Nassif Ghoussoub: Beyond UBC’s clumsy announcement regarding president Arvind Gupta’s resignation

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      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.




      Aug 10, 2015 at 2:16pm

      Perhaps the bloodbath that Gupta orchestrated at the start of his tenure triggered some animosity. It also rather neuters the "masculinity" contest theory. I had high hopes for his fresh leadership, and agree the announcement was poorly (strategically?) timed and lacked any transparency. Only insiders know what really happened.

      Frank Brickle

      Aug 10, 2015 at 2:23pm

      In 1909 Woodrow Wilson resigned the presidency of Princeton, worn out by struggles with the board and a humiliating end run by Dean Andrew West. He then turned to something comparatively easy -- electoral politics -- becoming first Governor of New Jersey, and later, of course, President of the US.

      The lesson, perhaps, again, might be an admonition to be careful what you want, because you might get it.

      Also at UBC

      Aug 10, 2015 at 2:28pm

      Hi Nassif Ghoussoub,

      Can you or Jennifer Berdhal point to any examples of how Gupta lost the 'masculinity contest'? In her and your articles, neither of you have provided any evidence of this.

      I'd love to hear about how he may have been pushed out because of the racist or sexist leadership at UBC who didn't like his vision for UBC (which as I've heard wasn't very clear). But I haven't seen any basis for that claim. As professors, both you and Ms. Berdhal should know better than others, you shouldn't make claims without any evidence or support for such claims.

      What I have heard is that Gupta wasn't very good at building consensus and wouldn't listen to anyone else at perhaps he just wasn't very good in his leadership position at UBC. And maybe coming from being a director at a company, he was acting unilaterally instead of realizing that as a president, you can't run roughshod over other leaders at the university. But that's all supposition and based on what I heard a dean say. But you know what, I still don't know the real reason why he resigned, since no one has come out with any actual facts.

      Also at UBC

      Aug 10, 2015 at 2:34pm

      And another thing...if he lost the so-called 'masculinity contest' seems rather strange that they would hire Martha Piper (a WOMAN) in his place.

      in the trenches

      Aug 10, 2015 at 3:31pm

      He fired excellent VPs who for years have proven their worth to the university, significantly cut Admin funds resulting in significant job loss, stopped capital projects, plus more. All these were done in less than a year without any solid plans nor any clear communication of what he was trying to do. Work with unrealistic timelines were imposed on staff and staff were told that the orders were coming from the "president's office" -- felt like a bully was breathing down our necks! so glad that the president's position is not immune to disciplinary action.

      it's just unfortunate that the really good UBC leaders (that Gupta fired or had resigned because of him) are gone and now with other organizations -- a real loss to the university!

      Float plane

      Aug 10, 2015 at 6:01pm

      Nassif, there is no Provost because he was the third VP to leave as you well know. So what's all this about no mention of the Provost "mother of all gaffes etc.". As for the masculinity/diversity thing, that doesn't explain why President Gupta was hired in the first place and/or was replaced by a woman. Methinks thou dost protest too much.

      University Serf

      Aug 10, 2015 at 11:39pm

      For many staff at UBC, these comments (and Mark Maclean's) are laughable. Arvind Gupta gutted the executive of talent and it's amazing that there are any VPs left. The staff have been hit with a record number of lay-offs to cover the budget losses, all the while he made ridiculous patronizing comments about their value to the university (apparently staff bring cookies to work!). He may have had great talking points about the direction he would like the university to head, but proved incapable of how to put his vision into practice. It's expensive and embarrassing for UBC, but he wasn't up to the task and it's better to look for a new leader now than to let this continue on for another four years.


      Aug 11, 2015 at 7:45am

      funniest comment related to shock that bankers are calling the shots - this is the way of the NWO - and universities look like sheep


      Aug 11, 2015 at 11:54am

      Dr. Ghoussoub, I enjoyed many of your blog entries, particularly the March 2014 entry that includes the following comment:

      "Another fortunate occurrence happened a few weeks ago when John Montalbano took over as Chair. I say this because UBC is currently at a particularly sensitive juncture undergoing a serious transition towards a new chancellor, a new president and probably a new administration. John is a gem within the rarified milieu of successful business leaders who are committed to support, and advocate for, Canada’s post-secondary education and research excellence. I had already noted his valuable and discrete contributions, when I met him a few years ago at the Canada Council for the Arts. I was on the Killam Research Prizes and Fellowships committee, and he was –still is– a trustee of the Killam Foundation. His recent generous endowment of a chair at the Sauder school in support of women and minorities, and his stated reasons behind such an act, sum up the values that drive the man, and showcase how fortunate we are at UBC “to have him” for a little while.

      That the academic sector needs to poach more of the likes of John, Doug and Brad is a no-brainer. The sweetest outcome of my time on the Board is that I got to meet and know many more of them. "

      Mr. Montalbano didn't serve on the search committee for UBC's most recent president. I appreciate that you do have a vested interest, having served on the committee that brought Dr. Gupta into the role, but please don't place your poor choice on Mr. Montalbano's shoulders.

      Reading closely?

      Aug 11, 2015 at 12:07pm

      The lack of mentioning the exec team in the press release but mentioning the Deans, if i recall correctly, does indeed suggest a power struggle about allocation of resources among the 12 or so faculties and their upper level masters. One suspects a few of those Deans had and have an eye on the top job. Gupta probably did a check in on these these 12 Dean disciples and discovered too many unwilling to support the reallocation he presumably was planning. So, every time UBC gets a new Board of Governors chair, will it get a new President? More evidence of the corporatist sway at UBC, a BOG dominated by unelected, unaccountable, political appointees. Only when money is tight do we really notice the lack of democracy and transparency. Perhaps it is time for UBC to be broken up into smaller units to rescue it from itself.