Nassif Ghoussoub: John Montalbano should resign as chair of the UBC board of governors

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      Dear Sir,

      I have been a faculty member at UBC for 38 years, and I have served this great university in many other functions, including six years on the Board of Governors (2008-14), three of them on the Board’s Management Resources Compensation Committee (MRCC). I was elected by the faculty to the presidential search committee, which eventually chose Arvind Gupta, after evaluating hundreds of files during an eight-month deliberation period. You were also a key member of that committee, as Chair of the Board.

      Last Friday, I read your joint announcement with the Chancellor, informing the world that President Gupta has decided to resign after only 13 months on the job. This news took many of us by surprise, as would be expected. What was not expected is that you, the Chair of the Board, were also “surprised” by this resignation, at least according to the Vancouver Sun.

      This could only indicate that you, Mr. Chair, have erred, either in hiring Gupta, or in not anticipating the crisis, reading the situation, and providing the support you and the chancellor were expected to provide, so as to ensure that the president is successful.

      Frankly, your botched announcement has caused disrepute to our university. The lack of clarity and the suspicious timing have triggered rumors and innuendos that, frankly, UBC can live without. You don’t seem to be aware that “an early lack of transparency and full communications can heighten the risk of a major crisis erupting.” And this eruption is happening now, under your watch.

      You seem to have been taken off-guard by the Faculty Association’s request for clarity on the situation. Surprisingly, now you say that the full Board needs to confer, after the fact, to prepare answers. You seem to have failed to understand that ours is an institution that thrives on collegiality and respect across all of its stakeholders, and that its leadership must embrace the basic principles of shared governance.

      Your understanding of university leadership and transitions is perplexing. We don’t hold our heads high when “Inside Higher Education” reports to the whole academic world: “When Mr. Montalbano suggested in the Globe & Mail that a university president is de-facto as disposable as a Swiffer Duster, it made me wonder if something else is going on and if risks are being taken with the future of my alma mater.”

      This type of understanding may have led you to direct UBC into this unfortunate state of affairs. For one, the impact on the faculty was demoralizing. To them Gupta was a breath of fresh air, and their outcry reflects their high expectations from a president who valued their opinion, recognized their core academic values, and committed his support for their vision of excellence.

      You must be aware that the last presidential search, inauguration, and transition costs alone are counted in the millions of dollars. Have you led the Board to ponder the massive financial waste of taxpayers’ money associated with all the personnel changes that accompany three presidential appointments in just over two years? Did you discuss the loss of momentum and reputational damage to an institution that will be dealing with a prolonged period of unstable, incoherent, and unfocused management?

      Martha Piper’s message to the community speaks of the continuation of Gupta’s reforms and strategic plan. This indicates that this situation was not prompted by the president’s bold vision, but by an operational environment that you, the chancellor and the Board are supposed to oversee and keep honest.

      One case in point is the brouhaha that is linking Gupta’s resignation to the departure of 3 Vice-presidents from the previous administration. From my own experience on the Board, such personnel changes are pre-approved by the MRCC, on which you and the chancellor sit. Have you given the president the support he needed, when these changes started making the news?

      PSE historians relate that the most common factors that derail even the most visionary of presidencies are inordinate levels of interference by Board members on the president’s operational space, end-runs by deans and other subordinates trying to appeal directly to Governors, and an environment of extreme stress often caused by continuous harassment that can happen at any level of responsibility.

      Did the Board debrief the president to learn if any of the above led to this short-lived presidency, and whether you and the chancellor have performed as expected to prevent such situations in your role as a key support to the president? I ask you because, if these issues are left unattended, no future president of UBC will be able to succeed, and the current impasse will be back soon to haunt us again.

      A failure of a president is also reflective of the performance and the failure of the Board Chair, especially when the latter has both actively participated in the selection and convincingly shepherded the appointment through the Board. My question is therefore: Given the impasse we are currently facing, what guarantees UBC that your leadership will lead us to the right person next time around?

