An open letter to John Montalbano, chair of the UBC Board of Governors

Dear Sir,

I have been a faculty member at UBC for 38 years, and I have served this great university in many other functions, including six years on the Board of Governors (2008-14), three of them on the Board’s Management Resources Compensation Committee (MRCC). I was elected by the faculty to the presidential search committee, which eventually chose Arvind Gupta, after evaluating hundreds of files during an eight-month deliberation period. You were also a key member of that committee, as Chair of the Board.

Last Friday, I read your joint announcement with the Chancellor, informing the world that President Gupta has decided to resign after only 13 months on the job. This news took many of us by surprise, as would be expected. What was not expected is that you, the Chair of the Board, were also “surprised” by this resignation, at least according to the Vancouver Sun.

This could only indicate that you, Mr. Chair, have erred, either in hiring Gupta, or in not anticipating the crisis, reading the situation, and providing the support you and the chancellor were expected to provide, so as to ensure that the president is successful.

Frankly, your botched announcement has caused disrepute to our university. The lack of clarity and the suspicious timing have triggered rumors and innuendos that UBC can live without. You don’t seem to be aware that “an early lack of transparency and full communications can heighten the risk of a major crisis erupting.” And this eruption is happening now, under your watch.

You seem to have been taken off-guard by the Faculty Association’s request for clarity on the situation. Surprisingly, now you say that the full Board needs to confer, after the fact, to prepare answers. You seem to have failed to understand that ours is an institution that thrives on collegiality and respect across all of its stakeholders, and that its leadership must embrace the basic principles of shared governance.

Your understanding of university leadership and transitions is perplexing. We don’t hold our heads high when “Inside Higher Education” reports to the whole academic world: “When Mr. Montalbano suggested in the Globe & Mail that a university president is de-facto as disposable as a Swiffer Duster, it made me wonder if something else is going on and if risks are being taken with the future of my alma mater.”

This type of understanding may have led you to direct UBC into this unfortunate state of affairs. For one, the impact on the faculty was demoralizing. To them Gupta was a breath of fresh air, and their outcry reflects their high expectations from a president who valued their opinion, recognized their core academic values, and committed his support for their vision of excellence.

You must be aware that the last presidential search, inauguration, and transition costs alone are counted in the millions of dollars. Have you led the Board to ponder the massive financial waste of taxpayers’ money associated with all the personnel changes that accompany three presidential appointments in just over two years? Did you discuss the loss of momentum and reputational damage to an institution that will be dealing with a prolonged period of unstable, incoherent, and unfocused management?

Martha Piper’s message to the community speaks of the continuation of Gupta’s reforms and strategic plan. This indicates that this situation was not prompted by the president’s bold vision, but by an operational environment that you, the chancellor and the Board are supposed to oversee and keep honest.

One case in point is the brouhaha that is linking Gupta’s resignation to the departure of 3 Vice-presidents from the previous administration. From my own experience on the Board, such personnel changes are pre-approved by the MRCC, on which you and the chancellor sit. Have you given the president the support he needed, when these changes started making the news?

PSE historians relate that the most common factors that derail even the most visionary of presidencies are inordinate levels of interference by Board members on the president’s operational space, end-runs by deans and other subordinates trying to appeal directly to Governors, and an environment of extreme stress often caused by continuous harassment that can happen at any level of responsibility.

Did the Board debrief the president to learn if any of the above led to this short-lived presidency, and whether you and the chancellor have performed as expected to prevent such situations in your role as a key support to the president? I ask you because, if these issues are left unattended, no future president of UBC will be able to succeed, and the current impasse will be back soon to haunt us again.

A failure of a president is also reflective of the performance and the failure of the Board Chair, especially when the latter has both actively participated in the selection and convincingly shepherded the appointment through the Board. My question is therefore: Given the impasse we are currently facing, what guarantees UBC that your leadership will lead us to the right person next time around?

You often said in public and in private that you and Gupta are “brothers in arms. He fails, I fail.” Now that President Gupta has stepped down, unable to carry-on with his mission, it seems fitting that you, Sir, should do the same.

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17 Responses to An open letter to John Montalbano, chair of the UBC Board of Governors

  1. Pingback: Where in the World is John Montalbano? | UBC Insiders

  2. Nilima Nigam says:

    These are perplexing times indeed. May I ask who John Montalbano and Lindsay Gordon _are_? They don’t seem to be part of the UBC directory. From this lack of identification, I can only infer they don’t consider themselves permanent parts of the UBC community. Some sources report them as being on vacation.

    Certainly as an outsider from another academic institution, the current situation at UBC comes as a shock. This has not been handled with the high standards of transparency and professionalism we expect of your institution.

  3. Pingback: UBC prof claims comments about former president's departure led to intimidation - News Canada

  4. Gerald Porter says:

    Let’s hear it for academic freedom. The B of G are heading down a stony path!

  5. Pingback: UBC professor Jennifer Berdahl claims administrators tried to gag her | Lokalee - Trusted Reviews & Ratings On Your Local Business Directory - USA - Canada

  6. Pingback: UBC to investigate professor's allegations of intimidation | Infos Press

  7. Pingback: Controversy around UBC leadership escalates after alleged breach of academic freedom | Globalnews.ca

  8. Pingback: UBC To Investigate Prof. Jennifer Berdahl’s Claim She Was Gagged | Canada Press

  9. Pingback: UBC To Investigate Prof. Jennifer Berdahl's Claim She Was Gagged - Sean Says So

  10. Pingback: UBC to investigate professor's allegations of intimidation | Infos.Link

  11. Pingback: UBC to investigate Prof. Jennifer Berdahl’s claim she was gagged | Lokalee - Trusted Reviews & Ratings On Your Local Business Directory - USA - Canada

  12. Pingback: UBC to investigate professor's allegations of intimidation - News Canada

  13. Pingback: UBC to investigate Prof. Jennifer Berdahl’s claim she felt ‘gagged’ | Lokalee - Trusted Reviews & Ratings On Your Local Business Directory - USA - Canada

  14. Peter Bell says:

    Hear, hear.

  15. Pingback: UBC faculty to the Premier of BC: Help us out of this crisis | Piece of Mind

  16. Pingback: UBC, WTF? | Whiteboard Workout

  17. Pingback: Artificial Intelligence uncovers how Gupta and Montalbano became blood brothers | Piece of Mind

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