Arvind Gupta, Andrew Weaver, and the future of B.C.'s universities
The Green Party of B.C. is uniquely positioned to address a troubling issue that should be of concern across the province.
Yesterday, the UBC Faculty Association called for an external review of the UBC board of governors and its practices.
It came after the former president, Arvind Gupta, told the media that an ad hoc committee of the board had lost confidence in him.
Gupta also claimed that there was no formal performance review and no evidence presented to back up the ad hoc committee's complaints.
In response to these revelations, UBC Faculty Association president Mark Mac Lean wrote: "It is perhaps noteworthy that no elected member of the Board appears to have been involved in the process."
The only nonelected members of the UBC board of governors are the president and the 11 directors appointed by the provincial government.
It's inconceivable that an ad hoc committee of provincially appointed directors would have told Gupta that they had lost confidence in him without the support of the provincial government.
It would also be astonishing for a few directors to take this action without at least telling Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson in advance. And if this information was conveyed to or ordered by Wilkinson, it's incredible to think that the premier would not have been involved. This is especially so, given that she used to represent the Point Grey campus in the legislature.
Yet all Wilkinson has said is that Gupta's resignation is a matter between the board of governors and its employee.
Poppycock. It's a matter of concern for anyone who cares about the well-being of B.C.'s economy, position in the world, and the intellectual life of the province.
All of this makes the resignation of UBC's president a provincial political issue.
Official Opposition has reasons to stay quiet
Yet so far, Gupta's departure hasn't been pursued with much vigour by the Official Opposition, apart from issuing a news release in August.
However, the NDP's advanced education critic, Kathy Corrigan, did make passing mention in the legislature to the subsequent resignation of UBC board of governors chair John Montalbano.
Coincidentally, the NDP's rising star, David Eby, now represents UBC's Point Grey campus in the legislature. Eby will be dealing with senior UBC officials for years to come.
In the past, the NDP has made hay about tuition increases. The party has also done a good job highlighting problems with student housing. And Eby was on the front line supporting students who claimed they had been sexually harassed.
But for some reason, his party hasn't seemed quite as vexed about the sudden departure of a president who oversaw a budget exceeding $2 billion.
Perhaps it's because Gupta has deep connections with senior officials in former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan's office.
Sullivan's former chief of staff, Daniel Fontaine, worked with Gupta in his former job with MITACS.
Sullivan's former spokesperson, David Hurford, was hired as executive director in the UBC president's office shortly after Gupta took the job. And Sullivan's former manager of community relations in the mayor's office, Anna Lucarino, was named as director of operations in the UBC president's office.
Sullivan is the B.C. Liberal MLA for Vancouver–False Creek.
Therefore, the NDP may view Gupta as not being worth much of their political capital.
Clark, too, has had her own issues with Sullivan in the past. In 2005, she narrowly lost to him in a bid for the NPA's mayoral nomination.
Eight years later, Clark's friend and leadership campaign aide, Lorne Mayencourt, lost the B.C. Liberal nomination to Sullivan.
Andrew Weaver can pick up the baton
There's an opportunity for the Green Party of B.C. to fill this vacuum.
Its sole MLA, Andrew Weaver, spent two decades in academia, ultimately becoming the Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis at the University of Victoria.
Weaver understands the importance of universities in enriching the economic, cultural, and intellectual life of the province. He knows the role that universities play in enhancing critical thinking skills. Supporting critical thinking skills nourishes our democracy by creating a more engaged citizenry.
In addition, Weaver understands how a postsecondary institution's mission can be sidetracked when politicians meddle in the process. And in the past, he's spoken out against the "corporatization of universities".
"The purpose of a university is not just to train a bunch of people who can screw screws into the wall," Weaver told the Straight a year ago. "The purpose of a university is to train people who can critically assess information to allow them to participate in an informed manner in a democracy."
Jane Jacobs offered deep insights into universities' evolution
In this regard, Weaver sounds a bit like pioneering urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who devoted a chapter to the problems facing universities in her final book, Dark Age Ahead.
"Credentialling, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities," she wrote.
According to Jacobs, a degree has become a "passport to consideration for a job".
She made the case that this intense focus on credentialling rather than promoting citizenship and understanding was contributing to the decay of modern civilization.
"A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding," Jacobs noted.
Universities and politics
The bottom line is that the resignation of a university president, especially at an institution like UBC, is important for reasons that go beyond how well Arvind Gupta did his job or who worked in his office.
There cannot be a lingering perception that B.C.'s universities have become political footballs to advance the interests of the party in power at the expense of cultivating citizenship.
Nor can there be any suspicion that the president was pushed out so that government-appointed directors could fill the post with someone who might advance the B.C. Liberals' chance of retaking the Vancouver-Point Grey constituency.
This latter point may sound far-fetched on the surface. But keep in mind that this is the same premier who's building a $3.5-billion bridge, which will enhance her party's likelihood of winning back Delta South in 2017 from Vicki Huntington.
Wilkinson and the premier have been given a free ride by opposition MLAs and the media (with the exception of Bill Tieleman).
Weaver can change that if he's willing to take this on in a meaningful way.
If he believes that universities are important for the public good, he has no option but to put Wilkinson's feet to the fire and echo the UBC Faculty Association's demand for an independent probe of university governance.