is the same Dean Dan that just asked the UBC Board of Governors for 30 million of those core General Purpose Operating Fund (GPOF) dollars so that he can have a fancy new building instead of Angus.

He actually had the audacity to flippantly comment that our taps aren't platinum-plated, but that we muddle through. Well Mr. Muzyka, it seems like you would borrow against UBC's GPOF to the hilt, or squeeze for student fees in order to platinum-plate your very toilet paper if you could get away with it. The moral of this story is that priorities seem to be all wrong: the deans justifiably lament their program cuts and slim resources, but have no compunctions asking taxpayers (or students for that matter, whatever!) for slick and unnecessary buildings.

This debate was informative: not only do Dean Dan's priorities suck, so does his comedic timing.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

New AMS website - nice, but still out of date

You may have noticed that the AMS website has been overhauled. To match with the new setting-sun logo, is now a blue-and-white marvel of slick website design, courtesy of Calgary company White Matter. Good navigation, executive blogs, event notices, and recent news are featured, and nifty pictures and graphics artfully punctuate the pages.

Too bad the website is still out-of-date, and undetailed . The last minutes of student council that are posted are dated June 27th, more than three months ago. While browsing the executive section, I noticed that the quarterly reports of Spencer Keys and Amina Rai were handily available for download. Too bad those are the AMS presidents from two and three years ago, respectively.

Browsing the various student government services has variable results: the Ombuds office, SAC, and Financial commission sections seem to be complete and up-to-date, while the policy manual, AMS Foundation, Student Council, sections need more expansion: descriptions are curt, contact information not handy, and details sparse. The constituency section has some contact info, but doesn't even have links to each constituency's own website.

Looking over on the Student Services side, things are spotty too. AMS tutoring seems not to have witched over to the new template, but AMS minischool looks fine. The new AMS service, "AMS connect" which was to take over all volunteer postings after UBC took over Joblink last year, is still confusing. It seems to function, but is unintuitive and weirdly arranged.

The point of all this is not to slag the AMS's new communication and marketing efforts. The point is that, even with a whole company in the AMS's employ, and a fancy layout, the AMS website is still going to be below par if there isn't somebody (a real human!) who continuously updates and fixes it.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Gender gaps (in both directions) still exist

Yesterday I was in for a bit of a shock. While poking around the UBC Planning and Institutional Research (PAIR) website (ie. ubc statistics), I noticed a startling statistic. In the faculty of science there are 11 full women professors, compared 146 full male professors. That's right. 1/15th of the full professors in the faculty of science are women - that's less than 8 percent. When you look at assistant and associate professors, there are about one third as many women as men. Instructors and Lecturers approach an even ratio - still with more men.

The statistics in other faculties, though not as extreme, are similar: full professorships belong in colossal majorities to men, with an increasing but still significantly lower proportion of women as you go down the academic ranks to Associate and Assistant professorships. Interestingly, Applied Science fares better compared to Sauder and Science with respect to ratios in the lower ranks. Even Arts, a supposedly female-slanted discipline, only a quarter of full professors are female, and 3/7ths of assistant and associate professors. Education is the one exception that has more women in the associate and assistant professor categories.

Yeah, we know. It takes a long time to get a full professorship. The huge cohorts of women academics that graduated in the 80s and 90s are not yet in tenured positions. Still though. And why is there still a gender gap in the recent hirings? I found it pretty stark and depresing. 11/146!?!? Dear Lord.

To follow up on these revelations, today I open up the Ubyssey. What do I see but an (excellent)article by Freeman Poritz about another gaping gaping gender inequality. Women are collecting over 60% of undergraduate degrees in Canada. They are graduating high school with better marks than men, and outnumbering them in 8/11 faculties, including Science and Atrs, UBC's two largest. This isn't particularly new news - it's a trend across Canada that young women are opting for more post-secondary education than their male counterparts. What is happening to our young men? How is our school system failing them?

I find both these sets of statistics disturbing. Women are still not able to make it to the higher ranks of the professional world in numbers that reflect their stakes. Young men aren't making it to university. What is going on? I don't know, but clearly the struggle for fairness in the balance of power between genders in our society (even in the microcosm of academics) is far from over. We barely understand (far from actually addressing) the crucial dynamics at play - and they are complicated.

