Arvind Gupta's Mitacs touch didn't bring riches to UBC

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      At this point, it's not clear why Arvind Gupta resigned at UBC's president one year into his five-year term.

      In the absence of a meaningful explanation, it leaves plenty of room for speculation about why the computer scientist and former CEO of Mitacs decided to call it quits. (His replacement on an acting basis is former president Martha Piper.)

      Gupta was hired, in part, because he had exceptional connections with corporate Canada when he was heading Mitacs. It's a national nonprofit that supports industrial and applied research in mathematical sciences.

      As the Mitacs CEO, Gupta regularly met with corporate executives and federal government officials. 

      It's one reason why Gupta was viewed as an effective lobbyist of governments. And his knowledge of local issues had potential over the long term to help UBC achieve its dream of bringing rapid transit to the Point Grey campus.

      Among his shortcomings was no experience as a university dean, let alone as a university vice president. Gupta's three predecessors—Stephen Toope, Piper, and David Strangway—all had extensive administrative experience in universities prior to getting the top job.

      Follow the money

      So what happened during Gupta's first year in charge?

      There was a tug-of-war over his vision of unifying UBC's Point Grey campus and the Okanagan campus into one seamless institution. And there were perceptions that he didn't always have a harmonious relationship with university deans, who traditionally oversee their fiefdoms with little interference.

      Gupta also faced some tough financial challenges, which forced the administration to re-evaluate its operations.

      In 2014-15, UBC revenues declined slightly to $2.16 billion from $2.19 billion the year before. There were losses in investment income, tuition and student fees, and nongovernment grants, contracts and donations. 

      According to UBC financial statements, funding from the provincial government fell by $16.6 million in the last fiscal year. Funding from the government of Canada declined by $2.6 million.

      This year, UBC's budget assumes another $9-million drop in the provincial operating grant for the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.

      This suggests one of two things:

      • As UBC's president, Gupta may not have been able to wring a lot of new money in the provincial operating grant from a government led by Christy Clark.

      • The premier was in a mood to punish UBC after voters failed to reelect her in Vancouver–Point Grey in the 2013 election. (The Point Grey campus is in her former constituency.)

      The university's net debt rose in 2014-15 from $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion. 

      Rapid transit was a nonstarter

      Meanwhile, rapid transit to UBC remains a pipe dream after Lower Mainland voters resoundingly voted no in a transit and transportation plebiscite. If it had been approved, it would have only funded one-third of the $2-billion cost of a Broadway subway from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street.

      Even if the feds and the province covered the remaining two-thirds cost and the subway was built, UBC's Point Grey campus wouldn't have enjoyed any transit-related lift in land values for many years to come. That's because people would still have had to take the bus to get there.

      Some might see the mayors' refusal to recommend rapid transit all the way to UBC as proof that Gupta was no lobbying magician.

      The reality, however, is that UBC was never going to get rapid transit as long as most Vancouver MPs and MLAs were not on the government side of Parliament or the legislature. UBC was an irrelevant force in the recent plebiscite.

      Province brings down the hammer

      Since Clark became premier, the B.C. Liberal government has taken more aggressive measures to force postsecondary institutions to do its bidding.

      The last Ministry of Advanced Education service plan hyped liquefied-natural gas; universities have been expected to get on with the program. 

      Earlier this year, the B.C. Liberal government announced that postsecondary institutions' provincial operating grants are tied to their level of support of training for "in-demand jobs". Presumably, that includes the nascent LNG industry, which might never get off the ground. 

      "Funding for programs that support high-demand occupations will increase to 25% of annual operating grants provided to public post-secondary institutions, up to $460 million annually by 2017-18," the ministry stated in a news release.

      This intrusion into the management of universities came after the B.C. Liberals cut funding for postsecondary education from $1.85 billion to $1.83 billion.

      There hasn't been much research coming out of B.C. universities criticizing the premier's LNG forecasts. It's easy to see why when you consider how the government makes its funding decisions.

      Too many capital fundraising campaigns

      Another challenge facing Gupta was a plethora of capital-fundraising campaigns.

