Note: this entry will also be available via Insider Higher Ed on 10 August 2015.
On a warm and humid Friday afternoon last week my email in-box pinged with a very important message to all UBC alumni, myself (BA, 1985; MA 1988) included. The formal communication, also pasted in below, had this to say:
Media Release | August 7, 2015
UBC Announces Leadership Transition
The University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors regretfully announced today that President Arvind Gupta has resigned to return to the pursuit of his academic career. Dr. Gupta has made meaningful accomplishments in his tenure as president, but has decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community.
“I want to take this time to thank Dr. Gupta for his service to the university community over the past year and acknowledge his hard work, integrity, and dedication,” said UBC Board of Governors’ Chair John Montalbano.
“Dr. Gupta worked tirelessly during his tenure to advance UBC’s core academic mission. He also developed an emerging strategy to support diversity and under-represented groups in the university, enhanced the student experience through better services, such as improved access to mental health services, UBC successfully raised over $200 million in one of the largest fundraising exercises in its history, and he facilitated a $66-million research grant that is the single largest in the history of UBC,” Montalbano further said.
Dr. Gupta, who has a PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto and was Chief Executive Officer and Scientific Director of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters Canada’s next generation of global innovators, will return to UBC’s Department of Computer Science after his academic leave. This leave will enable him to focus on his research and scholarly work that will be of mutual benefit to Dr. Gupta and UBC. The university is delighted Dr. Gupta will continue to build on his accomplishments as a scholar and continue to engage on national policy on research, innovation, science and technology.
Dr. Piper received her PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from McGill University. She has an extensive background in university administration, having served in senior leadership positions at McGill and the University of Alberta. Her work stewarding UBC to become one of the leading research universities in the world was recognized with the Orders of Canada and British Columbia. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Since leaving UBC, Dr. Piper has served on the boards of numerous organizations, including Shoppers Drug Mart, TransAlta Corp. and Grosvenor Americas Ltd. She was Chair of the Board of the National Institute of Nanotechnology and served as a member of the Trilateral Commission. Currently, she is a member of the boards of the Bank of Montreal, CARE Canada, the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, and the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.
“I am very pleased to welcome back such a passionate supporter of UBC with a deep commitment to academic excellence,” said Chancellor Lindsay Gordon. “Dr. Piper’s considerable experience during her time as UBC president and the years beyond will be invaluable during this time of transition.”
“We look forward to her enthusiastic engagement with our students and employees,” Montalbano added. “Building on the legacy of her predecessors, and working together with her academic colleagues, the Board of Governors and UBC’s executive team, Dr. Piper will guide us well as we continue to deliver a globally renowned learning and research environment.”
UBC is consistently ranked among the world’s top 40 universities, and has an operating budget of $2.1 billion, more than 59,000 students on its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, and more than 15,000 faculty and staff.
While the communication included some other information, this was it regarding the explanation for President Gupta’s unexpected departure: he had only been in the position since 1 July 2014 (see this timeline via the Ubyssey, a student newspaper) and was just beginning to pursue the agenda items outlined in his installation address. The Gupta agenda is also outlined on this Office of the President webpage, and was presumably outlined when he was interviewed for the position in early 2014.
A quick spike of media coverage emerged in Vancouver later on Friday and Saturday, though the majority of it included a simple rephrasing of the official communication. The only sections of note in my mind were comments in the Vancouver Sun about Gupta’s absent voice:
Gupta declined to comment Friday, saying the news release should speak for itself. Gupta wasn’t quoted in the announcement, which UBC’s managing director of public affairs Susan Danard said was his choice.
As it made the unexpected announcement on Friday, the chair of the board of governors at British Columbia’s largest university said no disciplinary issues prompted the resignation of Arvind Gupta.
“None whatsoever. Let me be very clear. None whatsoever,” John Montalbano said in an interview.
He said Dr. Gupta recently decided he could better contribute to the university in a senior role in its computer-science department.
“Professor Gupta has had an opportunity to reflect on what is in the best interests of himself going forward and has chosen to resign,” he said, calling the decision “regrettable.”
“Arvind clearly loves the university. He has reflected on what would be best for him and we’re pleased that he is stepping into the department of computer science.”
Mr. Montalbano said he expects UBC to survive the turmoil. “I am very fond of saying that even the greatest institutions are never dependent on one person,” he said. “I don’t believe we will miss a beat.”
As someone who has studied, worked and/or been associated with universities in Canada, England, China, Singapore, France and the US, I find all official university communications intriguing and worth taking seriously as an object of study. In this case, I’m perplexed by the lack of detail in the official communications about why and how the resignation occurred (which was not helped by a Friday afternoon release in middle of summer – note to Communications chief: bad timing idea!). All alumni like myself are left with is perusal of some speculative blog/media entries (see here, here, here, and here), speculative tweets, and this satirical poster floating through the Twitterverse on the weekend.
