Reflections on UBC’s Unexpected Leadership Transition

Note: this entry will also be available via Insider Higher Ed on 10 August 2015.

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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.UBC Leadership Alum 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.

The Board of Governors also announced that Martha Piper, who previously served as UBC’s 11th president from 1997 to 2006, will serve as interim president from Sept. 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016 while the university conducts a comprehensive, global search for a new leader. 

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.

GuptaUBCPage1A 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.

and this in the national Globe & Mail newspaper regarding comments by John Montalbano, Vice Chairman of RBC Wealth Management and Chair, UBC Board of Governors:

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.”

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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.CL8GQZoUwAA2Cki

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.’

 

Kris Olds

Governing Board Structure and the University of Virginia’s Fiasco

Note: This entry is also available on Inside Higher Ed should you need a printable version.

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Well, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has just voted to rescind their 10 June decision to end President Teresa Sullivan’s employment contract. A photograph of the actual resolution is pasted in to the right, and was sourced here.

There will be, no doubt, much analysis of the decision-making procedures that led to this debacle in university governance, as well as on the structural conditions generating unease in public higher education, especially with respect to world class ‘flagship’ universities. See today’s op-ed, for example, by Jeff Selingo in the New York Times.

The question I’d like to pose is this: what is the most appropriate composition of university governing boards, not just for deliberating about moving forward, but also making potentially high risk decisions regarding policy setting, goal making, overall budgeting, and the hiring and firing of senior leaders? Of course, as noted in today’s meeting in Virginia, decision-making needed to be more strategic and transparent. But who is making the decisions, and is the overall composition of the unit making the decisions optimally configured for the 21st century higher ed landscape?

Now this is an issue I flagged in ‘On the Failure of Legacy Governance at the University of Virginia,’ an entry that generated more traffic than any other entry posted in the history of GlobalHigherEd. To push this issue a little further, what I’d like to do here is post, side by side, information about the nature of the boards of the University of Virginia (UVa) and the University of British Columbia (UBC), two world class universities that are members of the same university consortia (Universitas 21). In terms of respective world university rankings:

Link here to see more about the backgrounds of the current University of British Columbia Board members.

Link here to see more about the backgrounds of the current University of Virginia Board members.

Ask yourself this: which board composition is better placed to understand the context in which policy- and goal-making occurs, budgets can be transformed, and leadership decisions should be considered in? When doing so, though, factor in what UW-Madison’s former chancellor said in today’s New York Times:

“Everybody thinks university presidents are hierarchical and top-down,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, and a former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and secretary of health and human services. “But we are not corporate chieftains, and we cannot rule from the sky. We are more like tugboat captains, trying to get our ships aligned and pulling them in the right direction.”

The great research universities, she said, have achieved their dominant position in the world through shared faculty governance, and leaving faculty both academic and research freedom.

“It was a lot easier to run a cabinet department than the University of Wisconsin,” Ms. Shalala said. “There are a lot of different constituencies at a university, and the president cannot be successful without buy-in from all of them.”

As is evident in Virginia, there may be pressures, crises, opportunities, and constraints, but it is simply foolhardy to assume governance systems can and should exclude those being governed, not to mention those being served (including significant student representation given fast rising proportions of revenue via tuition fees). Like it or not, only shared governance and “a diversity of backgrounds” at the university board level, will enhance understandings of organizational dynamics in universities, and enable ideas floated in board contexts to be critically evaluated before decisions occur.

In the end, don’t we need board level policy- and goal-making to occur in a manner than enables realistic and scalable innovation to occur? Wishful or naïve thinking, or even worse loading boards with people who have donated monies to government leaders, cannot but be a recipe for disaster. Legacy-based university governance has a multitude of weaknesses, and we ignore this fact at our peril.

Kris Olds

On the Failure of Legacy Governance at the University of Virginia

Please note that this original entry is also available via Inside Higher Ed.

16 June update: one new ‘must read’ is ‘U-Va. board leader wanted Teresa Sullivan to make cuts‘ in the Washington Post. The AAUP also issued a statement (see ‘Governing Board’s Ouster of University of Virginia President‘) on the matter.

