UBC faculty to the Premier of BC: Help us out of this crisis

Two new types of allegations came out regarding John Montalbano, since I wrote 2 weeks ago the open letter asking him to resign from the UBC Board of Governors. One deals with his role in potentially compromising the academic freedom of one of our colleagues, and is being currently investigated by former Supreme Court Judge, Lynn Smith. Another relates to alleged conflict of interest violations, a matter that the Faculty Association is currently pursuing. But the original premise of failed leadership remains unanswered. Mr. Montalbano is still on the Board (though not Chair) hoping to be sufficiently cleared by the fact-finding report to get back in the saddle. Keep in mind that the investigation deals with only one –though an important one– of the Chair’s alleged actions.

Yesterday, UBC faculty members started signing an open letter to Christy Clark, the Premier of British Columbia, in which they offer a constructive solution out of the imbroglio that UBC finds itself in. The proposal was initiated by a prominent BC businessman, who is trying to get donors and other friends of UBC to weigh in on the BC Government to intervene. Here is the letter and the link for those who want to sign it.  I will add a few personal comments below.

Premier of British Columbia Honourable Christy Clark

Dear Premier Clark,

The crisis at UBC is entering its third week and it continues to create deep fractures within the community. It has now extended well beyond campus and is headline news across the country. The reputational damage it is creating for UBC is immense and we see no sign of a solution on the horizon. With the start of the academic year fast approaching it is imperative that the situation be resolved.

We are facing a situation where a new President has resigned for no stated reason. We have a Board Chair who has lost the confidence of the UBC Faculty Association as well as the national Canadian Association of University Teachers, and who is currently the subject of a highly publicized investigation into his role in potentially compromising the academic freedom of one of our colleagues. Add to this the number of conflicts of interest that the Board Chair finds himself accused of, and one cannot but conclude that we have a serious governance problem at our flagship provincial university. In view of the available information we have in front of us, and to move quickly towards putting this unfortunate situation behind us, we believe the following solution is worthy of consideration by your government.

1. We suggest that you immediately dismiss John Montalbano from the Board of Governors of UBC and appoint as Chair a highly respected person with no links to the current Board. The newly appointed Chair can then oversee a thorough independent review of what has occurred and recommend enhancements to the University Act, so as to strengthen UBC governance and prevent such occurrences in the future (*). 

2. According to the official announcements, the reasons behind President Gupta’s resignation were not related to competency, health or discipline. Dr. Piper has also announced that the university will carry on with the vision and strategic plan that Dr. Gupta had formulated and initiated. We therefore recommend that the terms of reference of the independent review conducted by the Chair of the Board also include an investigation of the events surrounding the resignation. In addition, it should make a recommendation within 30-days on whether Dr. Gupta should be asked to reconsider his resignation.

While no solution is perfect, we believe that our recommendations offer the best way out of this crisis, and the best opportunity for the institution to start the healing process, which at this stage is so sorely needed.

(*) The letter also recommends a person for the job. “We view Dr. Martha Piper as a strong candidate for this role, as she is also wonderfully positioned to take leadership in ensuring a worthy centennial celebration for UBC and for BC. Dr. Angela Redish can then continue as acting president until the review and –if needed– a presidential search are completed.”

Let me add that I am concerned of the “band-aid” solution that the fact-finding mission is proposing. The Chair of a university board is supposed to be a gatekeeper of accountability, a role model of integrity, a guarantor of transparency, and a guardian of academic freedom. We find ourselves here waiting for a formal process to tell us whether — in only one of these universal academic values — our own Chair has sufficiently abided by rules he was supposed to uphold and protect.

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