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Board chair John Montalbano, left, looks on as Dr. Arvind Gupta is congratulated by his colleagues on his new position on the UBC grounds in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Board chair John Montalbano, left, looks on as Dr. Arvind Gupta is congratulated by his colleagues on his new position on the UBC grounds in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Scrutiny of UBC’s reputation intensifies as board chair faces calls to resign Add to ...

The turmoil at the University of B.C. edged up again Wednesday, as two faculty associations put pressure on the chair of the board of governors to step aside, raising questions about whether the imbroglio that has gripped the school for almost two weeks has caused a lasting reputational hit.

In the latest development, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released a statement Wednesday calling on chair John Montalbano to step aside while the university investigates allegations he infringed a professor’s academic freedom when he called her to discuss a blog post she had written that was critical of the surprise departure of president Arvind Gupta. Dr. Gupta had been in his job for barely a year.

Also Wednesday, UBC’s faculty association wrote a letter to Angela Redish, UBC’s acting president, saying Mr. Montalbano had wrongly used his position as chair of the board to defend himself against the allegations levelled by the professor, who holds a professorship bearing Mr. Montalbano’s name. The letter asks that Mr. Montalbano immediately resign.

With faculty members and the university administration now at loggerheads, and national organizations involved, the larger question is what it will all mean in the long-term for UBC.

“If it ends quickly, it’s a tempest in a teapot,” said Alex Usher, the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto-based consulting firm that provides strategic advice and research for postsecondary institutions.

The longer it goes on, the more attention it gets and the more potential public damage it does.

But Mr. Usher said even the worst debacles at Canadian universities are typically over within two years and without noticeable long-lasting consequences.

“These things just don’t last. University brands are just incredibly strong. And UBC’s reputation far exceeds anything like this.”

Numerous academics have studied the recent phenomenon of Canadian university presidents leaving their jobs in their first term – as many as 28 per cent in one survey.

Faculty might be more concerned if they thought their ability to speak freely would be curtailed, said Mr. Usher.

But even in the most chaotic situations, it’s hard to find evidence of drop-offs in student enrolments, reduced funding, or a sudden decline in the quality of faculty recruited.

The most noticeable impact that Mr. Usher could recall in recent Canadian postsecondary history was at Concordia, which had two presidents and five vice-presidents leave abruptly within a three-year period, causing the institution to spend millions on new searches and related costs. In that case, the provincial government reduced its funding.

But Mr. Usher and other university experts say there are more subtle kinds of damage done, consequences that don’t show up immediately or in statistics.

“The biggest impact is you’re affecting your relationship with your donors,” Mr. Usher said. “They get concerned when they think that you can’t even run a sandwich shop.”

As well, having a university flounder through a difficult first year by a new president, then be run by interim presidents – or, as UBC is now, with both an interim president and an interim provost – stalls a big, dynamic institution’s ability to move forward and develop new plans and projects.

“There is an even longer period of uncertainty,” said David Mitchell, president of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa and a former vice-president at three Canadian universities. “You now have UBC with two acting senior officers who are constricted in what they can do. The risk is that momentum is being lost.”

Ross Paul, the former president of the University of Windsor and author of a book called Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the University President, also said it costs the university a lot, in many ways.

“It certainly hurts. The university puts a ton of effort and money into finding a president,” said Mr. Paul, who now lives in Vancouver. He said others may hesitate to put their names in if they think the university didn’t support a previous president and caused him or her to fail.

And, he said, the public cares more than ever about universities, because they are seen as key economic drivers in their cities and provinces – they prepare people for jobs and they are sources of innovation that lead to new companies being developed.

That’s why, he said, it’s more than just inside baseball when the university gets embroiled in a mess, which is where UBC currently is.

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