UBC faculty to ask why president quit after one year into five-year term

08/10/2015

SIMONA CHIOSE - EDUCATION REPORTER The Globe and Mail Published Monday, Aug. 10, 2015 3:00AM EDT

The University of British Columbia will face increased scrutiny Monday, when the faculty association asks the school’s board of governors to explain the sudden resignation of university president Arvind Gupta on Friday.

Dr. Gupta began a five-year term in July, 2014, but the university announced late last week that he is stepping down.

A resignation so soon into a presidential term represents “a failure point in the governance of the university,” says a statement to the board by Mark MacLean, the president of the faculty association. Before beginning its search for another leader, the board must explain why Dr. Gupta turned out to be the wrong man for the job, says the statement, obtained by The Globe and Mail.

At a time that the school is battling to stop a years-long slide in international rankings and cope with provincial budget cuts, it will be without a permanent president until the fall of 2016. Dr. Gupta’s is not the only opening in the top ranks – other senior searches, including one for a provost, are ongoing. (A two-year interim provost is in place for now.)

The university can weather the uncertainty, said Martha Piper, who was president between 1997 and 2006, and will step in as interim leader on Sept. 1.

“I have every confidence that we have a great team and that we will be able to move a lot of the agendas forward that are in motion. If there are opportunities out there that can be seized upon … research opportunities, we will be there,” Dr. Piper said.

This fall, for example, the federal government is launching the second round of the Canada First Excellence Research Fund competition, with $1-billion in research money available.

Challenges at the top of Canadian universities are not uncommon. Over the past decade, 18 presidents left their posts before the end of their contract, said Julie Cafley, who completed her dissertation on university leadership this spring and is vice-president at the Public Policy Forum.

“One of the clear, strong factors for unfinished mandates is board relationships and board communication,” she said. “The academic enterprise is so complex and so challenging and a lot of external stakeholders don’t necessarily understand it.”

In addition, boards sometimes need to provide more guidance to presidents if they want them to succeed. “All of the presidents I talked to with unfinished mandates talked about a lack of disclosure of the issues that their university was facing that they weren’t aware of beforehand,” she said.

All of the presidents who resigned or were fired over the past decade also did not come from the school they led, Dr. Cafley added.

“Internal candidates, those who have gone up the ranks, do have a higher rate of success,” she said.

Dr. Gupta was chosen by a search committee led by Sarah Morgan-Silvester, the former chancellor, rather than John Montalbano, the current chair of the board of governors. While he was a computer science professor at UBC since 2009, Dr. Gupta did not have experience in university administration.

Since 2000, he had been CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, the national not-for-profit organization that links university researchers, government and industry, and his hiring signalled the importance UBC was placing on innovation. Mitacs has partnered tens of thousands of students and researchers with industry internships in Canada and globally.

During his one year as president, the university retooled and streamlined its athletics program, prioritized funding for academic faculties and worked on building international partnerships with India and China. It also saw the departure of several high-ranking administrators, including in communications and finance. Dr. Piper said that was to be expected.

“When a new president comes in, [turnover] is very common,” she said.

In April, in an interview with the Ubyssey, one of the university’s student papers, Dr. Gupta suggested he’d faced some challenges.

“I probably knew five per cent of the university and discovering the other 95 per cent has been really gratifying,” he said.