Sep 022015

By Simona Chiose and Frances Bula

August 27, 2015 — An unusual group had assembled at the Point Grey campus residence of Arvind Gupta, the president of the University of British Columbia. The gathering was made up of professors and associate deans from the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, from science to arts and humanities. For a few hours last March, they had the president’s undivided attention.

Dr. Gupta’s spring session on the leafy UBC grounds was atypical in that it did not include administrators, staff and students who generally advise a university president.

“The argument that he made was that he was looking for advice that was [different] … from what he would normally get from his other vice-presidents and administrators,” said John Klironomos, a biology professor and the associate dean of research at the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. “We sat there and brainstormed and agreed on many things and we had interesting debates. He mostly listened.”

But while Dr. Gupta was spending time with professors – and he invited administrators to the next session – behind the scenes there were smouldering fires. The president had let go several high-ranking executives in the administration; he’d also had disagreements with the board of governors over how much he needed to consult on key decisions.

On July 31, five months after the faculty brainstorming, Dr. Gupta resigned – only one year into what was supposed to be a five-year term. When the departure became public a week later, the campus erupted into rumours and recriminations that threaten to damage the reputation of one of Canada’s globally ranked universities. In the resulting row, faculty demanded to know more about why the president left, but the event has remained shrouded in mystery, protected by nondisclosure agreements that have silenced Dr. Gupta, the university and its board of governors. 

The Globe and Mail has talked to more than two dozen sources, including university administrators – deans, vice-presidents and the former provost – as well as faculty members. Most requested anonymity because they feared harming their careers. Several argued that Dr. Gupta focused too much on building links with professors and didn’t communicate with senior administrators. The university had taken a risk in hiring an innovator, but fatally underestimated his lack of administrative experience, they said. While Dr. Gupta is a computer science professor at UBC, his reputation largely rested on his building of Mitacs, a non-profit powerhouse that had broken down walls between academia and industry. The announcement of his hiring cited his “courage to chart a bold course.”

“The argument [in hiring Dr. Gupta] would have been that we have somebody who is an established researcher, who is an established fundraiser and has good connections to the outside, but he’s from UBC.… It’s an exceptional case because he had no experience as a dean or vice-president,” said Ross Paul, a former university president and the author of Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President.

The prevailing sentiment on campus now is one of regret. “From the inside, it’s been a tough year,” said one senior administrator. “I would have hoped that had Arvind stayed on, the university would have pulled together and made it work.”

The candidate

Across the country, governments and parents are anxious about the state of higher education in a challenging economy. They are asking for reassurance that the Ivory Tower is not just a place of abstract learning, but one that opens doors to well-paying jobs or helps students become entrepreneurs who can create their own employment.

When Stephen Toope resigned after seven years at the helm of UBC, he left a university facing those pressures head-on: The B.C. government had announced last year that it would tie 25 per cent of public funds to the labour-market outcomes of graduates.

Dr. Gupta seemed like the right man for the times. In his 14-year stint as CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, he had helped link up thousands of graduate students and researchers with internships in industry. In 2013, Ottawa rewarded the group with $35-million over several years.

The future UBC president was well connected to the federal government in other ways as well: In 2011, he served as a member of the Jenkins panel on innovation, which recommended closer collaboration between the National Research Council, universities and business.

“We are in a province where everything seems to be oriented toward LNG and pipelines,” one administrator said. “If what you think you need is better representation in government and in the private sector, Arvind [was] a pretty interesting choice.”

Many in the UBC administration were far more skeptical, describing the hire as a “flyer.” For them, running Mitacs, with its 2014 budget of approximately $100-million compared to UBC’s $2-billion, was not nearly enough preparation.

The first year

The departure of a president so soon in a mandate is unusual, but not unprecedented. In 2010, Concordia fired former French lit professor and experienced administrator Judith Woodsworth halfway through her term. As at UBC, it was Concordia professors who first demanded to know why.

Even before the March meeting, Dr. Gupta had begun building support with professors. He brokered a compromise with the faculty association around how the university could use faculty-created course materials. He protected academic programs from cuts to the university’s budget and argued for closer community connections for researchers.

“As faculty we are skeptical of business, but he was bringing us along,” one science professor said.