Feminism is all about gender equality - that includes men's equality too. And feminism's work is not yet done.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Ubyssey is kicking ass

Some of you may remember Gina's issues with the Ubyssey - UBC's official student newspaper. They've misquoted, butchered grammar, gotten names wrong, ignored major news stories, inflated readership numbers, published cringeable writing, and been at the AMS's throat in the past.

But I just want to say, that this September, the Ubyssey has been kicking ass. It's bigger and fuller than last year. The design and, especially photography, have been fantastic. The news has been timely. There were thorough updates on campus events and politics that took place over the summer months. The feedback has been fun. The background on news items has been accurate. The relationship with AMS seems to be functioning better.

OK, so the editorials are still a bit tasteless, each issue contains more sports than I'd read in a year, the website is a sodding mess (bring back the old one!!), and the reliance on the where-to-shop/eat/party/travel-on-a-low-budget format is a little heinous, but other than those quibbles, way to go

It seems that the double news editors, Brandon Adams and Boris Korby, are doing good things. AMS president Jeff Friedrich has noted his satisfaction with them in conversation, maybe signaling a more harmonious era between the offices upstairs and downstairs. The dependable Jesse Ferreras pumps out stories on AMS with reliability. Levi Barnet as copy/feedback/research is a welcome relief from the incompetence of Andrew MacRae - you need not fear the butchering of your letters any more!

True, I'm addicted to newsprint in more or less any form. But lets give credit when it's due. And without negating the possibility for plenty of more improvements, I really think it is due.


Monday, September 17, 2007

UBC (AMS) Social Justice Centre executive jailed

Alison Bodine, the Financial Co-ordinator of the riven AMS resource group, the Social Justice Centre, landed in jail this week after trying to caim belongings that had been confiscated from her on re-entering Canada from her native U.S. No charges have been laid, and a hearing that was sceduled for today was cancelled. RCMP has declined comment.

Bodine is a well-recognized figure in certain 'activist' circles, being a leader in a bewildering assortment of badly named radical/lunatic groups, namely MAWO, CAWOPI and more! In a dramatic coup d'etat last spring, Bodine and some others from her group managed to grab a majority of the executive positions in the embattled AMS-funded resource group. Nobody should be jailed for trying to cross the border with pamphlets (no matter how stupid) though.

To free Alison, check out the Committee To Free Alison Bodine (no joke).


Friday, August 31, 2007

Executive interview series, part V: Brittany Tyson, VP finance

Last, but certainly not least in our riveting executive interview series is Brittany Tyson. We sat down to chat about a month and a half ago, so don't be surprised if that we're talking about the PiR^2 rennovations "right now"!. I must say that Brittany is one of the most frighteningly competent people I've ever met. She had prepared written notes and some specific number crunching before our interview, and talked about everything in meticulous detail.

Anyway, have a listen, and learn about how budgeting works, what the various AMS budgeting categories and departments are, how to revive sprouts, Club administration, and the prospects for a unified meal card for AMS food services.

click HERE to listen!

If you missed the other executives' luminous insights, why not catch up?
President: Jeff
VP Academic: Brendon
AP Admin: Sarah
VP External: Matthew


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Eom, Louman-Gardiner, Kreitzman, meet in unprecedented summit

Monday saw the first-ever gathering of three of UBC's preeminent bloggers. In an unprecedented move, the three pen-wielding heavyweights met for sweet-potato frites and girly beer at a depressingly swish, undisclosed Main St. location. In two and a half hours of talks, Eom professed the "new worldliness" of her pinot, and Louman-Gardiner brought up his disapproval of yellow shirts, while Kreitzman revealed plans to change her hair to blue. It was agreed that Cambie would soon be the new Main, and the three unanimously vetted the statement that "it is not one's responsibility to keep track of strings of an ex's SO's names," but there remained an uneasy disagreement on the question of the value judgement inherent in the word "hack."

Louman-Gardiner sported a sharp boy-scout-turned-office-lackey look in a dress shirt and tie, while Kreitzman scored the "what was she thinking?!" prize in a nubly woolen cardigan and cowboy boots. Eom looked ravishing in high-collared silk blouse and signature heels, and Reka Pataky charmed in a cropped hairstyle and draped collar.

