Last year, on July 1, Arvind Gupta became the University of British Columbia’s 13th President.
Less than 14 months later, he’s out.
Gupta resigned today following an unscheduled Board of Governors meeting, having “decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community,” according to a UBC press release.
Let’s be clear: this is not an ordinary resignation. UBC is a billion dollar university, one of the most important in Canada, and a key part of British Columbia’s long-term innovation and education strategy. The selection committee chose Gupta—and his predecessor, Stephen Toope, recommended him—because they believed he was uniquely qualified to lead UBC through turbulent times.
It was thought Gupta, based on his tenure leading Mitacs, would find new private partnerships for the university, new sources of funding, and new ways of defining how a public Canadian university could be “world-class” and unique in a constrained financial environment.
But he never said *what* he was going to do, despite much anticipation. And now he is suddenly gone.
So why was he turfed? What does it mean for UBC?
Coincidentally, I’m on the Sunshine Coast this moment with the one person who reported on UBC as much as me in the past decade.
Neal Yonson was editor of UBC Insiders before, during and after my term running The Ubyssey student newspaper. Here’s an edited transcription of the chat we just had.
McElroy: Gupta became president last year. He had talked about big changes he wanted to make to the university for a quite a while and he hadn’t yet. He had talked a little bit about that things were going to happen, this was the year where that strategic direction was expected to be shown, but instead we get a resignation.
Do you think this is a case of the board ultimately not agreeing with what Gupta wanted to do?
Yonson: I would think that’s safe to assume. Gupta and the board could both see they didn’t see eye to eye, but it’s hard to know whether this is a true resignation or a veiled resignation of “you’re fired, but you can try and keep your dignity.”
McElroy: Board members are tight-lipped, and it because it’s just a year in, both options are possible. Gupta could have seen the lay of the land after a year, and realized the ambitions he had for creating more private partnerships and a different way of looking at what a degree means weren’t going to come to fruition with the current culture. Or, he tried pushing some of these things and was clearly told, either by board members of the provincial government, that it really wasn’t going to fly, and so a “resignation” came forcefully.
https://justinmcelroy.com/2015/08/08/questions-for-ubc-in-the-wake-of-arvind-guptas-sudden-departure/Yonson: He was in the process of updating Place and Promise (UBC’s strategic plan), which had been Stephen Toope’s plan, so we had heard rumblings that the formal revision of that, and the new strategic phttps://justinmcelroy.com/2015/08/08/questions-for-ubc-in-the-wake-of-arvind-guptas-sudden-departure/lan under Gupta, was being thought about and would be made public soon for more discussion. So he was working towards that, but it’s not clear what the holdup was.
In the last year he certainly said that he had a vision for the university, but it was never really clear to anyone at the university—faculty, staff, or students—what that vision was, beyond finding money from other sources and internationalization. But ultimately, those are not actually specific goals, those are just big words you throw out there that sound okay but doesn’t actually mean anything to the lay person.
McElroy: The disadvantages of Gupta were pretty clear. He had never been a Dean, never been an administrator of a university outside of his fiefdom at Mitacs, but most people at UBC thought “Okay, this is the way we’re going to need to go in the future, and Gupta is probably the best person to get us there.”
There was a lot of excitement that this is probably the best-case bet of someone internally moving us forward. For him to resign after one year, I don’t know what it says about the long-term plan, but it certainly puts a pause on any of those possible changes.
Yonson: I think on paper, the lack of experience isn’t that different from when they hired Stephen Toope. And that was a bit of a gamble, but it seemed to pay off: a president who had a nice long reign and moved the university forward. I think they weren’t necessarily afraid of taking another gamble from someone with an unconventional background, but still, had a lot of experience in the academic side at least. And this time it appears the gamble didn’t work out.
(SIDENOTE: Last year, I wrote a two-part feature on Toope’s eight-year term as President, focusing largely on his first few years on the job.)
McElroy: Resignations at a place like UBC one year in, after an 18-month transition period…
Yonson: That is effective immediately…
McElroy: That is extremely shocking.
Yonson: Yes. And previously, when Stephen Toope resigned, he did it a year in advance, or close to it, which meant it was quite a bit more clear that it was a resignation under this own initiative, because he also wanted to give himself time to tie up loose ends and have a smooth transition, so there wouldn’t have to be an interim president as there is now.
McElroy: It is pretty amazing. Everyone had been assuming that changes were going to be coming to the university model for UBC. There were warnings the financial model can’t last, with tuition caps and post secondary funding being frozen but costs going up.
Yonson: But Gupta inherited a lot of that.
McElroy: And that was something that was going to break one way or another. And you also have all these new executives that have came in, with Toope’s executive generally resigning because there’s a new boss in town. So you not only put a pause on Gupta, but you can’t imagine any big changes will come at UBC until they get a new permanent president, and then you have another year before they enact changes. We’re looking at a three or four year period of one of Canada’s most important universities in strategic paralysis.
