UBC’s next president, Arvind Gupta, still remembers the plane trip that brought him from the Indian state of Punjab to North America as a five-year-old boy in the late 1960s.
His father, a chemist, had come a year earlier on a visiting professorship to Wayne State University in Detroit.
In an interview in his office on UBC’s Point Grey campus, Gupta recalls how he and his three siblings, along with their mother, had to change planes in London.
“Basically, she was counting on me and my older sister to help with the two younger ones,” he tells the Georgia Straight. “I knew very little English when I came.”
During that summer, his parents wanted their children to master the language in time for school in September.
Gupta, whose first language is Punjabi, would frequently watch U.S. television shows. But he couldn’t comprehend what the characters were saying until one day, everything changed.
“I remember it was a Star Trek episode and I could understand it,” he says. “That was just before school started. So somehow, over these two to three months, we learned English.”
When asked if he was the smartest kid in his class that year, Gupta replies that he was actually very shy in those days.
“I didn’t really want to say a lot because I was not feeling really comfortable with English.”
Two years later, his father was hired as a pollution chemist at a mining company in the northern Ontario city of Timmins. Gupta has warm memories of growing up there, and later, he moved into residence at McMaster University in Hamilton, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He went on to earn a PhD from the University of Toronto.
“I remember when I went to university, I saw someone pulled on the side of the 401 [highway], and they looked really scared of me,” he recalls. “I thought, in Timmins, you always pull over to help people because there may not be another car coming for another hour. If someone is stuck on the road, you go and help them.”
Gupta, a computer scientist, spent 18 years in the SFU math department before being wooed to UBC in 2009. And less than four months before he replaces Stephen Toope as UBC’s president on July 1, he’s anything but shy as he fields questions over the course of an hour about everything from his childhood to government relations to his philosophy about higher education. He has been appointed to a five-year term and will keep his position as professor of computer science.
“We should think about our role in creating great Canadian citizens,” Gupta declares. “And great Canadian citizens have to be engaged with the world. They have to be engaged in their community. They have to want to give. They have to want to volunteer. They have to want to raise great kids. They have to want to get great jobs and pay taxes. There is all sorts of things that great citizens do. They celebrate democracy and they participate in democracy. They engage in debates on the social issues of the day.”
Gupta, 52, took an unusual route to the top. The three previous UBC presidents—Toope, Martha Piper, and David Strangway—all had administrative experience as either a dean or vice-president of a major Canadian university. Since 2000, Gupta has been CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a national nonprofit that works with the federal government, nine provincial governments, and more than 900 industry partners.
According to its website, Mitacs generated $10.4 million in private-sector investment in 2013. It also invested in more than 2,000 research projects, supported more than 1,700 research internships, and provided more than 6,300 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with “vital business, interpersonal and entrepreneurial skills”.
In addition, Mitacs brought 282 undergraduate students to Canada last year from India, Brazil, China, and Mexico.
“We are really well positioned to make this a meeting ground for bright young people,” Gupta says. “Many of them will go back to their home countries and give us connections, two-way connections, so I’m a big believer that we have to do this.”
In 2010, he was part of a panel reviewing federal support for research and development. In 2012, he joined the federal government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council.
His friend Nassif Ghoussoub, a UBC mathematician and one of 22 members of the university-president search committee, tells the Straight by phone that some people mistakenly believe that UBC will change course under Gupta’s leadership because of the work that Mitacs has done with its industrial partners.
Ghoussoub emphatically states that Gupta has also been a “major spokesperson” for peer-reviewed basic research and is a strong advocate for students.
“I think he’s going to be supporting the core academic mission more than anybody I know because the government trusts that he has a global view of the role of universities,” Ghoussoub says.
Gupta claims that it’s a “bit of a fallacy” to think that connections between universities and the outside world primarily involve students studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics; last year, Mitacs participated in approximately 250 projects with students from the social sciences and humanities.
To reinforce this point, Gupta mentions how an executive told him a while ago that universities are not producing enough computer-science graduates to handle consumer and marketing data.
Gupta says he replied that sociology and psychology students are trained to address these types of problems, and that perhaps the executive should think about hiring more of these graduates.
“He said, ‘I never thought of that,’ ” Gupta says. “We have to make sure that we’re communicating the kinds of skills that our students have across everything we do. And we have to make sure that we’re equipping them so that they can go out and take on these challenges.”
He has long argued that it’s important to bring a breadth of skills into the workplace, noting that companies like Twitter and Facebook hire a huge number of social science and humanities graduates.
In 2011, Mitacs supported an amusing theatrical production called Math Out Loud, written and directed by Vancouver actor Mackenzie Gray, to show young audiences how mathematics has transformed the history of the world.
Meanwhile, Gupta is highly conscious of other universities’ efforts to become much more engaged with the community, citing the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and SFU as three examples that are putting this at the forefront.
He emphasizes that as long as universities respect their primary mission, it’s healthy to break down the barriers between postsecondary institutions and the community. However, he adds that this must be conducted in an “intellectually honest way”.
