Q&A: Arvind Gupta reveals other side of UBC's leadership controversy

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The man of the day was most definitely Arvind Gupta. The former UBC President finally stepped from behind the curtain Thursday to discuss what nearly every UBC student, faculty, staff, and community member had been wondering since August 7, 2015: Why did he resign only one year into his five year term as President?

His breaching of a non-disclosure agreement that kept him quiet over the last seven months came after a series of documents were leaked along with an 861-page FOI release that centered on Gupta’s tense relationship with former Board Chair John Montalbano. That relationship, it appeared, ultimately led Gupta to resign from his position at the end of July 2015, but it was not without controversy.

Image: UBC Public Affairs

SEE ALSO: Reasons behind Gupta's UBC resignation leaked in hidden FOI documents

While both parties have kept mum on the subject over the better part of seven months, Montalbano’s participation in an academic freedom controversy also led him to resign from the Board in October. But despite constant media attention, still no answers around Gupta’s departure transpired – until now.

Arvind Gupta spoke with Vancity Buzz to recount exactly what happened and how UBC can move past the controversy:

In her blog post, Professor Jennifer Berdahl claimed that perhaps you had lost the “masculinity contest”. Do you think that was the case?

Lots of people were writing lots of articles with lots of speculation. That’s healthy for a university to have people debate a very uncomfortable issue. I’m not an expert in these kinds of issues, but Jennifer is a real expert. I’m part of the system so it’s much harder for me to evaluate… I’m not looking at it from the outside and able to see it from a more holistic way.

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I think that what we should be celebrating is that people like Jennifer are welcome to put their theories on paper and have them debated by the university and society. It’s unfortunate that Jennifer was singled out and made to feel like her views were not welcome on this topic. We as a university community owe Jennifer a real apology, a heartfelt apology. We need to make sure that no one else ever feels that way.

After the resignation was announced without any kind of reasoning, there were a lot of rumours and misinformation floating around, and a lot of people were quite upset. How did you handle all of this reaction when you weren’t even allowed to say anything for your peace?

Of course these things are painful. The reality is that given what had transpired before I resigned, I had made the decision that it would be better to resign so the Board could find a new leader that they could all collect under rather than have me make it a public issue, and essentially a public conflict between me and a group of board members. I decided that wasn’t in the best interest of the university.

I didn’t honestly expect as much trauma as what took place. I didn’t expect as many people would be hurt as were hurt by what happened. I didn’t expect a break-down of governance structures.

Now, a lot of people have said to me ‘But you should have expected this. You were seeing governance’s problems, they wouldn’t go away.’ And that’s true, but my hope was that new leadership would help heal some of those things.

It was very painful for me to see, that a propagation of these kind of governance issues continue, and frankly continue to this day. It’s time for us as a university to come together, to learn from what happened, to build more robust governance structures, to build together a better university. I think of one of the questions I ask myself – in any well-run organization the first thing you do is ask the people affected ‘what happened?’ and ‘what can we learn?’. But at UBC, we were told not to do that.

Nobody on the Board ever said ‘Arvind, come and sit down with us and we can talk about what happened.’ There’s a presidential search going on; no one there has contacted me. I think this burying-your-head-in-the-sand approach is exactly what we fight against at the university. We talk about an academic institution about transparency and openness and how much we value public debate, and how much we value learning from our experiences, but this is a classic case of doing the exact opposite. So yes, this is very painful for me that an institution I love this much and that I believe has so much potential to help build an even better society in British Columbia and to be a real top-notch world-class institution, would actually not want to learn from this experience.

So the Board looks pretty bad in all of this. What do you have to say about that?

You know, I think that what is more important than making this a personal issue is asking what are we going to take away from this. One of the things I’ve felt very strongly about through this process is that it was not the due-process. We weren’t writing down and putting a structured process in place for evaluation. The evaluation seemed to be done in an ad-hoc manner and my first-year contract was nearly up, and there was a clause in there that there would be a formal performance review. And that wasn’t taking place.

Because I’ve seen what happens when there isn’t a formal process for evaluating someone, when it’s not an agreed-upon process, when there aren’t metrics being set up and when you’re not evaluating someone against a goal that you set for them, we wouldn’t want to do the same thing now for the Board. I think the Board should be involved in deciding how this review will take place and how governance will be looked at. Because it wouldn’t be fair to Board members if they were now excluded from setting up the process. They should be part of that discussion.

What do you think the Board should be doing differently?

I think that we really have to ask the question, is it appropriate to set up ad-hoc subcommittees of the Board without knowledge of the full Board and without knowledge of the President, that has secret discussions without being open and transparent about them – on something so fundamental about who the leadership at the university will be. Is that really appropriate?

Or should we make sure that this is not allowed to happen? Are we confident that our processes are robust throughout the institution so that something like evaluating someone without having an agreed-upon process doesn’t happen. We need to really look at these kinds of structures.

There is an association for university governance that almost every university in North America belongs to. UBC does not. Why is that? Why does UBC resist? One of the things I asked the Board was that maybe we should join this association to get best practices. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from other institutions? Why would we feel that it’s better for UBC to be unique and separate?

These very fundamental questions I think need to be asked. I was trying to ask these questions during these months that you’re seeing of communication, but it’s very difficult to do that when you have a subset of the Board who doesn’t want these questions asked. Now we step back and need to be self-reflective to make sure we build a better structure.

From your perspective, what do you think the Board’s goal was in all of this? What were they trying to achieve?