      You often said in public and in private that you and Gupta are “brothers in arms. He fails, I fail.” Now that President Gupta has stepped down, unable to carry-on with his mission, it seems fitting that you, Sir, should do the same.

      Nassif Ghoussoub is a professor of mathematics and a former member of the board of governors at UBC. This article originally appeared on his blog.

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      14 Comments

      Disgusted Citizen

      Aug 13, 2015 at 6:01pm

      I find it disgusting that UBC is in a large Debt position of $300 to $400 million while these Board of Directors get great compensation compared to the average Canadian.

      It's typical of the Conservative's (this board is mostly BC Liberal Conservative selected and/or supports them) to run up structural deficits while claiming to be doing a great job.

      The fact that this Chair stated that University Presidents are disposable as Swift Dusters shows a complete lack of professionalism and on it's own ought to be grounds for removal and/or resignation but I suspect feasting at the Public funded buffet table is too enticing.

      Board members and Chairs especially of institutions running a huge deficit and murky resignations and the waste associated are as disposable as used toilet paper.

      UBC, the Government and the people of this province who fund these people ought to dispose of this Chair and the Board as disposable so they understand the concept more fully.

      It's just disgusting the gross waste, a place of mind ought to change to a place of gross waste and incompetence by the Board.

      Disgusting that we all pay for this rubbish.

      Simple Dollars and Cents

      Aug 13, 2015 at 6:45pm

      For all the speculation one of the more obvious things seem to be ignored.

      UBC has a serious Deficit of about $400+ Million. The UBC Board is responsible for this.

      The firings and/or redundancies of VP's, middle management and other staff some under Gupta's watch but not his fault he inherited this mess.

      UBC DEBT / DEFICIT REDUNDANCIES, GUPTA TAKES BLAME UNFAIRLY.

      The firings and redundancies are to reduce the Debt burden and get the Deficit down.

      Those being fired & the very mostly white faculty & privileged staff kept running to the Board which was forced to become more engaged.

      UBC Board Had to do a bit of Work over Spring Break & Summer Gasp they could not have that.

      Here the Board has to interrupt their holier than thou Spring & Summer breaks & gasp actually do a little real work, dealing with some firings and complaints from people losing their kushy overpaid jobs at UBC.

      The Board getting more involved in the daily operations when they expect to collect their checks and not have to do that type of work which is beneath them in their little minds.

      The Board and Chair than gave Gupta his walking papers via a negotiated settlement allowing him to come back as a Prof in 2016 all very nice.

      The Debt / Deficit cutting of staff the Board knew that it would blow back so they needed a convenient fall guy, what better than a nice Brown guy to take the fall as President for their mess accumulated over the last decade.

      "Disposable as Swift Duster Presidents" UBC Chair, Sacrificial Lamb = Gupta.

      The Board gets to deflect blame offer the sacrificial lamb in this case Gupta and continue on Deficit cutting via chopping payroll making staff redundant while keeping their nice gold plated pay checks, expenses and pensions.

      Thus the Disposable statement by the Board Chair & Gupta "quitting".

      My Recommendations.

      Fire the entire Board and Chair, start fresh.

      UBC Deficit and Financial position by Standards & Poors Analysts sourced here via UBC Treasury website circa 2014...

      http://treasury.ubc.ca/files/2010/08/RatingsDirect_Analysis_1297446_Apr-...

      UBC Student

      Aug 13, 2015 at 7:05pm

      Yes, this irresponsible chair of board of governors definitely needs to be disposed from UBC.
      However, how can UBC get President Gupta back?!

      Alex Schnee

      Aug 13, 2015 at 9:00pm

      I am getting the impression that Gupta tried to turn this real estate company back into a university and that this wasn't too popular among certain people.

      Float plane

      Aug 13, 2015 at 10:20pm

      Um I'm pretty sure these are unpaid positions. The writer of the article, on the other hand, earned $241,277 last year.