This meeting is perceived to be a landmark in the UBC blogging landscape, but it may prove to be of symbolic, rather than practical significance. The three have been blogging together for months without an apparent lack of unity, confirmed a high-level source. This will simply solidify their image as a triumvirate to take notice of, he said. But all may not be as well as it looks in the world of UBC Insiders. Reports of Eom's imminent departure for her native land of Germany could signal a new era for the political blog.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Coalition for Student Loan Fairness hits the lobbying sweet spot

There's been a few new posts recently. Don't forget to scroll down.

What makes for great lobbying? What gets you in the news? Why do student governments agonize and student lobbies button up, while a comparatively small group rockets into national media coverage and affects actual national party policy?

The lively example of the nascent Coalition for Student Loan Fairness (CSLF) brought these questions to my mind. The coalition was formed in April by Julian Benedict and Mark O'Meara, to give a political voice to a group of 990 000 graduates that still owe student loans. The SFU and UBC graduates (respectively), neither of whom had ever had anything to do with campus politics or goverance, got together and decided to do something about the disturbing prospect of paying their loans back to a broken system. Since its formation in April, I've heard about the CSLF on the CBC multiple times, and seen more than a few stories in mainstream newsprint and new sires (example: today's MacLean's Magazine article) . At first I was puzzled and a little miffed that it wasn't CASA or CFS, (the two federal Canadian student lobbies) that were constantly in the news about such a crucial topic. How is it possible that the large umbrella orginizations, and even our own student societies have been either ineffectual or silent where a small group of graduates completely unconnected to student government of any sort were making waves?

I called up Julian Benedict, the coalition's communications manager and co-founder to find out just exactly who the coalition was, and how they had made their quick ascent to political currency and newsworthiness. "I truly believe that if you have a good story, it will get out there," said Benedict. Benedict is an SFU history honours graduate. After he graduated, he and CSLF co-founder Mark O'Meara (a UBC student) realized that there are 990 000 thousand borrowers in a gray area with no political representation. These borrowers are a little stranded - they are no longer represented by student government, but are dealing with the fallout of funding their post-secondary education in a student aid system that's often dysfunctional, confused, and abusive.

Through discussion on O'Meara's website, Benedict began to feel the magnitude of the issue. "In the begining, I spent a lot of time asking myself if this was a real issue," he recounted. The more he spoke to other borrowers, the more he was convinced that it was. Benedict soon started filling access to information requests, talking to administrators, and synthesizing statistics. The information and knowledge amassed in this research process, and the collection of stories from borrowers form the base for the coalition's report, containing an 8-point plan, which provides "solutions to improve public confidence and operational effectiveness" of the Canada Student Loans program. The plan asks for a reduction in interest rates for student loans . It asks for a student loan Ombudsperson office to investigate and redress mistakes and abuses in the system. Other points include providing borrowers with up to date and accurate statements (which, astonishingly, are very difficult to get now), consolidating all loan repayments into one account, enforcing directives to abusive collection agencies, and providing access to grants and debt reduction.

For a novelty song, and tips on media-whoring, check out the rest behind the jump.

The basic premise of the lobby group is fairness. "Our name was deliberately chosen" said Benedict. "Fairness is something all Canadians feel strongly on." The CSLF believes that government shouldn't be making money off student loans; that it's a social service like any other. That isn't happening now. Government charges borrowers rates from 8 to 11 % while it only pays 4 to 5 % interest itself. The margin is far more than what it takes to run the program. In fact, the government made 315 million dollars in 05/06 from loan interest, and is projected to make over half a billion in the year 09/10. According to Benedict, data shows that interest rates themselves are the reason many students default on their debts. Further, there are serious economic repercussions for us as a society when so many educated young people are significantly burdened with debt, or having their credit ruined due to defaults.

Using the often disturbing stories from borrowers of abusive collection agencies, lack of transparency, and severe financial hardship as hooks, the coalition launched their website and started sending out news releases with Canadian News Wire. This can get pricey - getting your story sent out nationally with a news release agency costs at least $130 a pop. Other than investing some money, the key to lobbying success, said Benedict, is knowing a lot, being focused, and remaining so. A tactic he mentioned that appealed to me was turning something into a news story as opposed to an educational piece. "Targeted, relevant, accurate" he chanted over the phone, as I scribbled.

