Change of leadership at UBC

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Officially announcing his resignation, Dr. Arvin Gupta prematurely left his position as president of the University of British Columbia (UBC) after completing only one year of his five-year contract. With little publically known about why Gupta chose to leave, his departure raises questions about the failing leadership within Canadian universities.</p>

Gupta left his position earlier this summer on July 31. Despite the non-disclosure agreement shared between Gupta, the university, and their board of governors, there have been many speculations as to why Gupta chose to leave. In an article by the Globe and Mail, various unnamed employees of UBC identified that Gupta’s presidency suffered from a shaky relationship with the school’s board.

“The way in which the president is held accountable is through the board and not many people see the board. You don’t really get a sense of that dynamic, there’s really no way [for the] people on campus to [know] that dynamic,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates. “You could have a president that everybody likes, but if they’re bad at managing the board and what the board wants, then they’re going to be out.”

According to Usher, Gupta’s departure is not something uncommon and not indicative of a failing trend in university education.

“I can go back almost any year in the last 15 or 20, and you’d see one departure that wasn’t an end of term sort of thing. So I’m not sure if there’s a trend,” said Usher.

As Usher explained, for UBC, Gupta was an “unconventional hire.” While he was both an internal hire and did have a background in academia, acting as a professor for 15 years at UBC, he had never yet managed a facility as large and as dynamic as a university setting. Alongside his experience at the university, Gupta had been director of Mitacs Canada — a company that assisted graduate students in finding internships.

“He didn’t have a lot of experience managing complex multi-stakeholder environments, and that’s the difference. If you run a school board, if you run a government ministry, you’re responding to lots and lots of different people, and that’s why he was really unconventional. He didn’t have that experience and I think a lot of people are thinking now that may have been what happened,” said Usher.

While Gupta’s resignation may not be indicative of a trend, Usher mentioned that there are certain commonalities between his resignation and those of other university presidents. It was identified in a study by Julie Cafley, the vice-president at the Public Policy Forum, that failing presidencies often are the result of poor relationships with the board of governors and unexpected stresses.

“A lot of presidents felt that they were not fully informed about the issues on campus before they got there. You know, sometimes they show up and it’s ‘hey, remember that surplus we told you about, its actually a deficit.’ I’m seeing a lot of cases of universities where people come in not knowing that kind of thing,” said Usher.

Despite Gupta’s lack of experience, Usher explained that other presidents who have also lacked university management experience have succeeded. He listed Dominic Giroux from Laurentian University and Allen Rock from the University of Ottawa as prime examples.

Following Gupta’s presidency, Usher doubts the university will hire another unconventional choice. Instead he suggested the next candidate will most likely be someone with experience managing similar spaces — like a provost from another institution.

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