This post was published by the Vancouver Sun.
My first reaction to the resignation of UBC president Arvind Gupta was relief – Arvind’s nightmare was finally over. He could go back to what he does best: work to make this country better without the shackles and the indignities he endured over his 13-month presidency. My own moments of resignation didn’t last long. A few days later, I learned of the Jennifer Berdahl story and decided that UBC had seen enough hurt. The latest leaks have now brought to light an unacceptable level of ad-hoc, ruthless, and possibly illegitimate actions occurring at the highest levels of our flagship university. I will try to reconcile what they reveal with what I experienced first-hand.
Unlike what the UBC Board chair told the Vancouver Sun– the leaks revealed that the resignation of Gupta was not a “surprise” for him nor did he find it “regrettable”. And contrary to what the Chair told the Globe & Mail, the president didn’t have the support of the Board in his dealing with disgruntled Deans and subordinates. And as opposed to what the Chair and the Chancellor announced last August, we now know that it was a small clique of Board members that actually drove the president out. These are just a few of the untruths to come out last week.
I’ve known Arvind Gupta for over 20 years and he is no quitter. Yet I understood why he resigned on August 7. His life since being announced President was closer to Jean Valjean’s than to James Madison’s. This aspect of the story is the most harrowing for me. Last week’s leaks made it even more so.
It takes serious time for an incoming president to grasp the complexities of an institution such as UBC and adapt to historical entitlements, power brokers’ expectations, and turf borderlines. Arvind Gupta was never given that chance. Efforts to undermine his presidency started soon after the decision of the search committee was made. Accusations similar to those in the humiliating and disingenuous (leaked) memo by the Chair and the Chancellor started to circulate among some members of an entrenched UBC guard even before Gupta’s presidency had begun.
In early February 2015, a Board member warned me that another governor was trying “to lure him to the other camp.” What camp, I asked? “those who want to topple Arvind,” he responded before the Secretary to the Board, who was present, put an end to the exchange.
And so, the knives were already out while the President was working around the clock on his agenda, including professionalizing university and Board governance. Was I really hearing of a plot to topple a president, a mere 4 months after his installation? I told the Board Secretary how fraught this dangerous path would be. “The university would implode,” I said, and followed up – somewhat naively – with, “the Premier will never allow it to happen.”
Gupta was an activist president. He was feverishly advocating for Transit to UBC, for a National Student Mobility Program, and a new research council to support early career researchers. He was working on a $30-million Centennial Scholarship Fund for students, on an ambitious faculty recruitment and retention initiative, and on housing assistance among other projects. He was moving fast on many files. I could not imagine, however, that some would use this very pace and effort to help justify the undoing of his presidency.
Gupta was also trying to resolve several thorny and unfinished issues left over by the previous administration: a mishandled Athletics file, a controversial “Vantage college,” disagreements over copyrights, a faculty housing plan that never got off the ground, a bloated administration, as well as various pre-approved big ticket capital expenditures, including IT and district energy. Extinguishing fires and reversing decisions while surrounded by those who started them in the first place is a tricky proposition.
Gupta must have been perceived as a nosy president by just wanting to understand every aspect of the university, including UBC Property Trust. I’ve known him long enough to guess how the optimizer in him would try to recover every non-efficiently used resource to achieve his ultimate goal: invest heavily and fast in academic excellence. I think he underestimated the resistance to his open book policy and his demands for accountability and good governance.
Things started becoming clearer to me, when in April I received a phone call from the Chair of the Board. I was disturbed enough by the conversation that I followed up with him by email: “I don’t know where you are getting your information from, but you have to be extremely mindful of university politics and personal agendas, by keeping ABOVE it. AG needs to be supported and given a chance to execute his extremely ambitious plans.” Montalbano responded, “Arvind and I are brothers in arms. He fails, I fail.”
That spring, it was clear that Arvind was hurting. After one encounter with him, I remember telling my kids to watch out: bullying and harassment can come in all shapes and forms and at any level of responsibility.
In late-May, the president asked me whether in my experience as a Board member, the Chair could call meetings for committees of the Board without notifying all members, including the President? I’m not a governance expert but I do know that during my six years on the UBC Board, we didn’t hold a single in-camera session without president Toope.
Many members of the UBC community are asking vital questions about process, governance, transparency, accountability, and legality. It is also essential that we ask to be governed by principles of fairness, morality, and decency. Many of these qualities appear to have been missing at my institution in the past year.