But to those who watched him make the rounds, the president looked exhausted. “He probably heard 10,000 opinions on what the university should do,” said one senior administrator. “Symbolically, it was interesting; practically, it was not that helpful.”

Dr. Gupta apparently didn’t treat administrators with the same care. Instead, firings were done in a brusque manner, without sufficient recognition of the contributions of those who left, sources said. The senior ranks began to fear for their jobs.

“Arvind was alienating people one at a time,” is how one administrator described the environment.

There was also resentment of new hires. Political strategist David Hurford, who had worked with former Liberal minister Allan Rock and former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, joined as executive director of the president’s office. Mr. Hurford was known for promoting his political masters aggressively and doing whatever it took behind the scenes to help them drive through their agendas. He continued that approach in the president’s office.

“We have to have [the president] in the news, we have to have a photo op every week,” said one source of how the office was run. (Mr. Hurford left UBC after Dr. Gupta.)

Although things were rocky, by late winter a consensus was forming that these were merely the growing pains of a first year. Then, in April, the president asked David Farrar to step down from his job as provost and take on a new post as a presidential adviser. Dr. Farrar’s departure was a turning point.

“After David Farrar was moved out of the provost’s office, the tone shifted,” one person familiar with the situation said.

In the eight years he had been provost, Dr. Farrar had recruited and groomed some of the university’s top administrators. He also led the school’s successful aboriginal education strategy, which culminated in UBC being the only university that suspended classes this June, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings.

It was one of his proudest accomplishments, Dr. Farrar said in an e-mail answer to a series of questions from The Globe.

He never applied for the job of president and has no plans to do so in the upcoming round, he added. “He was an extraordinary team player,” said one administrator of Dr. Farrar.

The deans of many faculties felt adrift after the departure. They e-mailed the president, requesting a meeting. A copy of that note made its way to the chair of the board, John Montalbano.Some deans had already informally talked to members of the board of governors over what they saw as lack of communication from the president’s office. But the goal was never to force the president to step down. Mr. Montalbano would not say how many issues had been raised with him. 

“Anything anecdotal would not be something the board would consider seriously,” he said.

He added that the board offered the president all the help it could muster, from inside and outside the university. Mr. Montalbano declined to say whether Dr. Gupta made use of that help. “I can’t speak for Arvind.…The board made it abundantly clear at any point that Arvind had all the resources available to him to succeed, to allow him to succeed.”

Former administrators and faculty at UBC have said relations between the board and the president could get heated. A former administrator who attended an in-camera board meeting last spring described it as “really ugly.” The chair’s concern, the administrator said, was that Dr. Gupta was making announcements about changes and directions that Mr. Montalbano believed should have been cleared with the board.

Mr. Montalbano rejects that claim: The board and the president had a “cordial” relationship, he said.

On the other hand, a colleague of Dr. Gupta’s said the former president had to deal with an inordinate level of interference by the board chair.

Exactly what happened in the last few weeks is unclear. According to Dr. Gupta’s contract, a performance-review process was to start in June. No such formal review ever took place, according to Mr. Montalbano.

The next president

On Sept. 1, the university will begin the process of closing this chapter in its 100-year history. Martha Piper, who already served as president from 1997 to 2006, will take over as interim leader while a new presidential search begins.

The ramifications are lingering: On Tuesday, Mr. Montalbano temporarily stepped down as chair of the board of governors while the university investigates allegations that he and others infringed on the academic freedom of a business professor who blogged about Dr. Gupta’s resignation.

Many on campus are angered by the entire episode.

“Given the price tag of the search, [the resignation] seemed to have come out of nowhere. You’re way over a million dollars in terms of this search,” said Joey Hansen, president of the university’s staff union. Mr. Hansen says as many as 5 per cent of the university’s workers could be laid off by the end of the year due to budget cuts.

Increasingly, research has found, Canadian university presidents today are less experienced and last a shorter time in the job than a prior generation.

“A lot of change-making is happening … once they’ve gained the trust of stakeholders, once they’ve built those relationships,” said Julie Cafley, who wrote her dissertation on Canadian university presidents and is a vice-president at the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum. “It’s a shame for our system that we are not able to hire well, to transition well, to retain well and really be more supportive of this complex leadership role.”

Editor’s note: The article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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