Becoming the Director

One day as the community consultation was winding down, I was chatting with Chuck Slonecker, the Acting Vice-President for External Affairs, who was responsible for the creation of UBC’s presence in the Downtown Eastside. He said, “This initiative is going to need a director. Would you like to take on this role in an acting capacity while we are getting established?”

Over the summer I had discovered that the Downtown Eastside was a much more interesting place than I had first imagined. And there seemed to be a real desire for change at UBC. Having had so many conversations with people in both the Downtown Eastside and the university, I could envision, concretely, how UBC’s goals could be connected to points of receptivity in the community. I knew the powers-that-be had been talking about how to staff the initiative. I wanted the job. But I had not dared to think that I, a mere graduate student, would actually be offered the Director’s position. After confirming that I could work part-time and fulfill the Director role while doing the field work for my dissertation, I eagerly accepted the offer.

A rite of passage

I began to be admitted to some of the backstage machinations of the institution. As part of its commitment to engage more with the external community and be more obviously accountable to the public, UBC decided to hold two Annual General Meetings, one on campus and the other downtown. Martha Piper wanted to establish the tradition that a student would always be part of the speaking program, so I was asked to speak about the results of the Downtown Eastside consultation. I was given a time limit for my remarks and instructed to submit a draft text. After the text was approved, I was told when and where to appear for the run-through of the AGM speaking program.

By this time in my career I understood the importance of events starting and ending on time. I appreciated it when speakers’ time limits were enforced. But the AGM rehearsal took these principles to an extreme I had never seen. Every aspect of the speaking program was enacted, every speaker was timed to the second, and if anyone’s remarks were even 30 seconds over the limit, they were instructed to cut their speech down.

Margo Fryer speaking at UBC's 1999 downtown AGM
Margo Fryer speaking at UBC’s 1999 downtown AGM (photo copyright UBC)

The first performance of the AGM went smoothly. The downtown Vancouver hotel conference room was about half-full of alumni, donors, and business associates of the university. It was a quiet, polite, friendly audience. No one asked challenging questions.

But the on-campus AGM at the Chan Centre was a different story. All 1200 seats were occupied. The audience included a mix of students, professors, and staff. The staff contingent included union members who were in the midst of contract negotiations with the university. From my vantage point on the stage I could see several groups carrying placards declaring the union demands. As we waited for the speaking program to begin, the union members shouted slogans. Other people stood in the aisles in pairs or small groups, talking loudly. It was a restless crowd.

The leaders of the university delivered their speeches as they had done downtown, but this time, they were interrupted by catcalls and shouts from the union members. The question period gave a forum to those who had positions to put forward and they took full advantage of the open microphones.

After several combative declarations from union representatives and a few questions from people with more mundane concerns, a young woman stepped to the microphone and identified herself. Her name was familiar. As she articulated her question, I realized she was one of the students who had originally been hired to do the Downtown Eastside consultation.

The woman outlined her involvement in the consultation. She explained righteously how she and her fellow students had resigned in protest because of how badly the process was being handled. The student challenged the legitimacy of the consultation Brian and I had done. She wanted to know more about what we had done: Was there an advisory committee? Were local residents involved? She also demanded to know whether UBC’s Board of Governors had discussed the open letter she and the other students had written and what the Board was going to do about it.

I turned to Martha Piper, who was sitting beside me. Both of us looked expectantly at the other. Alarmed by what I thought I read in Martha’s expression, I leaned towards her and whispered, “I think you should answer this.” She whispered back, “No, I think you should do it.” Realizing that it would be unseemly for me to argue with the President with 1200 people watching, I made my way to the podium.

I took as deep a breath as my anxiety level allowed and looked directly at the questioner. I said, “I have no knowledge about what has happened with regard to your letter to the Board, so I cannot speak to that part of your question. But I can address your questions about the consultation.” I described the community advisory committee that had provided direction to me and Brian, giving the names and affiliations of its members. I described the number and type of organizations we had met with, and the settings in which we had talked with residents. I said, “Was this a perfect community consultation? No. Was it good enough to allow us to understand the range of opinions in the Downtown Eastside about UBC’s initiative, to hear the ideas people have about how UBC can make a contribution, and to receive great advice about how to proceed? Yes, it was.”

As I walked back to my seat, I looked at Martha, hoping to get some sign of her assessment of my response. As I sat down, I heard the whispered words, “Well done.” Later, backstage, one of the Vice-Presidents who had been involved in the speaking program approached me with a smile and said, “That was a very good answer to that question.” At the time I was just relieved that the storm, including my adrenalin storm, had passed. In retrospect, I think that question and my answer marked my passage through a door to a different space.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Starting the Trek Program.