Benedict works full time, but he and 10 other full-time volunteers pour many hours into research and media relations. Their efforts seem to have payed off. Since April, they've had half a million hits on the CSLF website, and countless media exposures. They've received endorsements form several MP's and scores of student organizations including the SFSS, CFS, and CASA (the AMS is notably absent). Most importantly, no federal political party had a policy on student loan interest rates before April. Due to the CSLF's approaches and advocacy, several now do. I asked Bendict why he thought his group has made a significant impact in a short time, while the student movement had not. He essentially reiterated that effective advocacy can only take place when you collect an immense amount o f detailed meachnistic knowledge, and have a narrow focus which you don't waver from. Large organizations in the student movement, he obseved, are run by alot of well meaning people with a finite amount of time to devote to any one thing.

Check out the CSLF's website for Access to Information documents, polling results, news story links, and the coalition's 8-point plan in detail at you rock out to Mark O'Meara's student debt song at here .


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

AMS council kills Musqueam support motion

At last Wednesday's AMS council meeting (the last one of the summer), the embattled external motion regarding the Musqueam native band finally came to its demise. This policy, which has been tabled repeatedly in past meetings, has gone through a few iterations and adjustments. AMS president Jeff Friedrich took on the task of rewriting it. In the end though, it wasn't good enough. The motion failed the two-thirds vote.

The idea of creating an AMS policy expressing support for the Musqueam nation, on whose traditional territory UBC is situated, has been around for a while. The Musqueam have been in the treaty process with government regarding their claims for years. Last February, Mariana Payet, then the executive coordinator of student services of the AMS, brought forward a motion that acknowledged the Musqueam's title over UBC, reading

Whereas the UBC Point Grey Campus is located on unceded Musqueam Territory; and

Whereas the AMS is housed in the Student Union Building located on the UBC Point GreyCampus; and

Whereas the Musqueam people have lived on this land since time immemorial;

Be it resolved that the Alma Mater Society officially recognize the Musqueam
people’s title over this land

This motion was tabled (neither passed nor failed): people weren't comfortable with the legal ambiguities of students supporting the ceding UBC land to a private body. Some people simply didn't see the point of creating a policy that had no action associated with it. Others disagreed with the intent of supporting Musqueam claims. The AMS president, Jeff Friedrich, asked that the motion be tabled so that consultation with campus aboriginal groups could be conducted, and so that wording could be adjusted to make it less controversial. [As a side note, he also said it was a "difficulty" that the motion came from the floor (as opposed to coming from the executive); I've heard Jeff make comments along those lines again, and am confused about them. What is "difficult", or (another favorite word) "tricky" about motions from the floor? On the contrary, the executive drives the agenda of council far too much, to the exclusion of motions from committees, caucuses, or god forbid, individual councilors.] But anyway, that's what happened. Jeff consulted with the Aboriginal students' association and another campus first nation group from the UBC First Nations House of Learning (the longhouse). He asked David Wells, the AMS policy analyst to help redraft the motion. Here's what they came up with:

Whereas the UBC Point Grey Campus is located in the Musqueam people’s
traditional territory that was never ceded to the Crown; and

Whereas historical information provided by University information sources
indicates that this land was traditionally used by the Musqueam for
educational and defensive purposes; and

Whereas the Musqueam are currently engaged with the province in a
treaty negotiation process regarding the territory in question; and

Whereas recent court rulings suggest that the Musqueam have a strong
prima facie case for Aboriginal Title; and

Whereas it is acknowledged that any settlement resulting from the
current treaty negotiation process will likely not result in the loss of use
of this territory to the University of British Columbia for the purposes of
providing post-secondary education,

Therefore, be it resolved that the Alma Mater Society officially
recognize the Musqueam people’s legitimate claim to this territory; and

Be it further resolved that the AMS support a negotiated resolution
that will enable the territory in question to continue being a source of
learning and knowledge, both formal and informal, modern and traditional, UBC
and Musqueam,” and

Be it further resolved that the AMS support a negotiated settlement
regarding the disposition of the University Golf Course, which has been
acknowledged as being located on traditional Musqueam territory.

