UBC Farm politics, elaboration of.

If you’ve voted in the current student referendum, you may have noticed that there is no question about the UBC Farm. Most people of course, wouldn’t have expected one, but it is a surprise to some. The Friends of the Farm started a campaign to get a question on the referendum ballot which would see students providing permanent funding for the Farm. A big step for sure. But this, and why it was ultimately abandoned as a funding/advocacy strategy is only one piece in the puzzle of convoluted politics that the UBC Farm is in the middle of.

Brendon wrote a good post about some of this earlier,HERE. I encourage you to read his post. There’s more back story, and some more recent developments, however.

The Farm, since its existence in its current form as a multi-use education/academic/community resource has had a tough fight for institutional legitimacy and enough funding. That’s not for lack of support from its home faculty, Land and Food Systems, but because first, it’s a strange and hard-to-define space, and second, its land is a 250 million dollar cash cow waiting to be sold. These facts produce a climate in which the Farm’s very productive, vibrant, ambiguity can be exploited in order to manipulate decisions and planning processes toward institutionally desirable outcomes. This attitude, which seeks to dissect out various “uses” and what fraction of land each occupies so that the rest can be cashed in to real estate development is patently against the desire of most students, faculty, and community members. Let alone against the spirit of UBC’s much-vaunted mission statement, Trek 2010.

So what’s going on? There’s a few levels of really important people in this political scene. There’s the very convincing folks in the UBC treasury office that have converted UBC’s brass that a large-endowment strategy is the best direction for the institution. Thank Byron Braley and Terry Sumner for that. They in turn have influence over people like Nancy Knight, UBC’s VP Planning, who have alot of power in determining the planning processes and baselines from which consultations are formulated. She in turn informs by the Board of Governors, which, being populated by business-type appointees, is disposed to like alot of money. Then there’s president Toope, who seems genuinely well-meaning, but either doesn’t know too much about it or doesn’t have too much real leadership. On the other hand, there’s some folks at Vancouver City Hall and the GVRD who have some ideas about local food systems and see the UBC farm as a boon. In the same type of vein are the residents of the University Neighbourhoods who see the farm as a community amenity and green space. Then there’s the academic and student community, whose support will be the most important ultimately.

UBC’s desire to sell off the Farm land is no secret. But here’s a few incidents to put you on your guard about the manner in which it’s trying to manage this:

  • Way back in 2005 the VP Academic & Provost and the UBC treasury office paid for a report to be written about how much land would be necessary for the UBC Farm to function. This study, which was thought to be a positive step in solidifying the Farm’s uses of the land, has never materialized. It was researched and written long ago by Erik Lees, but since its completion, has been suppressed. Very good sources tell me that this report was revised more than seven times (rewrite #7 was due in July 06, and hasn’t been seen since), and looks very different now than it did originally. If I can say “now” at all – it doesn’t technically exist. It doesn’t take a political scientists to realize that the UBC administration is suppressing this document, even though (or especially because?) they themselves commissioned it, since it does not jive with their vision.
  • UBC a few months ago the Campus and Community Planning office released some Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These are basically calls for consultants of various kinds to carry out a technical study. One of the RFPs was to do land-use planning in the “academic precinct” in South Campus, which includes the Botanical Gardens nursery, animal care facility, TRIUMF, BC Research, etc. In the terms of reference for the RFP, the UBC Farm’s land was not included in this precinct. While this may seem like a low-level technical item, it’s important, and it’s nefarious. Technical studies and reports are what decisions are typically based on. When a political decision (like determining that RFP ‘s peopgraphic scope for the “academic precinct” in Sounth Campus should exclude the farm) is made by some anonymous person in the CC&P office, it’s almost impossible to be accountable. In this case, it was too “low level” for the Provost or the Dean of LFS to know anything about, but such a thing could turn out to be tremendously important. Deligitimizing the Farm as an academic learning space is a strategy that is being used here.
  • Communication dissonance. Last year, when the results of the Campus Plan’s extensive online survey was published, the UBC Farm was the single most mentioned topic. This month, when I attended an all-day campus planning design workshop, one of the instructions in the booklet was to retain a couple acres for a teaching and research farm. The base-line set for these creative workshops will materially guide their results, and the resulting options we’re left with. And there’s a clear dissonance. While data can be clear from consultation, it is up to Nancy Knight and the C&CP office to summarize and present it. I’ve heard considerable spin in these summaries before. The level of reasonable baselines can only be really established through popular sentiment, which some of the planners hope to slyly ignore.

As my good friend Rona says, I’ll support the endowment next time it lowers someone’s tuition. In the meantime, I’d like to see one of the best places at UBC continue to thrive. The next few months of consultation in the Campus Plan process will be critical to send a clear message about this. Please participate with your eyes open. Here’s the campus plan website, which will tell you how to do so.


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