17 June update: see Provost John Simon’s address to the Faculty Senate (Cavalier Daily); ‘U-Va. donors threaten to withhold funds over ouster of president‘ (Washington Post); Casteen, Toscano call for Sullivan’s reinstatement (Daily Progress); ‘Is University of Virginia’s ‘reputation gap’ growing?‘ (Washington Post); ‘U-Va. faculty hold raucous meeting over ousted president‘ (Washington Post); Faculty Senate, provost express doubt in Board (Cavalier Daily); Student Board of Visitors member walks back support for handling of Sullivan’s resignation (Cavalier Daily)

19 July update: see ‘Departing President Defends Her ‘Incremental’ Approach to Change at U. of Virginia‘ (Chronicle of Higher Education); Teresa A. Sullivan’s statement defending her approach; ‘Hoo makes the call: UVa president’s ouster centers on disagreement in pace of change (Inside Higher Ed)

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15 June

Crises and controversies are almost always useful learning moments, including in the world of higher education. I’m learning much this week while observing a roiling debate about the defacto removal of the University of Virginia‘s President (Teresa A. Sullivan) after a mere two years in her leadership position. I’ve also found this an interesting if uneasy affair to observe following much turmoil here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in AY 2010-2011 about the possible separation of my university from the University of Wisconsin System via a scheme deemed the New Badger Partnership.  The New Badger Partnership involved the creation of whole host of needed flexibilities, as well as a separate Board of Trustees (the equivalent of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors). This too was a roiling debate, which intersected, unfortunately, with the turmoil generated by Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to remove collective bargaining rights from in the public sector. To cut a long story short, our chancellor (Carolyn “Biddy” Martin) resigned after being in her position for just under three years to move to Amherst College, a bittersweet move, no doubt, for someone with genuine affection for UW-Madison.

Being immersed in the middle of huge governance debates makes one sensitive to their destructive elements, but also what they help shed light on. In this entry, I’ll try and flag some key events and resources to track the unfolding of the University of Virginia controversy, but also stand back and draw a few lessons, especially with respect to the governance of US public research universities in an era of austerity.

The official statements about President Sullivan’s removal can be read here:

The decision was announced by Helen E. Dragas, Rector of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. As noted on the University website:

The Board of Visitors is composed of sixteen voting and one ex-officio non-voting members appointed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for terms of four years. In addition, at the first regular meeting of the second semester of the academic session each year, on recommendation of the Executive Committee, the Board of Visitors may appoint for a term of one year, a full-time student at the University of Virginia as a nonvoting member of the Board of Visitors. The Rector and Visitors serve as the corporate board for the University of Virginia, and are responsible for the long-term planning of the University. The Board approves the policies and budget of the University, and is entrusted with the preservation of the University’s many traditions, including the Honor System.

Link here for the MANUAL OF THE BOARD OF VISITORS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA 2004 (rev February 23, 2012) for full details on the Board’s “powers and duties,” which includes appointing and removing the University’s President.

Yet, in less than one week, we’ve also seen:

There is ample coverage about the process, and the issues, via this pre-programmed Google search, and these local Virginian news sites:

Twitter is a great resource as well if you use the #UVa or #Sullivan hashtags.

Now, after 11 years here in the US, just as I start to think I’ve figured this country and its higher education institutions out, I get sideswiped yet again. What is surprising about this case?

First, look at the occupations of the 16 members of this key governance unit that the current and most recent Governors have appointed. As the Washington Post also noted:

And most of the 16 voting members of the University of Virginia’s governing board of visitors have given campaign contributions to governors who appointed them. In some cases, donations added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is a patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawn from a very narrow segment of society. Given this approach to sourcing Board members, the capacity for group think, and an inability to reflect on the larger extra-Virginian context (including outside the US), cannot help but be limited. The homogeneous nature of the Board of Visitors arguably helps to explain how ineffective they are in handling this issue, and understanding how organizations like universities actually function.

Second, and on a related note, where are the faculty and staff voices on this Board? All we see are alumni (almost all business people, doctors and lawyers) and one “full-time student at the University of Virginia as a nonvoting member.” Even the heavily debated Board of Trustees being considered here at UW-Madison was to have 11 members appointed by the Governor, with the remaining 10 members representing multiple UW-­Madison constituencies (faculty, staff, classified staff, alumni, tech transfer).

