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Space for Everyone

In the months leading up to my arrival at Quest, I’d frequently revisit David Helfand’s TedX talk to calm my nerves about attending an unorthodox university.  He begins the lecture by giving an anecdote about a student in his seminar at Columbia who reveals that he is “paying for a degree and not an education.”  Instead of criticizing the student’s attitude, Helfand goes on to empathize with the burgeoning cynicism surrounding higher education.  Thus, identifying the pitfalls of traditional universities helped create the tenets of Quest University Canada.  Further into his lecture, Helfand promotes disassembling hierarchies in order to incite collaboration amongst faculty and students alike, quoting an apt proverb from Confucius: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”  These words seemed to transcend pedagogy and encompass the mission of the university.  Although I’ve only participated in the Quest community for two months, I’m continuously struck by the inclusive nature students, faculty, and staff strive to establish.  Whether in soccer scrimmages or the classroom, the music bay or community update meetings, engagement is both our axis and apex.

However, not all branches of Quest’s operation have reached their potential for fostering a holistically inclusive environment – namely, the Board of Governors.  As they state on their webpage, the board is “responsible for all financial, administrative, and academic aspects of the University.” There are currently eight members and university bylaws stipulate there may be room for up to eleven.  The board is chaired by Mary Jo Larson, a lawyer and community activist based in Detroit.  President George Iwama is a member by default.  They sit alongside six others with a diverse set of professional backgrounds, hailing from Squamish and beyond.  But though three possible spots remain vacant, there are currently no students or staff members.  Ironically, Quest’s Board has neglected to solicit representation from the very demographic they are serving.

Most public universities in BC operate under the University Act, which mandates that the Board of Governors must have “2 faculty members elected by faculty members” and “2 students elected from students who are members of an undergraduate student society or a graduate student society.” As outlined in the Act, powers vested in the Board include establishing scholarships, fellowships, and institutions, modifying the university’s budget, and regulating construction on university property.

The details of the role and composition of the Board of Governors are substantially more prolific than those listed on the Sea to Sky Act, Quest’s governing document.  The University Act has formalized a specific set of criteria, outlined in 61 subsections, that detail the makeup and juridical powers of the Board.  On the contrary, the Sea to Sky Act, which governs Quest’s Board, has only 6 subsections—a relatively insignificant level of oversight.

The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia passed the Sea to Sky Act in 2002, which effectively outlines the mission of the school, its tax structure, and the functions of its President, Chancellor, and Board of Governors.  Nothing in the official document encourages or limits student, faculty, or staff representation on the Board.  While Quest is only ten years old, the Board has already largely influenced the direction of the school. They not only deal with bureaucratic matters, but were also responsible for major administrative decisions such as removing former President Peter Englert, litigating subdivisions, overseeing curricular development, and approving the budget.  Throughout this first decade, no students, faculty, or staff have been sitting members.  Quest prides itself on being a progressive institution, yet their governance has yet to even match the standard quota for student and faculty representation at traditional universities in BC.

Currently, there is at least one channel open for faculty involvement. Ellen Flournoy, Rhetoric Coordinator and Co-Director of the Learning Commons, serves as the Academic Counsel’s representative to the Board, an elected position with a two-year term.  The previous AC reps were I-Chant Chang and Eric Gorham, a founding tutor.  As Flournoy explained to me, her job is to act as a conduit between the Board and the AC and represent the best interest of her constituency at Board meetings.  When we got talking about equal representation, Flournoy remarked, “I, personally, am very invested in the idea of both staff and student representation on the board and alumni as well.”

While Flournoy is in support of having students, staff and alumni who currently don’t have any representation on the Board, she admitted that problems do arise with different kinds of representation.  As subjects demand varying levels of expertise, she believes that some conversations should hold the right to remain private. “They would have to manipulate the agenda based on the representation present at the time and it gets quite complicated to do that,” Flournoy explained. Although not all students are equipped to handle every situation that the Board addresses, certain appointed representatives have already been proving themselves capable of playing vital roles on committees.

This past summer, the Board asked SRC president, Nicole Zanesco, to serve on the Presidential Evaluation Committee.  Zanesco had been corresponding with the then-interim president, Marjorie Wonham, advocating for the reopening of the music bay, among other student interests.  When Iwama was appointed chancellor and Peter had been officially dismissed, the Board assembled a committee to hire a new president.  In previous administrations, this had been entirely internal to the Board.  However, this summer, they extended invitations to Zanesco, Vrindi Spencer – an alumna – along with Glen Van Brummelen and Ellen to join the process.

In addition to conducting background research, Zanesco and Spencer interviewed Iwama and had the autonomy to revise the prepared questions that the Board had written, and would later debrief with the full committee.  Although it was a “nerve-wracking” experience, Zanesco said she felt welcomed by the Board.  The opinions of faculty and student/alums were always solicited first at meetings, and voting members seemed interested in becoming more integrated into the Quest community.

On moving the “pro-student/staff/faculty representation” campaign forward, Zanesco said:

“I didn’t get the feeling that they were against having student representation. The feeling that I got – whether this is true or not true – is that they didn’t know students really cared about the board.  And so it’s a transition for them as well as us.  But that doesn’t really excuse that fact that we should have representation.  I hope that the transition can go more quickly from shock to, ‘ok, let’s make things happen.’”

In spite of momentum building, Zanesco recognized this movement would require a lengthy process.  In the meantime, she noted that the Board could focus on improving their transparency by publishing agendas and meeting minutes, which they have never done.  Additionally, having the first thirty minutes of meetings open to students could encourage a healthy discourse.  Zanesco also suggested having board members come more frequently to Quest and attend SRC meetings.

“It’s the same thing we’re pushing for on the AC.  It’s not just a board problem.  It’s a whole Quest problem. No students sit on the AC and the agendas and meeting minutes aren’t published,” she continued. “We call tutors by their first names to establish a feeling of equality.  And that’s our whole thing – equality, and questioning the norm, yet our board is so barricaded. It’s very strange.”

From conversations with Flournoy and Zanesco, and correspondences with Mary Jo Larson, it’s clear that the topic of representation on the Board is gaining more visibility.  The Board has already indicated that they are actively considering student, staff, and faculty representation, and would be open to receiving more input.  However, it is not enough to simply hope that changes will be made.  As unrepresented constituents of this university, we must engage with members of the Board, and call for immediate transparency and a plan of action to ensure their opinions are heard.  The likelihood of us gaining seats on the Board largely depends on the initiative we take.  

During the October 30th Community Update meeting, interim Dean, Darren Newton outlined two of Quest’s core values – consistent sincerity and transparency. These echoed some of George Iwama’s remarks in the previous presentation on the Board.  I could see students nodding in agreement as Darren pledged to fulfill the core values.  Moments before, they had been questioning Iwama about the Board until the time ran out.  The meeting concluded with expressions of gratitude for peers’ and faculty members’ hard work and support.  And here it was – the heartbeat of Quest.

Like any other community, ours is an experiment built on labor and trust and some healthy idealism.  It functions as a result of the people who show up everyday to keep the cogs going.  The fruits of David Helfand and the other founders’ vision are sometimes unexpected and come with their fair share of blemishes, but we participate in the harvest all the same.  Here, I am talking about the collective “we” – students, faculty, staff, and the Board.  If we’re going to successfully pull-off reinventing higher education, it will be the result of everyone’s participation.  There’s no time to lose – students, faculty, and staff need seats on the Board.  Email Mary Jo Larson.  Voice your opinions.  You have every right to representation at the place you study, work, live, care for, shape.  Quest evolves when we recognize and employ the power we carry.

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