Prominent UBC Professor and FRSC, James Zidek, calls on Montalbano to resign

This is a comment directed to Mr. John Montalbano regarding the announced resignation of Professor Arvind Gupta from the Presidency of UBC. In my 49 years at UBC in various professorial and administrative positions, I have never seen a situation as badly mismanaged as that surrounding the so-called resignation of Professor Gupta. Even if one grants that there was a reasonable basis for the events that transpired, clear and open disclosure would have avoided the mess that UBC now finds itself in.

Beginning on a personal note, I served for a number of years on the MITACS Research Management Committee that was chaired by Professor Gupta while he was Director of MITACS. So I saw him in action on a great many occasions. I came to admire his shrewdly analytical mind that could easily see the signal through the noise and then skillfully and pragmatically follow through to appropriate action. He was always consultative in his approach to management and creatively exploited any opportunities those signals offered.

That process led to the many new MITACS programs created under Gupta’s leadership, that both succeeded and challenged proponents of the status quo. The overall result was some major new directions in research programs in Canada. So I, and many of my colleagues looked forward with great anticipation to an innovative new leader, who would effect change for the good, even during a difficult time for post secondary education in this Province.

Needless to say I am greatly disappointed by his so-called “resignation”. Moreover I have discounted the possibility that he simply wished to retire to the quite pastures of academe.

Now to comment on the the situation in which Montalbano now finds himself, I need an important administrative metaphor, the so-called “landmine”. I learned this word from a new Dean years ago when I met with him to request the new faculty position UBC had promised me during the negotiations leading up to my acceptance of the position of Head of Statistics. Not having heard about this commitment, he asked me for proof. I provided that by showing him my offer letter. “Ah yes” he said, “I see that UBC did promise you a position. But not the resources to fill it.” “Not true” said I, pointing to another sentence further down in the letter that promised exactly those resources. The surprised (and cash-strapped!) Dean jumped up, grabbed my letter and raced next door to his Administrative Assistant, where I heard him yell “M….., I have just stepped on a landmine!”

With respect Montalbano, I submit that you have just stepped on yours. You would not have seen it of course-that is why its called a landmine. In your relatively short time on the Board, you may not have learned that universities, unlike say banks, cannot be run from the top down. Instead the force for change comes from the bottom up, from their faculty and its students. Great university presidents have led their institutions by understanding and harnessing those forces.

You may not have known how well Professor Gupta was known internationally and respected in the Canadian academic community before he became UBC’s President. You likely did not know that in welcoming Professor Gupta to the UBC campus along with the National Network he created, then UBC President Toope extolled the new model for graduate education that Gupta’s MITACS had developed. Nor would you have foreseen the outpouring of feeling from a faculty for whom transparency is seen as a hallmark of a university’s being and freedom of information, a cornerstone of its existence. And most of all, you seem to have grossly underestimated the force of the explosion you set-off.

Do confront this situation now and do the right thing – the ultimate result is inevitable.

James V. Zidek, FRSC

Professor Emeritus of Statistics

University of British Columbia

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