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.