A leadership shakeup like UBC's can affect planning, funding and reputation

08/31/2015
By Lori Culbert and Tracy Sherlock

AUGUST 28, 2015 VANCOUVER -- At a time when the University of B.C. should be hunting for party hats and balloons for its centennial celebrations, it is instead searching for another new leader to guide the storied institution into its next 100 years.

A few months before Arvind Gupta's unexpected departure from the president's office, he was elatedly making plans to mark UBC's 100th birthday, starting Sept. 30. He promised to renew connections with thousands of alumni, students, staff and faculty, as well as local and international partners.

That was in May. By Aug. 7, it was suddenly announced that Gupta, just 13 months into a five-year contract, had stepped down and would return to teaching. The reasons provided were vague, fuelling ceaseless speculation about what was behind his retreat and what will happen next.

Students will return this September and classes will be in session, but how will this controversy affect UBC's reputation, fundraising and international ranking as Canada's second-best university?

While both UBC and its former president are tight-lipped due to confidentiality agreements, some critics say Gupta may have alienated the university's deans by focusing his attention on the classroom and teaching at the expense of administrators and managers. Others surmised some deans rebelled after the provost was moved to a new role as adviser to the president.

Gupta also lacked administrative experience as he leapfrogged over the vice-presidents to the top job; and he came from the innovative Mitacs program, which fostered partnerships between the university and businesses — a philosophy that could have alienated traditional academics.

The ensuing social media firestorm claimed another casualty: UBC board chair John Montalbano temporarily left Aug. 25 while an investigation determines if he violated academic freedom by contacting a UBC professor who posted a blog alleging Gupta had been unceremoniously forced out of his job.

On Wednesday, an anonymous petition was posted online asking Premier Christy Clark to appoint former UBC president Martha Piper as board chair, and consider reinstating Gupta to the top post. The petition had 100 signatures within 24 hours.

With the provost position also unfilled, UBC is essentially rudderless: it is being steered by interim leaders who likely cannot make long-term plans for the university until permanent hires are made.

Acting UBC president Anji Redish — who is in that role only until next week, when Piper takes over until a replacement is hired — insisted the centennial celebrations will not be overshadowed by these leadership upheavals.

"It is too early to gauge any effect on fundraising," Redish added, in response to questions from The Sun. "People give to students, to research they care about, to initiatives and fields of study that affect their lives. They follow their passions but leadership plays an important role, too."

The impact of abrupt leadership shakeups at universities can vary, says expert Kris Olds, but often includes financial costs and fundraising losses; delays in filling other empty senior staff positions and in long-term strategic planning; debates about the quality of governance and distrust with decision making; and a lag in forming or maintaining key relationships with politicians or funders.

"Inevitably (these situations) always generate lots of attention regionally, nationally and sometimes internationally for the university ... So all the people who do world rankings for universities are watching what is going on at UBC, for example," said Olds, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the globalization of universities and monitors administrative crises at North American schools.

"But I do think they are pretty resilient, universities. They have existed for hundreds of years."

Other universities have, indeed, faced adversity. At the University of Virginia, founded in 1819, the board ousted president Teresa Sullivan in June 2012, sparking a massive uprising of students, faculty and alumni in her support. She was reinstated 18 days later.

In Virginia, Olds said, information about why the president was fired quickly became public and then an informed decision was made to re-hire her. The university has since stabilized.

"In the UBC case it seems to me that nobody still broadly knows what is going on," said Olds, who is also a UBC alumnus. "And if they did know — Vancouverites and politicians and taxpayers and faculty and students — how would they feel?"

At the University of Saskatchewan, former president Ilene Busch-Vishniac was terminated in May 2014 over a brouhaha about a former dean who was fired after he criticized the school's budget review plans and was eventually reinstated.

Ivan Muzychka, the school's associate vice-president of communications, said fundraising and student enrolment did not decline after this scandal. The University of Saskatchewan fell a few spots in recently released international world rankings, but Muzychka argued it is difficult to know whether that is affected by reputation or negative media coverage.

"Much of the university's day to day activity — teaching, research, administration, fundraising — will move along despite leadership changes," he said. "The larger more visionary questions tend to be put on hold, but the core of the university's life proceeds."

U. of S. just hired a new president, but it took a year to fill the position.

There is a shrinking pool of candidates in Canada willing to take the complex, high-pressure job of university president; but this next round of hiring at UBC will surely include a better understanding of the president's relationship with the board given the Gupta conflict, said Julie Cafley, vice-president of the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.

"This is a chance for the university to do a reboot," said Cafley, who researched Canadian university presidents and found over the last decade 18 had left their jobs before finishing their terms.

There were several common reasons for presidents not completing their mandates, and two of the themes she believes apply to Gupta's situation: conflicts with the board and some mistrust with his executive team. (Three UBC vice-presidents moved on under his watch.)

In an email to The Sun, Gupta said he was unable to answer questions but hoped to be able to do so at "a time in the future."

While there may be delays in big on-campus projects, this leadership row should not make life more difficult for students in the short run, said UBC Alma Mater Society president Aaron Bailey. In fact, he plans to lobby for more student participation in the next president hiring committee.

In the meantime, plans for the 100th birthday party continue.

"I think it will definitely be an interesting celebration considering the recent events," Bailey said. "But I don't think the last few months will overshadow the accomplishments this university has made over 100 years."

Editor's note: The article originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun.