Questions for UBC in the wake of Arvind Gupta’s sudden departure

Well, I promised to write yesterday’s post on the sudden resignation of UBC President Arvind Gupta (after an unscheduled board meeting, on a Friday afternoon, effective immediately) and then head back to my vacation.

But given the lack of information out there, and the number of people suddenly curious in the machinations of B.C.’s largest educational institution, I figured it might be helpful to put out some thought bubbles.

After all, the head of one of British Columbia’s largest job creators stepped down yesterday. On the same day, so did the CEO of a patent-producing powerhouse, the overseer of a major development company, and the de facto mayor of an influential district bordering Vancouver.

Not to mention a university president.

Only one job application will be created for these openings. When you’re President of the University of British Columbia, you wear many hats.

So here’s some things to consider as we gaze into the void:

1. People are demanding some sort of explanation and transparency from UBC. After all, the president is generally the highest paid public servant in B.C., the university receives hundreds of millions in grants and donations every year, and people believe a public university should behave, well, publicly.

They may be waiting a while.

The modus operandi of UBC’s Board of Governors has long been to act like a private board, shielding sensitive topics from public discussion. Governors appointed by the provincial government are tight-lipped, while elected student and faculty representatives are pressured not to speak publicly about how decisions are reached. They hold ten meetings a year, but the second half of those meetings are always private, with journalists, curious students/faculty and others kicked out for the more controversial subjects. And just two months ago, there was a proposal to ban any independent recordings of meetings (it was pulled from the agenda at the last minute).

The people who do talk at UBC when controversy strikes? That would be the administration…which currently has an interim president who won’t take office until September 1, an interim provost and VP Academic, an interim VP Communications, and a VP Finance who’s only been on the job for 50 days. There aren’t a lot of senior administrators with the capital and experience who could speak on this…even if they wanted to.

And as for Gupta? When a CEO of a company suddenly resigns but stays in the organization (he’ll return to the Department of Computer Science), it generally means a healthy severance and non-disclosure agreement. I’d be shocked if he, or anyone close to him, speaks on the record about his quick departure for some time to come.

But absent information, rumours will flourish and concern will grow—among faculty, staff, and the alumni community. Which is why the person announced as the interim President is so important.

2. For Martha Piper, who takes office on September 1, it is deja vu all over again.

When she became UBC President in 1997, her biggest job was managing a burgeoning public relations disaster caused by her predecessor, David Strangway.

See, there was this big international conference planned on campus, with a bunch of world leaders, except it had already been agreed that they would be shielded from students, and there were secret arrests by the RCMP and protests and pepper spray and…yeah.

Though not responsible for the situation, Piper had to explain to everyone what had happened, why it was regrettable—and why it shouldn’t happen again.

“If they approached us to hold APEC again, and there was no way for students and the public to interact with the leaders, it would not be appropriate,” she said to The Tyee in 2006.

But that was never in the cards. Strangway announced the summit would be held at UBC in 1996, before Piper was even named president. The terms of UBC’s involvement had already been set.

Not for the first time, Piper’s path had already been laid out. Her nine years as President weren’t marked by any large changes to UBC’s philosophy, but a desire to grow upon Strangway’s foundation—focusing on research, international partnerships, world rankings, building a mini-city fully controlled by the university, with less focus on undergraduate learning—without causing harm.

Heck, she admitted as such when her term was done.

“I only hoped I could do no harm, I didn’t want to see it pull back. I wanted to honour what David had put in place,” she said 2008.

But while Piper was not exactly beloved by students (if not quite as reviled as her predecessor), the opposite was true with government officials. Federal funding shot through the roof during her tenure, UBC’s rankings increased, and analysts gave her enormous credit for persuading the government into action.

“Piper was one of three or four university presidents who, during the Chretien and Martin governments were very, very instrumental in helping to shape policies that produced great benefit for post-secondary research infrastructure and therefore a great benefit to the country’s economic future. She made it her business to develop a network in Ottawa and she was amazingly successful. Martha always had a national vision and a universal or global context. She realized that UBC could only go to the next level if she set her sights above being a good university in B.C. That took her to Ottawa and outside the country and it made her one of a maybe a dozen people who were key movers in the Chretien era,” said Jeffery Simpson of the Globe and Mail.

“I wanted to see her as much I could. Everyone did,” said Eddie Goldenberg, Chretien’s senior political advisor.

“When she was lobbying for funding for indirect costs (of research), she said she would keep coming to see us until the costs were approved. We would have given her the money much more quickly if she had threatened to stop coming.”

Given all that it’s easy to see why, from the perspective of UBC’s stability, Piper is the ideal choice as interim president. She’ll stay the course. Lead a team effectively. Reassure governments and influential donors. She’ll know which buttons to press in the first few weeks on the job. She’ll know how to talk turkey with the board, and bring a sunny disposition to the president’s office.

These are not insignificant qualities, and I suspect the availability of Piper gave the board much more confidence in making this decision, and having Gupta’s resignation take effect immediately. She gives them a chance to take a breather while they choose a permanent successor. If I had to wildly guess, she’ll stick around until the middle of 2016.

What type of person will her successor be? We won’t have many clues until the Board of Governors announces who is on the selection committee, and what they write for the position profile.

(Oh, Also: you’re going to hear a few jokes about someone called “Bort”. You’re going to be very confused. Read this. Scroll down to the fourth paragraph. Piper told that story to every UBC student on their first day of class for years. Now you know.)

3. Everyone I’ve talked to in the last day has suggested that Gupta’s resignation wasn’t exactly 100% of his choosing, and it was based on recent events. So if we accept that this was more a decision of the Board of Governors, and it was about something big, the key question is:

Do the Board of Governors still agree with the path Gupta wanted UBC to embark on? Or did they simply think, for whatever reasons, Gupta was no longer the person to lead them there?

The crunch facing large Canadian universities is evident. UBC wants to continue rising up the world university ranking lists—but it doesn’t have the endowments or tuition flexibility of Harvard and Yale. It doesn’t get the government funding that universities in Europe and China receive. And they face a complex arrangement with funding and jurisdiction.

UBC had made it work for the last two decades by exploiting their comparative advantages—namely, having a huge amount of land they could sell (sorry, give 99-year leases) to developers, and aggressively increasing enrolment, donors and partnerships internationally, primarily with Asia.

But those avenues will face diminishing returns: UBC is running out of land to develop, and they’re running out of room to raise international tuition or enrolment.

Gupta offered UBC a way forward in such a difficult climate: create more partnerships with businesses, focus on preparing students for careers, utilize research and technological advantages whenever possible.

It was a general framework he enthusiastically talked about. It was a framework that seemed tailor-made for the governments of the day, and by a person lauded for his skills in government relations. Ultimately, he never had a chance to implement it.

Is it because the board of governors didn’t agree with a specific proposal?

Was there a flashpoint with faculty, or the board, or the provincial government?

Was it the wrong plan, the wrong person, or the wrong fit with the board and provincial government?

And if it was the wrong fit, whose responsibility is that?

There’s a limited number of people who know, and they aren’t talking.

But whatever the reason, it puts UBC in a world of hurt. Four senior executives have resigned in less than a year. The strategic direction, on pause for the last 18 months, is now frozen. The financial cost and reputation of pressing the reset button is great.

When she arrives in September, Martha Piper will give reassurances to the community, and provide some sense on how UBC will move forward in the coming year.

Until then, UBC’s Board of Governors has a lot to answer for.

Will they?

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