There are many puzzled, devastated, concerned and angry friends, colleagues and citizens wanting to learn about what happened at UBC last Friday evening. How can a promising energetic UBC president with far-reaching and refreshing ideas be led to resign after only 13 months in office. For many of them knew that Arvind Gupta is no quitter. This post is the first of a series about the spell that has befallen UBC.
It sure doesn’t look good when a university makes an announcement of such importance at the very end of a news cycle (Friday 2pm pacific, 5pm eastern!) in the midst of summer. Views may differ as to what constitutes the interest of a public university, but many of UBC’s stakeholders found the approach sneaky and underhanded. This is not a hedge-fund company folks. This is a university where an open and transparent process that ensures accountability and involvement by all is warranted.
But I wish it was the only blunder by UBC’s new caretakers surrounding this sad turn of events. There were many others.
John Montalbano, a recently retired executive at RBC Asset Management, who is currently the Chair of the Board, signed the announcement to faculty, students, and staff. Lindsay Gordon, a retired CEO of HSBC Canada and chair of HSBC Global Asset Management Canada Ltd., who has been Chancellor of UBC for a mere nine months, also signed it.
The optics of having two bankers with limited leadership experience in post-secondary education, appearing in complete control of UBC’s destiny at this delicate juncture of the university’s future is unfortunate. That they were abruptly announcing the departure of a faculty’s president, who has generated so much hope and expectations for resetting UBC towards academic excellence, was unsettling to many. To some, the event projected an unfortunate image of a ruthless bloodletting exercise that is rumoured to happen regularly in corporate boardrooms after a hostile take-over. Whether in corporatized universities or not, academic folks still prefer boring, but fair and orderly transitions within the normally decent traditions in university governance. “It’s all about the optics, stupid,” should have filled a banner adorning the walls of powers at UBC.
The chair of the Board then decided to double down in a national paper, prompting Kris Olds to reply this morning in “Inside Higher Education”: “Make no mistake, this type of unexpected leadership transition is hugely significant. 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.”
The lack of information and transparency in the announcement was not lost on anyone. “I’m perplexed by the lack of detail in the official communications about why and how the resignation occurred (which was not helped by a Friday afternoon release in middle of summer – note to Communications chief: bad timing idea!). All alumni like myself are left with is perusal of some speculative blog/media entries.”
Olds continues: “More worryingly, the communications approach demonstrates a lack of understanding about the power politics of leadership transitions, circa 2015, in an era where social media use can damage an institution’s reputation.”
He then refers to the similarity with the blunders at the University of Virginia. An important case, where the faculty rose, spoke up for the principles of shared governance, and succeeded to return the “resigned” president to her post. “…. The first lesson is that an early lack of transparency and full communications can heighten the risk of a major crisis erupting,” said Olds.
One senior colleague at UBC wrote about the announcement: “All this leaves me asking whether, as a faculty member, I am a “serf”—one of the humble toiling masses—whose opinion is unimportant, or who is deemed too primitive to engage in an informed dialogue about the course of the university’s future”.
But the mother of all gaffes is when the chair and the chancellor state: “We have strong academic leaders in our deans,” yet utter not a single word about the provost and the rest of the executive, who have been actively developing a bold strategic vision with Gupta, and who will undoubtedly be carrying the bulk of UBC responsibilities in the next little while.
We are simply astonished that such a statement was deemed essential, considering the rumour mills around campus (and in Jericho Tennis Club!) regarding the power struggle that was playing out between some of the deans and the central administration. The reasons for this showdown differ from mill to mill, whether you are at Mahoney’s or at Sage, but surely emphasize the necessity of having the non-academic caretakers of the university (and their sometimes naive government contacts) familiarize themselves with some of the history of North-American post-secondary education.
A well-known story is the one about Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who was President of the University of California for 20 years, from 1899 until 1919. Under his tenure, the Protestant college and the agriculture school evolved into the modern research university, and the educational powerhouse that UC-Berkeley is today. But on his way to this historic achievement, Wheeler had to deal with a few bumps on the road.
The historian Henry F. May writes (see also William Warren Ferrier):“Knowing the fate of some of his predecessors and the University’s reputation as a president-eater, Wheeler demanded before he would accept the presidency, one last essential guarantee from the Board of regents: That the President should be in fact, as in theory, the sole organ of communication between the Deans and the Regents;
Wheeler made these demands because previous presidents had been victims of end runs by deans, especially from the College of Agriculture (there were no business schools then!), who would try to achieve their goals by appealing directly to the regents. The average tenure of previous presidents had been only four years, and the founding president, Daniel Coit Gilman only lasted two years before, frustrated by interference by the board, and he resigned and went off to found Johns Hopkins University.
Jennifer Berdhal, a world expert on the role of race and gender in leadership, wrote that President Arvind Gupta may “have lost the Masculinity Contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” And this may explain the real reasons behind the totally unexpected pushback I experienced when I ventured into this delicate subject a couple of months ago. I can easily imagine former president Stephen Toope in chorus with our culturally rich and diverse campus, wondering whatever happened to the core values of “Place and Promise,” that the Board and the Deans were supposed to uphold?
Let’s agree that there is no place for Masculinity Contests in our universities, neither is there any winner in irresponsible high-powered management games, where proper university governance is not practiced, and agreed-upon chains of command are not respected.
Lastly, I would like to emphasize that it is only the interest of UBC and of the whole Canadian post-secondary education system, which will be driving the discussions on this blog. And, as noted in today’s important message by the president of the UBC Faculty Association, many issues remain wide open.
Are we to investigate whether a massive system failure occurred or just accept the “we won’t miss a beat” statements of John Montalbano in the Globe?
Are the conditions, the practices, the personalities, the masculinity contests, or whatever drove Arvind Gupta to resign after only 13 months in office, systemic to this university? Can any president succeed if these malfunctions remain entrenched in our university’s nervous system?
In other words, is UBC in its current state governable? Only the whole truth can tell.