      E Hodgson

      Aug 14, 2015 at 10:33am

      Thank you, Dr. Ghoussoub, for naming the shared responsibility of the Board in this fiasco.

      Another Trencher

      Aug 14, 2015 at 12:23pm

      Actually, Dr. Ghoussoub, if you are a friend to Dr. Gupta, you should maybe stop calling for explanations into your friend's departure as eventually it's going to come out how far in over his head he was in the president's role.

      In the year that Dr. Gupta has been at the helm, he fired two VPs and relegated the Provost to a non-job; rumour has it he hangs out in an office in the Chemistry building all day, collecting his pay. The CIO and the Principal of Vantage College have both quit. There have been an enormous number of lay-offs of staff. All the talk about Dr. Gupta being about to 'roll-out his strategic plan' is a joke given that anyone who worked in his vicinity knew that he couldn't actually articulate a plan to the Board of Governors. Dr. Gupta may be excellent at working with industry, but he and the people he brought into the President's office did not understand how to make a university function, and they were incredibly difficult to try to work with.

      The Board of Governors definitely should accept some responsibility in this unfortunate incident, but the majority of the fault rests at Dr. Gupta's doorstep.

      @Another Trencher

      Aug 14, 2015 at 1:17pm

      How to make a University function? Well, here's what you do: you fulfill your statutory duties. The University has statutory duties, you know. It is like the Waterworks. If anyone started talking about our need for "world class" talent in the waterworks, I'd wonder what's up. Everyone knows what a waterworks is supposed to do; University is to Waterworks as Knowledge is to Water. Waterworks transmits water, Universities transmit knowledge. At least, that is the common sense approach---the real truth is that they're employment projects for their staff.

      So, I can see why firing people would rile some people up. Our University-cum-real-estate-developer-cum-CUPE-employment-center might not like the idea that cuts are possible; after all, the real purpose of the University is to provide jobs for University graduates. In that sense, it is like any cult: you buy in, you get groomed, and if you do really well there is a job for you in the end, so that you can groom more customers and perpetuate the cycle.

      The truth is probably somewhere inbetween. But, you know, it's interesting how we've had decades of austerity for BC's poor, most of whom are natives, and this gigantic welfare project called the University for all sorts of "world class" talent. The University has statutory positions, like President, Chancellor, Senators, etc. but vice presidents are not statutory, so they must not be essential. Like many public institutions the management suffers from severe bloat---take IT. IT was heralded as a way to streamline and make things more efficient. Except it doesn't. Universities were way more efficient when everything was done on paper. We don't have fewer secretaries now, and we have a huge bloated IT bureaucracy.

      So how is it that the University didn't function? Did kids stop attending classes? Were exams delayed? But if by function you mean the second function I identify, not the statutory one, then I can see your point---if the function is really just an employment project.

      University Bolshevic Communist

      Aug 14, 2015 at 2:16pm

      Well Ghoussoub, put your money where your mouth is. Use that big brain of yours to do a better job of being president. Don't punk out either because you already called shit out when you went off on the board.

      Yet another trencher

      Aug 14, 2015 at 3:10pm

      The function of a university is to teach students, contribute to new knowledge through research, and provide service to the community that supports it financially.

      If you think the university functioned better when it was paper-based, you're off base. The number of CUPE 2950 staff (clerical) has decreased dramatically over the past 20 years at UBC. The biggest increases in staff numbers have been in IT and Development (fund raising); if it weren't for Development, a lot of the research currently being done wouldn't take place. Another group that has shown a large increase is those who work with students. These are people that have been hired to assist the disadvantaged groups you have mentioned gain a better chance of being admitted to UBC, then supported throughout their studies - they're also the people that work with students to help them develop skills that will help them secure a job once they've graduated.

      So cut back on the staff and return to the university of the 1950s. Less diversity and less research.