“Where we should be careful is chasing engagements for dollars,” he cautions. “So if your primary purpose to engage is because it can get you some additional funding from government or from business or from some other source, then you’ve put the cart before the horse.”
He says the bygone notion that universities should be kept separate from the broader community in an ivory tower is premised on the mistaken belief that professors are distributors of knowledge and that the wider public merely absorbs these concepts. This overlooks how the Internet has transformed how knowledge is transmitted.
“Society is generating interesting ideas, and we can only benefit,” Gupta says. “In fact, I’d even argue that if we cut ourselves off from the great things happening out there, we’re going to be left behind. We ossify, essentially.”
He believes that young people are less constrained in their minds as compared to previous generations. Borders are falling aside as students pursue opportunities in other countries. They communicate effortlessly over social media. And many see environmental stewardship as a personal responsibility.
As a result, Gupta says that universities must embrace new ways of learning that will resonate with students.
“Sometimes, I hear we should be careful because this is breaking down, essentially, our business model,” he acknowledges. “The business models will always sort themselves out. But we really should be making sure we’re doing everything possible to give your young people the tools for this changing world.”
Under the last three presidents, UBC has tried to position itself as a top-tier global research university. Gupta plans on continuing along this path. He adamantly declares that universities are grassroots organizations and not corporate entities.
“They work on the strength of their professors and their students—and, increasingly, their staff,” he says.
His friend Ghoussoub suggests that one of the new president’s missions will be to make UBC one of the top 10 public universities in the world.
“I really think that’s achievable if we can gather the support of governments and community,” he says.
He adds that Gupta worked closely with Toope in three broad areas: advancing the innovation file, building international connections, and dealing with governments, particularly at the federal level.
“I think that his main strength is really his experience with government relations,” Ghoussoub says.
Gupta has deep roots in the Lower Mainland, unlike his three predecessors when they were hired.
He lived in Coquitlam for many years when he worked at SFU. So could this leave him better equipped than Toope, a former Montreal resident, to make the case to politicians for a subway line linking the SkyTrain to UBC?
“I really think that his connections with the feds are also going to help us in trying to get them as major partners in transit,” Ghoussoub responds.
However, it will be a daunting challenge winning provincial support after the voters of Vancouver–Point Grey defeated Premier Christy Clark in the 2013 election. Clark’s government has only four MLAs in Vancouver and plans to trim the budget for the Ministry of Advanced Education by $25 million next year.
Former Mitacs colleague Daniel Fontaine tells the Straight by phone that he’s a “huge fan” of Gupta, noting that he was always open to having his ideas challenged. Fontaine, who was chief of staff to former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, also describes Gupta as an “information sponge”.
“He would sit with me and we would talk about my days at City Hall,” Fontaine recalls. “He wanted to know about densification, and he wanted to know about transportation.”
They spent an enormous amount of time discussing civic issues while on plane trips to Ottawa and Toronto. “I was always amazed by his depth of knowledge of municipal government and municipal politics,” Fontaine says.
For his part, Gupta declines to say too much about UBC’s efforts to convince TransLink and the federal and provincial governments to support a rapid-transit project to the Point Grey campus. He modestly suggests that Toope is better equipped to discuss the topic because he knows all the details, so he won’t speak on behalf of the university.
But from his personal perspective, Gupta says that it’s important to have this discussion because there are 50,000 students on the Point Grey campus, as well as 14,000 faculty and staff.
“If we can’t move people around quickly in a knowledge economy, then we’re going to hamper the free flow of ideas,” he says.
Fontaine says that in nearly five years working alongside Gupta, he never once heard him complain of any racial discrimination. “If he did [experience it], he overcame it, and he’s moved on,” he adds.
Gupta was a graduate student when an Air India plane was bombed over the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people onboard, including scores of Canadians of Indian descent from southern Ontario. He says his parents knew some of the victims, and he remembers being surprised when the Canadian government offered condolences to then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, even though the majority of passengers were citizens of Canada.
He recalls how many people wrote letters to newspapers complaining about this. “That was actually, for me, really important that so many Canadians stood up,” he says. “Of course, Canada has changed a lot since then.”
It’s not surprising that Gupta ended up in academia. Not only was his father a professor, but his mother also taught at the postsecondary level. He says that she obtained a master’s degree in math and was one of the first women in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to teach mathematics at the college level.
Gupta expresses admiration for how his parents remained optimistic despite hardships they encountered.
His father’s family had to leave all their possessions behind in what is now Pakistan and flee to India when the British divided the subcontinent into two countries in 1947. During Partition, upward of a million people were killed in sectarian violence—and Gupta points out that any challenges that his family faces nowadays pale in comparison to what his ancestors experienced.
His wife, Michelle Pereira, is a family physician who traces her roots back to Goa, India, and together they have three daughters. His father is no longer alive.
So what does his mom, who travelled with him on that first flight to Detroit, think of him becoming the president of one of the world’s leading research universities? At first, she asked if he really wanted a job that would be so time-consuming. But she also couldn’t hide her joy.
“She’s absolutely thrilled,” Gupta responds. “This is when she says, ‘Your dad would be so proud.’ She’s beaming. I don’t think she ever expected it.”