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The University of British Columbia campus is pictured in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
The University of British Columbia campus is pictured in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

education

Seismic changes ahead for UBC in wake of Gupta’s departure Add to ...

No academic institution in the country has as much riding on the next year as the University of British Columbia. In the absence of a carefully considered response to the crisis gripping the school, UBC stands to suffer a blow to its reputation the magnitude of which cannot be understated.

The dissent on campus today has not been witnessed in decades. An outstanding faculty that has been noted for its somnolence when it comes to activism has been awakened. The top-down, corporatist approach to managing the school is under assault.

The departure of president Arvind Gupta has allowed a protest movement to develop that is intent on challenging existing orthodoxy and inciting fundamental change.

One of two things will happen: The school hierarchy will exert its institutional authority and scare angry faculty back to their offices and classrooms to resume cowering positions of meek silence. Or the school will realize this is not some flash-in-the-pan backlash and that faculty have no intention of backing off demands for seismic change in governance.

The faculty association recently delivered a petition to the administration with more than 500 signatures; it represents a statement of non-confidence in the board of governors and calls for an external review of the board and its practices.

Of course, the board figured prominently in Dr. Gupta’s departure, which was tantamount to a firing. Secret e-mails that were inadvertently released revealed a strained relationship between the young president and the school’s overseers. Upsetting to many, however, was the later disclosure that an ad-hoc committee of the board effectively sealed Dr. Gupta’s fate. The makeup of that group no one knows. In fact, secrecy surrounds much of the board’s activities.

That will have to be changed before a large swath of the faculty and student body will be content.

Some resignations will almost certainly have to come as well. Board members who have been identified by faculty as having played a particularly odious role in the Gupta affair will have to go. Indeed, given the wretched publicity the entire affair has generated, it is difficult imagine the government not ordering a sweeping overhaul of the board anyway. It needs to remove any taint, any connection to the Gupta matter if the school is going to put this matter in the past.

The process to find a new president is moving slowly. The university is hoping to find a replacement by June 30, the date on which interim president Martha Piper is adamant about leaving. At this point, the school will not be able to fill that job by then (a search committee is still trying to define terms of reference and the qualities it is looking for in the next president) unless it already has an internal candidate in mind. Such a person would almost certainly have to come from the current administration (including deans), a group identified with inciting the Gupta leave-taking. If the university decided to go in this direction, it would be a tone-deaf decision of epic proportions.

If Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson is listening here, he would be advised to step in and make sure an abominable state of affairs does not mushroom into something much worse. The next president has to be from outside, someone at arm’s length from events of the past year who can make objective, dispassionate decisions about the direction the school needs to take. Despite the damage to UBC’s reputation, and it is not insignificant, many highly qualified people would love to take control of one of the finest postsecondary institutions in the world.

That is how much is at stake here.

The university needs to toss the June 30 deadline, find someone to take over as interim president and then wisely and prudently go about finding the best candidate. In the meantime, the government needs to ensure someone takes a serious look at the UBC faculty’s concerns about governance.

The faculty should have a much more powerful voice in university decisions. For all their airs and ivory-tower sensibilities, professors are still the most crucial group at any university – not administrators. It is the faculty – not board members with friends in government – that imparts wisdom to students who go on to do great things and build a school’s reputation.

UBC’s faculty has been treated mostly with disdain by a board that operates as its own little fiefdom, accountable, it would seem, to no one. That needs to change before any substantive reform can take place.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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