Friday, April 13, 2007

Governance Part II: UBC Properties Trust

Once again, this is inspired by Tristan Markle's excellent letter to the Ubyssey. He identifies UBC Properties Trust as a key driving force in the U.Blvd decision. He's quite right. But the UBCPT question is one that's far more broad than UBlvd; in fact, I'd argue it's a fundamental threat to the University's governance.

So, what is UBC Properties Trust (UBCPT)? It's a private corporation, legally separate from the University; however, it is entirely owned by UBC. When any building goes up on UBC land, both institutional and non-institutional, it goes through Properties. In short, it's a property development firm that hires all the contractors, does all the project management, and leases and services the UNA land. When a project is going to happen (classroom, housing, or anything else), it always goes through UBCPT, whose staff figure out how much it will cost, arrange the people who will do everything, and make it happen.

Basically, the University doesn't build things - Properties does so on their behalf.

This causes a few significant problems. They can be divided into two areas: Project-specific, and related to governance. These two areas are very closely related.


  • Two members of UBC's Board are on the UBCPT Board. Three members of UBC's senior leadership are on the PT Board as well. Why is this a problem? Well, it removes any effective oversight of what PT is doing. The work of PT is rarely criticised at Board. Why? Largely because the most powerful BoG members are essentially responsible. As a direct consequence, institutional decisions about academic priorities and buildings needs are essentially made at the PT stage, which is outside the University.
  • There is also no true accountability. UBCPT is only accountable to a) its Board, and b) UBC's BoG. But neither is the true client, nor is either in a realistic position to actually exercise any real oversight over the other.
  • Neither the VP Academic nor the VP Students are directly involved with PT. Which I find odd, as they are the true clients and end users.
  • The VP External sits on the Board of Properties. The Campus and Community Planning office reports to the VP External. There's functionally no independence between the two groups. It's a sham.
  • The real problem is that the University's mission is to be a University, and all that entails. Properties' mission is to contribute to the endowment. That's financial. Which means they have no direct responsibility to make the University a better place; it's indirect. In theory the BoG should provide some oversight, but it doesn't (see above).
Project Management
  • PT's job is to keep price down. They call it "value engineering." Their job isn't to make a great classroom, it's to make a passable classroom at value. This, while not necessarily bad, can produce some results that are less than friendly to students. The best demonstration of this? UBlvd itself. As many know, the architects who originally won the design competition quit. Why? Because they couldn't work within UBCPT's price constraints.
  • Related to the above, UBCPT is driven by dollars in the door. This tends towards long-term thinking. A classic example is LEED construction; it comes at a few million dollar premium during the process, but over the life cycle of the building, it earns its money back many times over. PT is notoriously resistant to LEED building. Why? It makes buildings more expensive in the short term, and PT isn't the one responsible for long-term costs. The University is. PT is only concerned with short-term (construction) costs, and has no incentive to produce sustainable buildings.
  • The dollars in the door phenomenon lends itself to revenue-generating projects. Which brings more value to students? The knoll, or a Starbucks? It depends on how you define value. And that definition of "value," to the PT Board, is framed in terms of the endowment. That means money. This means social space and mixed use is so much more likely to be retail; the kind of social space where the price of admission is a latte.
In short, there is no oversight, no way to pressure this powerful Board. It's insulated from the University when convenient. And while it may produce more efficient development, it comes at significant cost.