Any discussion of governance reform that will move UBC forward, and facilitate the task of the next president, must not only address the procedural irregularities around Gupta’s dismissal, but must also identify those who resisted the former president’s proposed changes and priorities, so that we can learn their reasons, their motives, and the extent of their reach to Board members and other power brokers.
The now famous leaked memo from the previous Board Chair to the former president suggests that he was preparing a case for removal based on style, character, communication skills, and other “personal deficiencies” of the former president. The relatively generous settlement given to Gupta points to a dismissal without any impeachable cause, more in line with keeping him quiet than reprimanded. But in the few interviews he gave after the leaks, the former president seems to be hinting at some organized resistance against his “rethinking of priorities and refocusing on the academic mission.” He spoke on how “change can make some people uneasy.”
I suggest we pay more attention to these words. Who are these people that were resisting the refocusing on the academic mission? What are their connections to the Board, and more importantly, will they still be around, empowered and capable of stifling similar efforts by the next president, even if the latter is endowed with a Chancellor-approved dose of “emotional intelligence?”
A recent op-ed that appeared in two media outlets spoke volumes, though indirectly, to this issue and seems to carry an alarming answer. The author, who happened to be from the Sauder School of Business, was minimizing the scope of the governance crisis while pleading for the status quo. He was disparaging the leadership style of President Gupta while ignoring his strategic vision for UBC. He was fuming about a recent resignation of a governor/donor though it was totally unrelated to the faculty’s open displays of no-confidence. He was also laying all the blame for UBC’s woes on “the few friends of Arvind Gupta” in the Mathematics department. The bizarre op-ed can be viewed as a sequel to another by James Tansey, where he defends the actions of the former Board Chair/donor, while distorting Jennifer Berdahl’s perspective on why Gupta had resigned. What gives?
That the director of the Sauder-based Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing and his colleagues feel obligated to defend the actions of certain Board members is understandable. After all, the Sauder School is also home of the KPMG Research Bureau In Financial Reporting, of the Phillips, Hager & North Centre for Financial Research, and our current Chancellor seems to be the founding Director of the UBC Sauder School of Business Centre for CEO Leadership.
We may also accept that our colleagues in the Sauder School overestimate the reach of the UBC Mathematics department, not knowing that it is housed in the so-called “outhouse behind the crystal palace,” and unaware that the number of mathematicians roaming our university is a tiny fraction of the 800 of our colleagues who voted non-confidence in the Board.
But a transparent and accountable system should never tolerate UBC Presidents and Board members not being allowed to “speak out loud,” questioning hundreds of millions of dollars in commitments from capital and operating funds for non-core academic projects, just because an entrenched, entitled, and well connected fraternity had certified their business plans, their environmental case, and their contribution to “social innovation and impact investing.”
Some say that the “cozy relations” between the Sauder School and the UBC Board are natural and inevitable. I agree that if most government appointees on the Board are to be drawn from financial managers, developers, accountants and entrepreneurs, then it is obvious that, in one way or another, there will be a close connection to the Sauder School. And surely enough, many Governors seem to have “graduated” from various Sauder school advisory committees and councils to the Board of Governors. Some continue to participate.
But this only adds to the urgency of having these relationships and the so-called “Ivorywashing” closely monitored, since otherwise they are destined to create a perfect storm of bias, conflict of interest, skewed financial decisions, and worse of all, end-runs from Deans and individuals closely connected to specific trades and professions.
This is not to mean that Board members are unable to manage their conflicts. I will always remember and admire the strong, principled and courageous stands of former Chancellor Sarah Morgan-Sylvester and Governor Maureen Howe, including on deals and projects, where Sauder, their former alma matter, was implicated. These were the times when Boards supported the president and upheld their fiduciary responsibilities.
That UBC exploits, develops, and leases its relatively large land endowment with minimal academic focus puts it in a special category in terms of governance and oversight. The recent attempts to also make it some kind of a power utility, and a business model for experimental sustainability initiatives, make it even more so.
UBC’s involvement in so many non-academic ventures makes it an unusual university to govern and preside over. A review of its governance should call for a closer monitoring of the myriads of conflict-of-interest situations that such ventures are destined to create. Otherwise, no future president will be able to bring the university back to its core academic mission.