The University of British Columbia has tapped an entrepreneurial professor within its own ranks as its next president, betting on a man with a penchant for opening academic pursuits to the worlds of business and industry.
Arvind Gupta, a computer science professor and expert in innovation policy, also leads Mitacs, a non-profit organization that connects graduate students to business and industry through research. He will succeed outgoing president Stephen Toope on July 1 as the school’s 13th president.
Dr. Gupta takes the helm of one of Canada’s most prominent universities without the pedigree in academic administration that is common to most presidents. At Mitacs, he has shown a knack for expanding experiential learning outside the classroom, ties between academia and business, international exchanges and job readiness for students – all of which are top-of-mind issues at universities across the country.
“I think innovation has to be a cornerstone for UBC. You know, the world is really changing very fast,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “And those of us who’ve been working in the innovation space are really saying, let’s be more proactive about this.”
Born in India, Dr. Gupta arrived in Canada at age 7 and grew up in Timmins, Ont., earning his PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto in 1991. More recently, he has had close contact with governments, sitting on the federal Science, Technology and Innovation Council and a six-member panel that reviewed federal spending on industrial research.
Some critics have chastised the government for focusing new research dollars on projects with commercial potential, rather than on basic research. Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he is “hopeful that [Dr. Gupta will] be able to go beyond what he’s done in the past to be a champion for basic research, and not focus so narrowly on trying to link universities to industry.”
Dr. Gupta, who was chosen by a 22-member committee including students and faculty, stopped short of saying university/industry collaborations are the way of UBC’s future. “It’s a little bit early,” he said, adding that “curiosity-driven work can be stimulated by questions society asks, so I don’t think there’s a real disconnect between the two.”
His experience bridging academia with wider communities is “a good perspective to bring” to the table with fellow university presidents, said David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba and chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “He’s been very creative and entrepreneurial in the work that he’s done because he took an idea and made something out of it.”
On Wednesday, Dr. Gupta was non-committal about specifics on key issues facing the university, such as the debate over whether more cameras should be installed to bolster security in light of attacks by a sexual predator. The ceremony introducing him on campus was also twice disrupted by chanting animal-rights protesters – the university has faced protests over animal testing.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said he looked forward to working with the new president. “The City of Vancouver has a strong and long-standing partnership with UBC, both as our region’s largest university and as a global hub for innovation that contributes immensely to Vancouver’s growing economy,” Mr. Robertson said in a statement. “I would like to congratulate Dr. Arvind Gupta in taking on this important new responsibility.”
Student leaders also greeted the news with optimism, and plan to approach Dr. Gupta with a host of issues from affordability to campus security. “We are very excited to see a focus on tech and innovation and how that’s going to play into the overall student experience,” said Tanner Bokor, president of UBC’s student government, the Alma Mater Society.
Rather than trumpet “a preconceived agenda,” Dr. Gupta promised to consult widely, and has already met with B.C. Premier Christy Clark. “We work through moral suasion. A president can’t order the faculty to all line up behind an initiative,” he said.
He may even draw some insights from his own family, as two of his three daughters are current students at UBC. “My daughter said, so when she graduates is she going to be shaking my hand on stage?” he said, laughing.