Third, there is a huge and still growing gap between declining level of public funding for public higher education in the US and the desire of state governments to maintain if not increase their governing power. In the case of the University of Virginia, for example, see these figures (and note the dark red element which is State Appropriations):

Figure 1: SOURCES FOR THE CONSOLIDATED OPERATING EXPENDITURE BUDGET (Source: University of Virginia, 2012-2013 Budget Summary All Divisions)

Figure 2: SOURCES FOR THE ACADEMIC DIVISION OPERATING EXPENDITURE BUDGET (Source: University of Virginia, 2012-2013 Budget Summary All Divisions)

These are important yet very limited proportions of revenue, and they’re not likely to get any larger in the long run. The austerity approach to higher education, so evident in many US states, clearly rules in Virginia.  As the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia noted, in July 2011:

Five consecutive years of general fund (state tax revenue) budget reductions have put the affordability and accessibility of Virginia’s nationally acclaimed system of public higher education at risk. Measurements of the student cost share of education and the cost as a percentage of per capita disposable income at Virginia institutions are both at record high levels (least affordable).

This is also a question that needs to be flagged at the national scale in the US, as is evident in this State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) figure:

And yet despite less than 10% of the University of Virginia’s budget coming from the State, the Governor continues to have the right to appoint 100% of the key governing body (the Board of Visitors), one currently demonstrating breathtakingly bad judgement:

“This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the prestigious Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell. “It’s secretive, it’s misguided and based on the public statements, there’s no clear rationale.”

I’ll close off with two reflections cum questions to ponder.

First, should the Governor (and the State Government more generally) have the authority to shape governance systems so significantly when at the same time they are demonstrating less and less willingness to fund state universities, including the public flagship university? Yes the University of Virginia has varying degrees of autonomy on multiple levels but the level of State control is immense. And when this control is delegated to a Board of Visitors led by a small number of clearly inept people, risk cannot help but be enhanced, hence the furor underway right now.  The degree to control is captured in these two insightful images from a public December 2011 presentation (slides & handouts) by Aims McGuiness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to a Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities currently operating in Wisconsin:

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In other words, is the legacy approach to governance — one reflecting a different historical era and a distinctly higher level of commitment to public higher education — appropriate, defensible, and effective?

Second, can the United States as a whole afford the kind of inept governance being demonstrated in Virginia right now? Interestingly, a new report (Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security) was issued yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences. These two segments of text (on page 85) are worth noting:

Support for public research universities is a national challenge of immense importance, since these institutions produce the majority of advanced-degree recipients and basic research for the United States. Any loss of world-class quality for America’s public research institutions seriously damages national prosperity, security, and quality of life. In fact, for many state research universities, the national importance of these institutions is underscored by the fact that their federal support, through student financial aid and research grants, now exceeds state appropriations….

The nation’s public research universities face great risk as the states that support them not only face serious financial challenges due to the recent recession, they also often no longer give priority to the support of graduate education and research. With increasing national and even international mobility of campus-generated knowledge and doctorates, states may support undergraduate education and the goal of broadening access at world-class levels, but they are less inclined to invest in research and graduate education at their public research universities given the uncertainty in their ability to capture the returns on their investments. However, state leaders should realize that a restoration of an adequate level of support for public postsecondary education generally—and their research universities more specifically—remains very much in their long-term interest.

The legacy approach to governance, where so much power is vested in a small and homogeneous governing unit, needs to be debated. When a small cabal of politically-connected insiders get to determine that:

the governance of the University [of Virginia] was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning. [my emphasis]

and a leader is dumped so unceremoniously with no transparent debate, a major governance problem exists. Of course there are challenges to be faced, but the University of Virginia’s challenges are no different than the ones facing hundreds of other important public research universities in the world. But as is evident in Virginia, and at the University of Virginia, there is too much at stake to believe that the governance status quo is adequate, not just for someone like Teresa A. Sullivan, but also for the many committed faculty, students and staff associated with their university. And as noted above, governance failures in important universities like Virginia have potential to harm the United States, and indeed the world as a whole given the potential and actual global footprint of these types of universities.

Kris Olds

ps: the video related to Research Universities and the Future of America is worth watching. Ironies abound as well at 46s and 4.29m.