Make no mistake, this type of unexpected leadership transition is hugely significant. When Mr. Montalbano suggested in the Globe & Mail that a university president is defacto as disposable as a Swiffer Duster, it made me wonder if something else is going on and if risks are being taken with the future of my alma mater. Or maybe not? I just don’t know. Regardless, I would argue that UBC’s communication about this issue, to-date, is inadequate. It’s somewhat concerning that initial engagement with the media demonstrates a lack of understanding about the communicative politics of major institutional change, circa 2015, in an era where social media use can quickly impact an institution’s reputation — this is something we have been learning a lot about at the University of Wisconsin-Madison over the last four years.
Given that I don’t know what is going on at UBC, I’m going to move this blog entry forward via a series of reflections (formed into lessons) derived via a crisis at the UW-Madison in 2011-12 that was implicated in the resignation of our president equivalent after just three years in the position, and via the University of Virginia leadership crisis of 2012 that I wrote about in Inside Higher Ed here and here and that is summarized in this lengthy New York Times Magazine story. I’m also aware of multiple dimensions of the ongoing crisis (saga, really) at the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign that also led to the resignation of President Phyllis M. Wise last Thursday, and an ongoing brouhaha about modes and legality of communications about the crisis.
The first lesson is that an early lack of transparency and full communications can heighten the risk of a major crisis erupting. Amidst the debates and crises at UVA, UIUC, and UW-Madison, attempts to release highly selective forms of information to manage/control/shield formal and informal negotiation processes, maneuvering, agreements/disagreements, tentative deals, etc., all failed. A case in point is the communication announcing President Sullivan’s resignation at the University of Virginia, one that was eventually rescinded. What this did was to generate suspicion and enhance the drive for even more information, almost on an exponential basis. Open up, be direct, be clear – ideally as direct and clear as we are with our students about their papers/draft research proposals. It’s worth noting, too, that almost all of the initially shielded forms of information at UVA, UIUC, and UW-Madison eventually came to light and when they did the unveiling process generated mistrust, even more floods of freedom of information (FOI) requests, conflict, and some protests. This is not to say there is not a rationale for trying to manage the communications process, or that there are better times than others to open up about key decisions, but it is abundantly clear that managing a crisis (even on “a languorous Sunday in June, low season on the campus of the University of Virginia“) is not made easier by being vague, unclear, and by playing down the significance of a historically significant decision. An unexpected leadership transition costs substantial amounts of money, the delay of a multitude of key decisions/initiatives, and generates tens of thousands of hours of direct and indirect work for the university as a whole. An unexpected senior leadership change 13 months in, as per the UBC case, is sign of a crisis of one sort or another, it will cost, and given this it’s critically important to be open and clear about said costs.
The second and related lesson is that key decisions need to be communicated about with reference to process descriptors, with these descriptors tied to established/mandated governance processes and governance structures. Most North American universities have ‘shared governance’ systems of one form or another, whereby faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders (including board of trustees or governors) engage to ensure universities operate as effectively and efficiently as possible. And there are ‘governance pathways’ for most key decision, including for those associated with hiring, dismissals and acceptance and/or encouragement of resignations. It is important to outline the detailed governance pathway associated with key decisions, including attention to who decided what, when. The surest way to generate a wave of even more FOI requests, all enormously time consuming to respond to, is by being unclear about process vis a vis governance structures and rules, formal and informal.
The third lesson is that the crises at UBC’s peers in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Illinois reflected, and captured the essence of, fundamental changes and points of conflict about the mission of research universities, changes in governance processes and structures, differing visions for the future of the university, and conflicting perceptions of optimal forms and styles of senior ‘leadership.’ An existential crisis of sorts is occurring in many (most?) major public research universities and systems: from mission creep, to the pressures associated with austerity, to the (in the U.S. at least) defacto end of the social contract supporting public higher education, to the emergence of more active and sometimes politicized governing boards with less interest in broad oversight and more in detail, significant change is underway. The unexpected leadership transitions at UVA, UW-Madison, and UIUC generated enormous attention to the cultural, economic, and political forces reshaping these universities, as well as associated lines of power that bring these forces to life. A crisis is a wonderful teaching and learning moment. Use it, and be prepared to see it used, for this is what a university is all about.
In closing, the unexpected leadership crises at UBC’s peers in VA, WI and IL generated a myriad of costs (many unexpected), and a torrent of debates that far surpassed original expectations. As a UBC alumnus, I’m proud that the Fall of 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of UBC’s first class of students. I hope that the value system associated with the construction of UBC’s ‘second century’ will be one that is associated with rich currents of openness and transparency, including with respect to alumni, so we know what’s going on, and in so doing we’ll all be able to effectively nurture and protect our treasured ‘place of mind.’