UBC appoints a doer as its 13th President

imgresOnce again, UBC has steered clear of appointing a career university administrator for its top position. Unlike UofT and UVic, who opted for the ultimate insiders, and McGill, who went for a consummate bureaucrat, UBC has chosen to appoint a man of vision, with hardly any record in traditional university administration. But in Arvind Gupta, UBC is also betting on a formidable man of action, with considerable experience in conceiving, implementing and delivering innovative programs for advanced research, university-industry synergies, academic training, and job placement for university graduates. With this choice, UBC continues an honorable tradition of calculated risk-taking when dealing with its leadership. Continue reading

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Bye Bye Board

Yesterday was my last day on the UBC Board of Governors, the end of an extremely rewarding six-year stint. To the faculty who elected me decisively twice for the Board and another time for the Presidential search committee, I say thank you for your trust. I have tried to the best of my ability to present your perspective. I have also strived to inform about the issues, hence this (dreaded!) blog. My take on the experience? Well, it is a piece of cake for those who are in it for the cocktail parties. But it is surely stressful and exhausting to those who choose to speak their mind and stick their neck out when need be. The Board aspect of university governance works if and only if you work hard at it and speak up. “Governing” during the time of Stephen Toope was relentless, intellectually stimulating, and somewhat empowering. Yes, I have managed to accomplish a couple of things, and yes the experience was enriching, but these are not the only reasons why I feel fortunate to have served. Let me explain.

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Now that Government has listened to the research community, will NSERC?

“I’m in Ottawa at the moment at the NSERC Discovery Grant competition – it’s particularly disturbing,” wrote one colleague from engineering, confirming again that the budget pressure on NSERC’s Discovery Grant (DG) program is becoming untenable. Another Evaluation Group (EG) foolishly decided to take matters into its own hands, and asked to be bailed out by co-disciplinary grantees in different programs. It looks like some of our non-enlightened colleagues now think that poaching would address the question of sustainability of Canada’s capacity in scientific research. Budget 2014, however, is bringing with it some much-needed respite for NSERC’s marquee program. The question now is whether the government’s directives are strong and clear enough to get NSERC’s leadership to do the right thing immediately, so as to shore up the shortfalls in this year’s DG competition. Continue reading

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Budget 2014 is nothing short of a paradigm shift for Canada’s research and innovation

The substantial investment in university research that the Canadian government announced today is not the only story in Budget 2014. A bigger story may be the pivotal moment and the policy shift that it represents for this government on a research and innovation front, where it had been on the defensive. The $500 million to enhance the Automotive Innovation Fund may eventually end up being a subsidy for the Chrysler plant in Windsor, and the $222 million over 5 years for TRIUMF may be business as usual. The $37-million annual increase to the three research councils (NSERC, SSHERC and CIHR) could be seen as a positive change, even if in real dollars, CIHR’s budget has fallen 6.4% since 2009, NSERC’s has dropped by 5.7%, and SSHRC’s by 6.8%. However, the clear hint in the budget document that these new funds should be directed towards basic research, is already a big shift. But there is much more, and as far as I can see, two people could be singled out as the big winners of the 2014 research and innovation sweepstakes: not only for seeing their respective asks funded, but also for the dramatic policy shift that their line items in Budget 2014 represent. Continue reading

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Artists, Philanthropists, Politicians join mathematicians in celebrating BIRS-affiliate research facility in Oaxaca

ag1Today, I am in Oaxaca, Mexico, partying (literally) with the Director General of the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), Dr. Enrique Cabrero Mendoza, the Governor of the State of Oaxaca, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, Billionaire Philanthropist Harp Helú, several senior representatives of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), many other Mexican officials, and of course dozens of mathematicians who came here from every part of Mexico. The occasion? The announcement ceremony for the funding of a new research facility affiliated with the Banff International Research Station (BIRS). Thanks to a generous land donation from Francisco Toledo (arguably Mexico’s most eminent contemporary artist) and a 43-million pesos infrastructure grant from Conacyt (NSERC’s Mexican counterpart), the BIRS-affiliated Casa Matematica Oaxaca (CMO) is finally becoming a reality. Continue reading

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UBC Board approves improved faculty housing assistance program

It is hiring season at UBC and my inbox was feeling it. “Housing is proving a major factor in our current recruitment round. What is the status of the housing action plan,” wrote a department head. Similar queries were coming from many units currently engaged in competitive recruitment of the best and the brightest. Well, I have good news. The Board of Governors has just approved an improved version of the housing assistance program that was voted in September 2012. And the provost’s office has shifted into high gear in order to accommodate the current recruitment effort.

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Cost-cutting in post-secondary institutions: Rank and Yank, Lift and Shift

All the bulletins open with the same rhetoric: Universities are undergoing historic change due to the sharp downward shift in government funding, hence there is an urgent need to remove redundancy and cost while being able to preserve and improve service levels and academic excellence. 

The same goes for the implementation: Apply a “Dicksonian” approach to prioritize academic programs and services, and if in doubt hire external consultants. And don’t forget to plaster the word “excellence” all over your branding exercise to put a positive spin on what is often a dismantlement of years of collective responsibility, effort and achievement by dedicated faculty and staff. Continue reading

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