Searching for a president after disappearing another: The UBC conundrum

By Professor Leah Keshet

In August of 2015, the UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) sent some strongly worded letters to the administration and the Board of Governors, seeking open and full disclosure of the causes for termination of Professor Arvind Gupta’s presidency. This appears to have had no tangible result, to date, and the whole affair remains buried in secrecy. UBC is yet to comply and reply to scores of Freedom of Information requests. We, the faculty, have not been able to ascertain what happened and what is being kept from the university community. Unfortunately, it seems the UBCFA has chosen not to continue advocating for disclosure of the facts.

Now UBC is seeking a new president, and, according to the Chancellor, we, the faculty, are to “be engaged” in the process. But how can this happen when we have no clarity on why the previous president was curtailed? We might also wonder what presidential candidates would be told about the circumstances surrounding the departure of the previous president.

Perhaps the plan is to tell them nothing beyond what was shared with us faculty members. In that case, I worry that the university would attract candidates that are either naïve, or desperate enough to step into this important role without realizing what hornet’s nest they are stepping on. Surely, a candidate not willing to ask germane questions and to insist on clear answers does not belong in the league of leaders we want to attract to the UBC Presidency.

Or perhaps, the next President is to be chosen from amongst those involved in, or favorably inclined towards the ouster of the previous president (the so-called “old boy’s club”). But this scenario would merely replicate and reward the type of BoG behaviour that so many of us faculty members found unacceptable. It would not be a desirable outcome for the university under any circumstances.

A third alternative is that presidential candidates would be in on the “secrets” that are barred from the rest of the UBC community. In that case, I claim that there would be no checks or balances on the tall tales spun about the former president’s departure and the skewed view projected to incoming presidential candidates. After all, we have already heard just-so-stories ourselves, the funniest being that President Gupta simply decided one day to return to his faculty role where “he can best contribute to the university” – see “UBC Announces Leadership Transition”, Aug 7, 2015.

The UBC administration has claimed that it must respect a confidentiality agreement to avoid infringing on Professor Gupta’s privacy. It is not clear whether they can produce such a signed agreement (or whether, as I suspect, this convenient ploy is simply a way to hide their embarrassing mess). In any case, note the inconsistency of scenario three with such an agreement – if it exists. Sharing information with presidential candidates would contravene that supposed agreement.

In view of the above, we need the UBCFA, the only body representing us faculty members, to revisit the circumstances under which we lost our previous president, and to help bring clarity to what (other than the resignation of the Chair of the Board, John Montalbano) would make a new presidency viable. This could be done, for example, by asking the new Chair of the Board, Stuart Belkin, to initiate an independent review of the events surrounding the resignation of President Gupta, and to recommend enhancements to the University Act, that would strengthen UBC governance, to prevent such occurrences in the future. In addition, the review should include a recommendation on whether Dr. Gupta should be asked to reconsider his resignation, a sentiment shared by many of our colleagues.

Such steps would go a long way into renewing the confidence of the faculty in our university and in the body that represents their interests, confidence that was shattered by the events of early August, and that remains unrestored.

  • Leah Keshet is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of British Columbia.
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