      University presidents are hired to raise money. Former UBC president Toope, was very successful, as was Piper when she was president from 1997 to 2006. But a new kid on the block, SFU's Andrew Petter, started making inroads with his pitch that he heads Canada's most community-engaged research university.

      Keep in mind that B.C. has a shortage of head offices. UBC is competing in the fundraising game against SFU, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver General Hospital, B.C. Children's Hospital, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and other high-profile organizations.

      UBC's news release today trumpeted a $66-million research grant that came during his tenure and more than $200 million raised overall. But it's not getting any easier.

      Prices of natural resources, including oil, have fallen sharply. Gold prices are at a five-year low, making it a lousy time for university presidents to go cap in hand to B.C.'s largest mining companies.

      Compounding Gupta's difficulties was a vibrant divestment campaign to get universities, including UBC, to dump its shares in fossil-fuel companies.

      It's conceivable that he decided to step down because the job wasn't nearly as fun as he thought it might be.

      Let's hope his resignation is not due to health reasons.

      What's next for UBC?

      Another explanation is that Gupta was encouraged to leave by UBC's board of directors. A majority is appointed by the B.C. Liberal government and it's conceivable that it wants to install someone favoured by the premier.

      These days, it's not unusual for university boards to hire former politicians as presidents. Elected officials are experienced in dealing with different interest groups, raising money, and navigating their way through controversy.

      SFU's Petter, University of Winnipeg's Lloyd Axworthy, and University of Ottawa's Alan Rock are three such examples. Emily Carr University of Art + Design recently appointed former attorney general Geoff Plant as its chancellor for some of the same reasons.

      As UBC's B.C. Liberal–dominated board casts its eye for its next president, don't be shocked if a former politician rises to the top of the list.

      That's because in this job, being good at math isn't nearly as important as being good at getting along with others and squeezing money out of governments and corporations.

      Comments

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      22 Comments

      Yeas but

      Aug 7, 2015 at 6:00pm

      I think it not really reasonable to lay the Fund Raising blame on him after just one year.

      The BC Liberals more likely want to appoint someone at UBC who will help them win that seat in the next election after being defeated much to their and Crusty's surprise.

      As usual the most likely explanation is Politics and getting that seat back and also to help the federal Cons the BC Liberals best Con conservative blossom buddies.

      But what concerns me about UBC the most is that 21.7% some 11,900+ are Foreign students growing at 17% year over year.

      That means we are subsidizing education for the elite of Communist China, India and South America people who mostly return to Beijing, Mumbai and Rio.

      That erodes our competitive advantage its bad for our local students (of any ethnic background) and costs us dearly in our hard earned dollars every year.

      Lets cap foreign students like top American Universities are doing, put a cap of 5% keep 95% of the seats for locals even if they only score 79 out of 100 not 95, jeez.

      Than you may get more support and funding from local Corporations especially small to mid sized business and the locals themselves.

      Ivor Mchugh

      Aug 7, 2015 at 7:02pm

      A university president needs, among other things, a rare combination of leadership, vision, and charisma. While Gupta's scientific pedigree earned him accolades, in person he comes off as arrogant and cold. I've met him socially at fund raisers and he registered as a very un-presidential president, so much so that I passed on a donation this year.

      Ivan the Ruskie

      Aug 7, 2015 at 7:38pm

      @Ivor... surely you jest.

      University Presidents now a days are more and more Political type appointments.

      Gupta is a real Academic he does not fit the Conservatives type of a Corporate yes Drone.

      As for Donors most don't really care about the President they give to get something in return, a Building/School named after themselves or some Corporate benefit from research etc.

      UBC given their budget and size lose and gain donors everyday in that context your minuscule donation in relation to their size means nothing.

      The real reason is probably more to do with the fact that he does not look like you.

      If you worship at the feet of those that 'look' and act 'Presidential' than your an idiot.

      Most Presidents either at Universities, Corporations and/or Countries are lame human beings serving their and/or their Political / Corporate masters agenda & are as replaceable as cheap shoes.

