The acrimony and enigma of Arvind Gupta’s exit from UBC

How the sudden resignation of UBC’s president has widened into an ugly faculty revolt and PR disaster

(Photograph by Rafal Gerszak)

(Photograph by Rafal Gerszak)

The surprise departure of Arvind Gupta as president of the University of British Columbia (UBC) after serving one year of his five-year term is proving a public relations nightmare for the institution at a time when it’s supposed to be celebrating its 100th anniversary. The secretive nature of his leaving—announced in an opaque news release pumped out the door on a Friday afternoon at the height of summer—has created a void now filled with speculation and recrimination among faculty, staff and students.

The secrecy, compounded by accusations of heavy-handed attempts at censorship and damage control, have: led to calls for the resignation of John Montalbano, chair of the UBC board of governors; given the impression of a rudderless, $2.1-billion-a-year institution unaccountable for the public funds it receives; and left an unholy mess for former UBC president Martha Piper, who was called out of retirement to serve a one-year term as interim leader starting on Sept. 1.

On Monday, 10 days after Gupta’s announced departure, the controversy widened to include alleged attempts to silence a professor critical of Gupta’s treatment by the university. The university board of governors held an emergency meeting to deal with allegations by Jennifer Berdahl of UBC’s Sauder School of Business that senior university officials, and the board chair, tried to intimidate and harass her for her blog post theorizing that “Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest among leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

Berdahl, who holds the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity, claimed she fielded an angry call from Montalbano, who financed her professorship with a $2-million gift, and sits on the advisory board for the business school. He is also CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, a division of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). “He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my dean about it,” she wrote. “He also repeatedly brought up RBC, which funds my outreach activities.” She said she was also criticized by senior administrators, who said she had damaged the reputation of UBC and Sauder, and “deeply upset” Montalbano, a key donor. “I have never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events,” wrote Berdahl.

Her claims prompted the executive of UBC’s faculty association to release an open letter on Monday, saying it has lost confidence in Montalbano’s chairmanship, given his “apparent lack of understanding of the principles of academic freedom, and the questionable judgment he is alleged to have exhibited in interfering with internal operations with university employees.”

The board, with Montalbano remaining as chair, ended its closed meeting with a commitment to allow an “impartial” investigation into this alleged breach of the “bedrock” of university life. “The facts will be gathered and all parties will be heard before reaching any conclusion.”

Despite the investigation, however, board members retain “full confidence in the chair of the board,” acting UBC president Angela Redish told Maclean’s. “Yes, it is a serious allegation. Yes, the university is taking it very seriously. However, it’s not substantiated and the university is doing its due diligence.”

Asked if Montalbano, who left the meeting without comment, should have stepped aside during an investigation, she said, “I guess I’ll just reiterate that the allegations at the moment are unsubstantiated. We are really working to understand what the facts are. When the facts are clearer, then appropriate steps will be taken.”

Asked if she’s surprised at the lingering controversy over Gupta’s departure, she said, “I think the resignation was a difficult thing to go through, for a university to go through that transition, so perhaps it’s not so surprising.”

A quiet study room in UBC's Irving K. Barber Learning Centre on October 14th, 2014. (Photograph by Simon Hayter)

A quiet study room in UBC’s Irving K. Barber Learning Centre on October 14th, 2014. (Photograph by Simon Hayter)

Gupta’s departure raises larger issues about trouble in academe, says Julie Cafley, vice-president of the Public Policy Forum, and author of a Ph.D. thesis on Canadian university presidents with unfinished mandates. In the last 10 years, 18 Canadian university presidents have quit or been fired before completing their first terms. Frequently, the cause was a fraught relationship with the governing board, compounded by the conflicting demands of administration, government, faculty, students and donors, she said in an interview. The result is a diminished talent pool. “There’s a real [shortage] of candidates who are interested. Because it’s such a difficult job, there are so many conflicting responsibilities.”

The Aug. 7 news release from UBC’s board of governors announced “regretfully” that Gupta “resigned to return to the pursuit of his academic career.” Gupta, slated to return as a professor in the department of computer science after a year’s academic leave, was selected after an extensive, $430,000 international search. He’s the first internal candidate to have been chosen as president in recent memory. The resignation release praised his fundraising skills, integrity, his work to “advance UBC’s core academic mission . . . an emerging strategy to support diversity and under-represented groups in the university,” as well as his efforts to enhance student life and improve access to mental health services.”

Left unanswered is why he would walk away from his new role, an annual salary of $446,750 and, among other perquisites, an official residence renovated for his tenure at a cost of $617,000. He’ll receive his presidential salary for his current year of academic leave. Gupta has remained silent. He declined an interview request by Maclean’s. “I believe it is not the right time for me to do this,” he said, ending his email with “warmest regards.”

Less genteel is the reaction on campus. In true academic fashion, faculty have taken to their keyboards for a bare-knuckle exchange of emails, blog posts, tweets and letters. Nassif Ghoussoub, a UBC faculty member for 38 years and a member of the search committee that hired Gupta, has called for the resignation of board chair Montalbano. Ghoussoub said the board’s “botched” resignation announcement “triggered rumours and innuendos” and demoralized faculty. “To them, Gupta was a breath of fresh air,” he said in a commentary in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight newspaper.

Mark MacLean, president of the UBC faculty association, also demanded an explanation from the board, writing in an open letter to faculty that he is “skeptical” that Gupta simply wants to return to computer science. He said Gupta had plans to shift “significant amounts of money” from non-academic operations to research and teaching. He noted that three vice-presidential positions are also vacant, raising questions about the future leadership of the university. (Two vice-presidents left after Gupta’s appointment, and the third, both provost and vice-president academic, was reassigned.) Gupta’s departure is “a serious loss,” MacLean wrote, “a failure point in the governance of the university.”

Montalbano responded to MacLean’s query with a four-page letter, saying the rumours over the resignation “have contained numerous inaccuracies.” He did nothing to correct the record, however, saying, “Confidentiality arrangements were mutually entered into and both parties are bound by that arrangement.”

University faculty, however, aren’t inclined to let the matter rest. “Given the conflicts of interest, and the missteps that have come to light this week,” the full story behind Gupta’s resignation is imperative, the faculty association executive said Monday. “Full disclosure is the only way to restore trust in the governance of the University of British Columbia.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.