UBC’s next president needs to have it all

03/04/2016

Beleaguered university has laundry list of expectations for new leader and not much time to find the perfect fit

BY TRACY SHERLOCK, VANCOUVER SUN FEBRUARY 27, 2016

The University of British Columbia — beset by a sex scandal, secret meetings, protests by faculty and more — has been struggling in what should be its celebratory centennial year.

The annus horribilis began with the sudden departure of its new president last summer, but has continued with allegations of interference in academic freedom, the resignation of the board of governors’ chair and the inadvertent release of documents that breached privacy rules. Several students alleged inexcusable delays in investigating sexual assaults and other students protested a lack of transparency and respect in how the university decided against divesting in fossil fuels. And earlier this month, more than 500 professors signed a petition expressing lack of confidence in the school’s board.

The university is operating in a power vacuum. It has an interim president, interim provost, new board chair, new vice-president of external relations and a chancellor who has been there less than two years. The school must find a new president, one capable of both healing the rifts on campus and carrying the university forward.

It is crucial the next president succeed.

“I think a president makes a huge difference,” said Ross Paul, who served as president at three Canadian universities and wrote, Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President.

While one failed presidency won’t do much lasting damage to UBC’s reputation, two would be devastating, Paul said.

“I think a failed presidency hurts the institution and when it happens twice in a row ... it becomes a crisis,” he said. He says more than 25 per cent of university presidencies fail, something he defines as a presidency that either doesn’t last a first term, or one in which the president isn’t invited back for a second term.

UBC’s search committee recently released the selection criteria for the next president. It’s a lengthy list of expectations, including that he or she, “must be a high-energy, inspirational, and innovative leader who demonstrates strong ethics, integrity, and a relentless commitment to upholding the principles of a world class university.”

Further, the new president should have academic credibility, commitment to diversity, excellent communication and relationship-building skills, financial literacy and management skills, a global perspective, leadership capability, understanding and commitment to indigenous peoples, and values and style. Those eight qualities are just the headings — very detailed criteria are also listed under each, including being “a compelling and inspirational advocate who can engage with, and mobilize, the various complex constituencies of the university.”

It’s a tall order in a field that is not brimming with qualified candidates.

“The job is so huge now that no individual can have all the skills and all the experience needed for all facets of the job. They’ve got to be good at delegation and team building, but they need help,” Paul said.

Martha Piper, who was president of UBC from 1997 to 2006 and who has returned as interim president until June 30, said being president of UBC is one of the most privileged positions in the country.

When asked which of the many qualities required of the next president was most important, she said, “the appreciation for what a magnificent, extraordinary institution it is would be No. 1. ... The other big thing is leadership, however you define it.”

Piper said the president isn’t as important as other factors in shaping a university.

“I actually think that a president has an opportunity to make a difference, but by and large institutions will develop as a result of the people who are in them, much more than the person who is the leader at any one time. By and large, they evolve because of societal pressures, student pressures, faculty interests, the kinds of research that are happening, and where things are headed globally.”

Students — other than those who are politically involved — may not even notice who is in the top spot. Arts student, Meaghan Burko, said she wasn’t aware the university was looking for a new president, and that it hadn’t come up in her classes or sorority. Danielle McCaffrey, 21, also in the arts faculty, did know about former president Arvind Gupta’s departure.

“It does seem like an important aspect of UBC, but I don’t think it is concerning to many students because we do not have a say in who the president is and they don’t necessarily make a presence at the school or any events,” McCaffrey said.

Even the best choice of president may not work out if the board hasn’t done its due diligence and examined its role in Gupta’s departure. Documents released as a result of freedom of information requests about Gupta showed that what appears to be a secret, ad hoc committee of the board pushed him to resign.

Julie Cafley, vice-president at Canada’s Public Policy Forum, researched failed university presidencies for her PhD. She interviewed several presidents, not including Gupta, who had not completed their terms and found “a web of troubled relationships between board members and their presidents.”

“A lack of disclosure, commitment, communication, feedback, and trust appear to plague each of these situations leading to an unfinished mandate,” her research says.

If UBC finds it was mistaken to hire Gupta, or badly managed his first year on the job or his departure, it should analyze those mistakes, communicate them and work to rectify them before hiring another president, said Kris Olds, a global higher-education expert and geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“World-class universities sing their praises and own their mistakes. Moving on is more difficult if a consistently defensive posture is adopted by key stakeholders with power, and if mistakes are not publicly owned,” Olds, a UBC graduate, said in a written statement. UBC and its board should commit to being more transparent, he said.

“Discourse about transparency is not enough — a strategic plan with deliverables and deadlines is needed.”

UBC could benefit from a governance review, said both Olds and Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.

The Advanced Education ministry says it is not considering a governance review and has no role in the selection or hiring of the UBC president. Two board members recently left the UBC board earlier than expected — Kenneth Fung and Birgit Bennett — but it is unknown if they’ve been asked to explain why they quit. Attempts by The Sun to reach them were unsuccessful.

The faculty association has asked repeatedly for an external governance review of the board and suggested without one, the search for a new president is tainted.

There are some relatively simple steps UBC’s board could undertake to restore confidence, Usher said. In addition to a governance review, UBC could join the Association of Governing Boards, an American institution that promotes good practice in running boards, Usher said.

“UBC is one of the very few big universities in North America that is not a member. It’s noticeable,” Usher said.

They could also look to other universities to see how they handle decisions about what should be done in public, and what should be kept secret, he said. In both the Gupta resignation and the divestment decision, there are no publicly available meeting records, if any were taken at all.

“What appears to me on the outside is that there is a lot of stuff goes on at UBC in camera that doesn’t go on in camera elsewhere,” Usher said. “What are other institutions doing that UBC is not that makes them acceptable?”

It would help UBC unite the campus if it temporarily froze the growth of administration staff and discussed how faculty could take on some administrative tasks, Usher said. Paul said there has been “an explosion” in the past couple of decades in the number of assistant and associate deans, legal staff, finance staff and other administrative staff — growth that he says is understandable given new accountability requirements at universities.

Both Olds and Paul said the most important thing UBC can do now is make sure they choose the right person as the school’s next president, even if it means longer time with an interim leader.

Piper said she is committed to leaving June 30 and is “confident” a new president will be named by then. She said the committee is very excited about the quality of candidates identified so far.

It’s important to look for the candidate who is the best fit with UBC, not the most “spectacular” or “impressive” candidate, Paul said.

“It’s not like there is some magic person out there who is going to swoop in and be the guru,” Paul said. “There’s lots of people who could do the job, so make sure you get the one who is best suited to UBC, who understands UBC and its culture. Somebody who is a quick study and who can really learn from all this.”