      Running a global Tech business I meet these types and ignorant people like you everyday.

      eagle_joe

      Aug 7, 2015 at 10:58pm

      I absolutely agree with the comments regarding too many foreign students at UBC. This situation is not only a problem at UBC, but many of our post secondary institutions have this problem. I for one would like to see actual stats regarding the number of positions that are reserved for foreign students, not only in BC, but all across Canada. I believe it would be upsetting for Canadian tax payers to know how many of their education tax dollars were spent educating foreign students. I understand that many part time jobs at UBC are given to foreign students. How many Canadian students have been turned away from post secondary learning institutions because of foreign student quotas? Oh look, can you see it on the horizon, I'm about to be hit with the racial card!

      Disgusted

      Aug 7, 2015 at 11:07pm

      First, make no mistake: Gupta would have been approved by the provincial government before his hiring (and they may have played a part in it, too). After all, he is more of a 'free enterprise' prez that his predessors. So, the Christie factor is a non-starter, I think.

      This has the smell of an internal internecine wrangle to it. I understandthat Gupta had made sweeping changes in personnel throughout the university, including shoving a fairly new 'operations rationalizer' out---and that it did not sit well in an institution that has 'its way of doing things around here.' I agree that he was also viewed as an outsider because he did not rise up through the usual clubby ranks. Sometimes the Board of Directors like to hold the reins of power a little too tightly. Especially those amongst them who hold long purse strings to contributors.

      I was actually surprised he got the job in the first place, given that fact. As a (still) publicly funded university we deserve to know exactly what has transpired here. This, after the botched job last year from the athletic department.

      Just because you're 'big' doesn't mean you know what the hell you're doing.

      LosAgeles actor

      Aug 8, 2015 at 12:11am

      Christy Clark is a mini Harper. She likes her own legacy to be built by her appointments. Gupta was great but didn't fit in the mold required to change The BC mindset to Christism.
      Wait till you see the same person Running Translink become the new UBC pres.

      @Disgusted

      Aug 8, 2015 at 1:38am

      "Just because you're 'big' doesn't mean you know what the hell you're doing."

      And how. Max Weber has a piece about how truly intelligent and useful people will hate Universities, because they are full of mediocrity.

      I agree with the comment about foreign students---my view is that UBC was founded to be free and that the province gave an irrevocable undertaking in 1915-16, published in the University Calendar, to pay for education. This is also confirmed in the University act 1908, which is a great reason about why they lie about the University being founded in 1915.

      “The province, through the university, undertakes to furnish instruction in the various branches requisite for a liberal education and in the technical branches that have a bearing upon the life and industries of the province.” (1915-16 Calendar)

      Free tuition makes for a free society. Paying tuition means that you deform the educational process. And it shouldn't just be free tuition, it should be free housing and food, everything necessary to go to school. If you disagree, you must think education is a privilege for the rich, not a right for everyone. Even developmentally disabled people should be given alternative University curriculum and degrees appropriate to their skill level; there is no excuse for our backward, racist, discriminatory University system. Everyone has a right to attend University and to take at minimum a 4 year Arts degree, which should be tailored to their special abilities, if they're not "normal." That's what a compassionate society would do.

      Charlie Smith

      Aug 8, 2015 at 7:29am

      I didn't put this in my highly speculative article, but we can't rule out the possibility that Gupta quit as a quiet protest against the premier's approach to postsecondary education.

      Here's another possibility: the minister of advanced education, Andrew Wilkinson, leaned on the board to push out Gupta because Wilkinson has someone else in mind for this prestigious and important job.

      @Charlie Smith

      Aug 8, 2015 at 10:40am

      You're a journalist. Has it occurred to you to simply ask him?

      Might be quicker and less of an affront on your readers than your 'all roads lead to Clark' thinking that spans your newspaper.

      in the hood

      Aug 8, 2015 at 1:09pm

      Seriously, Charlie???

      Why interview Mr Gupta when you can manufacture theories of which appear to be trying to drive your personal political agenda.

      As you noted in the Jon Stewart article...hints of manufactured media BS are everywhere.