So basically, the AMS should recognize a claim that obviously (and legally) exists, and support a negotiation process that's already well underway. In other news, the sun rose this morning. Not exactly radical - in fact, barely meaningful. The motion is so watered down, that it's basically just a list of the government processes now underway with "we support" stuck before them. Opposition in council came from two directions. There were those people that were still uneasy about supporting the Musqueam claims. On the other hand, there were those that would not support a motion that, to paraphrase science councilor Tahara Bhate, merely supplied nice-sounding sound bites, but really only payed lip service to aboriginal issues - essentially the same thing government has done for hundreds of years with disasterous results.

There was fairly strong support for this motion though. In fact, more than half of council voted for it, but less than the two-thirds required. Darren Peets (B0G) spoke favorably of the motion as a goodwill gesture, arts councilor Nathan Crompton said that this motion didn't prevent a true radical stance to be taken in the future, and Jeff Friedrich said that all the groups he consulted said the motion would be meaningful and welcome.

This particular failed effort highlights the difficulty of passing political external policies in the AMS. In this case, it went something like this: some people think some issue is important - they represent a particular side in a motion. Others think it's irrelevant; others simply take a different political position. The motion is tabled since it clearly would have failed. It is revised to a less strident position to garner more council support; all meaning is lost. The motion fails anyway.

For background on Musqueam and its recent dealings with UBC, check out previous posts:
News item from the Globe and Mail
context and analysis by Tim


Monday, August 27, 2007

Student Aid report from administrators

Student loan administrators have turned into activists! This article from this morning's Globe and Mail.

More need-based student aid urged
Universal programs outpacing funding for those who need help, says a study by financial aid administrators

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 27, 2007 at 4:37 AM EDT

An increasing proportion of financial aid for postsecondary education is going to all students, rather than to those who need it most, says a new study from university and college administrators that calls for a reversal of the trend.

Over the past decade, federal and provincial governments of all political stripes have spent more on student support overall. But the report finds that most of that new spending has been for measures such as tax credits and tuition freezes that benefit everyone, and are not targeted at those who face financial obstacles in postsecondary education.

Universal aid programs now get about three dollars for every dollar spent on needs-based grants and loans, says the report, to be released today.

"Governments get captured by the ability to score political points by adjusting tuition levels or raising tax credits," said Sean Junor, one of the authors of the report. "Student aid has never been a big vote getter."

If the aim of financial aid programs is to encourage more students to go to college and university, then the current trend must be corrected, he said. Programs must be directed to qualified students who would otherwise be deterred because of costs, which was the original intention of student-aid programs when they were established 40 years ago, Mr. Junor said.

The report finds that beginning in the late 1990s, the steady expansion of measures such as monthly education tax credits "fundamentally altered the nature of student aid in Canada."

The study, entitled The End of Need-Based Student Aid in Canada?, was commissioned by the Canadian Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Its argument - especially its opposition to blanket tuition freezes - is likely to meet with stiff opposition from student groups, who continue to pressure governments to hold the line on fees or reduce them. The study's call for more targeted funding relief is one that is frequently made by university and college leaders frustrated by government limits on their ability to raise funds through tuition.

Mr. Junor, who is with the Educational Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Toronto, said the study documents how the financial aid system has strayed from its original intentions during the past 10 years.

It examines spending at all levels of government on student aid and the recipients of those funds, and finds that most new spending has not been based on need.

In the past four years, all levels of government and the federally supported Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation have increased aid spending by more than $1.4-billion. About 60 per cent of that went to non-need based expenditures, the study found.

The one exception at the provincial level is Ontario which, following a report by former premier Bob Rae, has targeted the majority of its aid to need-based programs, as has the millennium scholarship foundation. The foundation provides more than one-third of all grants to students, but its funding is set to run out in less than two years.

The student aid programs certainly need reform. It's absurd that people use the cash from student loans to buy cars, and don't work in the summer, while others can't even qualify because their parents have a certain income, even if the parents are not supporting their son/daughter through university. In a way, the issue comes down across a fairly clear line: should there be more needs-based student aid to help those people that otherwise wouldn't attend, or should we as a society simply spend much more on education to make it universally more accessible?