Yonson: Yes. And he’s not the only executive we’re missing. The number two in charge, the Provost, is an interim provost, because the previous Provost had tendered his resignation. We have an interim provost, we have an interim VP External, and we just got a new VP Finance that only started in June.
There’s a lot of fresh blood or vacant positions, not just the president. I think that the majority of the executive is either interim or less than a year old. If we thought we didn’t have a lot of direction under Gupta, there’s going to be even less for the time being.
McElroy: What exactly Piper does as interim president is yet to be seen. But given her philosophy when president from 1997-2006, it’s fair to say students who might think we’re going to get a student-friendly, tuition-cutting agenda will be disappointed.
Yonson: I don’t think anyone knows what to make of her. In the student ranks, nobody would have gone to school under her, and even most of the senior staff and faculty wouldn’t have served under her, since it’s been a decade now. I don’t know what to expect, and don’t know whether to expect to either have a big agenda. She’s going in as an interim leader, and going in as a steady hand on the wheel, rather than bring about huge changes in direction to the university.
McElroy: You’re on the ground at UBC more often these days than I. At this point, is there any sense what Gupta will be remembered for, in terms of tangible things that he did? He sort of reversed the athletic review to a certain extent…
Yonson: Which will probably prove to be an unwise move, since the athletic department is now losing a million and a half dollars a year, which is unsustainable for them, and the varsity program is bleeding money and having to be subsidized by the university.
Other than that, there are no huge accomplishments that he’s responsible for that wouldn’t have happened with someone else in the job. There were all sorts of funding announcements and grants announced, but those were probably unrelated to him being in the job.
McElroy: And any big-picture things he had going will be put on pause. You want to give the new person a clean slate.
Yonson: One of the big things that he actually did was put a halt on all capital projects, and some of them have not recovered. That’s something that didn’t move the university forward, and a lot of capital projects of varying priorities are in a holding pattern right now, waiting to see what happens. He’s responsible for that. Instead of things getting built, it’s things a year behind schedule or more.
McElroy: You usually see a little bit external dissent when things like this drop, or hints at least.
Yonson: There were hints on the ground. Externally, no. When someone comes into a job like this, they always have a bit of a honeymoon period, where everyone is on their best behaviour and nice to them, because why not? You don’t have any opinions formed, good or bad, and so you assume the best.
In the last year, certainly I’ve heard from people who are students, staff and faculty who are unhappy with things that had happened.
McElroy: I don’t think he really endeared anyone to him.
Yonson: Yeah. And it seems cliched to do the charm offensive, where you go and meet with everyone…
McElroy: Which is what Toope did…
Yonson: But he didn’t really do that. And I think that hurt him too. He didn’t endear himself because he didn’t try to endear himself. He kind of went off and did his own thing and didn’t really talk to anyone, and kind of shut himself off from the rest of the university. So once the honeymoon period was over, he hadn’t built any goodwill that he needed to to have allies or be well thought of.
On the staff side, there were many layoffs in the last year. On the faculty side, he got rid of a provost who was very generous to the faculties, and replaced the Provost with an interim person who will probably take a much harder line. He picked some fights with some faculties with how much funding they were getting and how they were spending their money, whereas previously they got to run their faculties as a fiefdom: if they ran a balanced budget they could spend it however they wanted.
So yeah, instead of getting allies he picked some fights that maybe needed to be fought. But he tried to spend political capital that he didn’t have and needed to build up. You need to build up your political capital in order to spend it, and he tried to…
McElroy: I think he assumed he already had it.
Yonson: He assumed that a lot of it came with the job. That’s not the case. And the other thing is, there was a board meeting this morning. If Gupta had truly resigned under his own steam, I think that’s something that could have been worked out without needing to convene all board members, who are very busy and important people, supposedly.
McElroy: This was an unscheduled board meeting.
McElroy: I can count on one had the number of those in the last ten years.
Yonson: That they tell you about.
So what happens next?
Let’s look at history. UBC has had two presidents resign in the past. When Kenneth Hare resigned in 1969, it was largely due to student unrest and Hare realizing he didn’t have the stomach for the job. The university responded by appointing the beloved, grandfatherly, Walter Gage, who had been at the university since almost its inception. He ran UBC for five years in a nondescript but competent fashion.
In 1985, it was David Pedersen who suddenly resigned, protesting mass cuts being made to the university’s budget by the provincial government of the day. The university responded by appointing U of T administrator and former NASA physicist David Strangway. He led UBC on a bold reinvention that led to the UBC of today—an internationalized, graduate-focused, research-focused, university.
Today’s resignation is different than those two. But the question going forward is the same. How does UBC’s board respond? And after a year of upheaval, is it to stay the course, or try and chart (another) new direction?
It’s a board of governors with financial executives and political appointees and others that, with just a couple exceptions, haven’t spoken publicly about university matters. It’s a provincial government that has put much more attention on colleges and trade schools than the institution they give over $500 million every year.
No one yet knows what they’ll do. And nobody knows yet why Gupta left suddenly today.
Should be a fun few months.
(For additional thoughts I had a day later, click here)