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I want to be very clear that when people say ‘the Board’, there are many people on the Board and I am talking about a sub-group of the Board. As far as I can tell, and I’m not saying that I know the whole story, I came in with a vision for the way the university had to go: what does a modern 21st century university look like. And, this vision, well executed, would have positioned UBC to be among the very best universities in the world. It would have education programs that would position our students to have lifelong successes in what ever they do. It would have made sure that our research has real impact, it would make sure that the challenges society faces abroad impact the university and the things that the university does impacts society. That’s when I came in, I was very clear in my first interview with the search committee.

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I visited most of the academic units on campus to articulate that vision. But, you know, I am talking about change and when you talk about change some people get uneasy.

I think that what happened, frankly, was that back-channels got created where some members of the community got access to particular board members and these back-channels became very unhealthy. Once you create back-channels you are not being open and transparent about evaluation processes, then you’re operating in an environment of innuendos and gossip and for leadership, you’re essentially shadow-boxing and dodging ghosts. I think that became an unhealthy dynamic.

When you say that some members of the community were getting access to certain board members, are you implying that there was some sort of lobbying or conflict of interest going on?

Yes, one of the things I did become concerned about is not just conflicts, but perceived conflicts, and I did ask a number of times that people should declare any perceived conflicts. You know, as a Board, you are making decisions about allocations of resources and budgets, but at the same time you want to make sure that everyone is declaring where they may be talking to some unit of the university separately. Just so that everyone’s aware, even if it’s not a conflict the person is able to handle, conflict is really important to declare. I think that’s part of good governance: always declare your conflicts so everyone knows about them.

The other issue is that in a leadership position, you can even handle this if processes are well-defined. And, yes there are… you know, let’s face it, we are human beings, we talk with lots of people; UBC’s a huge institution. People will talk with each other and that’s fine.

We just need to be very, very careful we’re not operating in an environment of gossip and innuendos.

Can you say what any of these conflicts were?

I think it’s better for me not to get into specifics like that. We want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable if and when these discussions happen, that they can put their own views forward at that time. I very much hope now that we can look at the governance issues at UBC and make sure that some of the challenges that I saw and other people see are addressed appropriately and we come out stronger.

Do you think that through all of this that you were treated unfairly by the Board or the university?

[laughs] I do think it’s unfortunate that these documents were released, and that they didn’t tell a more fullsome story. The reality is that there are many, many documents and that when you’re President you see hundreds of pages of documents every week if not every day.

At the end of the day, the President serves at the pleasure of the Board. I do think that if we had a better process at the Board that it would have given us the chance to really reflect on some of the things we were seeing. And just to be clear, if a well-articulated process of performance reviews showed that the community isn’t really buying into this new vision, then we’d have a very different discussion. What is the path forward, are we changing the vision, am I the wrong person, is it a new vision that’s needed? That’s a transparent way of operating.

From my perspective, I just always have to do what’s best for the university and I made the decision that I did because I thought that was in the interest of the university. I am still very committed to this institution. I have lots of friends at UBC, I have lots of colleagues that want to continue to build the university and I am looking forward to joining them in contributing in any way I can to UBC.

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If you could do it all over again, what would you have done differently?

Of course there is the decision to resign, and whether or not that was the right decision to take. I do reflect a lot on that and whether I would make a different decision if I only knew what would have transpired. Of course, I don’t know what would have transpired if I hadn’t resigned. I’m very cognizant of that fact. Maybe if I’d pushed harder earlier on for a proper performance review, instead of feeling like I needed to be very collegial.

Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do and maybe I should have just said, ‘you know, I really need to see where [these comments] come from. Let’s engage in an outside expert to help us bridge these differences. I don’t really know what you want from me right now.’

When I heard that there were subcommittees of the Board that met without me, I asked the Board secretary ‘Is this appropriate? Is this something that’s been done before?’ Maybe I should have actually said ‘I don’t believe this is appropriate. I believe the Board needs to address this immediately.’

Maybe I should have pushed harder on those things.

After all of this, what kind of effect do you think this whole situation has had on the students of the university?

Let’s see this as a positive, in the sense that so much of the campus community is now engaged. The students, the faculty, the staff, are now engaged with governance issues, with leadership issues. They’re now thinking about what roles people play in the university and I think this engagement of students will be something that is a learning experience for them. They’ll come away understanding much more about how institutions work. They can carry that on in whatever they do next.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the number one thing I was hearing from students is that they would like much more meaningful experiential learning as part of their education. We heard so much of this. There is so much excitement that UBC could be at the vanguard of really robust experiential learning, that I very much hope that the students will carry that forward and they will keep asking that we need to modernize the university in this way. That’s what is going to effect change on this campus.

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What do you think your legacy has been?

[laughs] Well, you know, you don’t do these jobs for legacy, you do them as service to the university. I don’t think at all about legacy. I do hope that what’s happened will be a learning experience for us at the university and we will come out stronger. Whoever is the next president will have an institution that is ready to put governance models in place that makes them a success.

Is there anything that you wanted to add?

Someone said to me today that I seem so optimistic, and I am really optimistic. I think that we have this amazing faculty, students, and staff – they’re going to build a great university. It’s not about the President. The President leads the effort in the sense of taking ideas and putting them into a common vision but it’s really the grassroots support that we want, to build a first class university of the 21st century that will see success.

You can’t build a great university without having great governance inside the university. I see lots of hope now that whatever has transpired in the last year will come out as a much better university ready to build an even better British Columbia. As we build a better society, that will build a stronger university, and we’ll have this virtuous symbiotic linkage between British Columbia and UBC, its premier university.

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SEE ALSO: Former UBC President Arvind Gupta finally speaks out, says he 'regrets' resigning

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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