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The Globe and Mail

UBC’s board owes the public an explanation for its leadership crisis

Arvind Gupta was UBC's president until last week when, just one year into a five-year term, he suddenly decided that the university would be best off if he returned to his former job as a professor of computer science.

Why? The UBC Board of Governors' Aug. 7 press release wasn't saying. John Montalbano, chair of the board, subsequently claimed in The Globe and Mail that Prof. Gupta's departure had nothing to do with job performance.

If so, the board owes the public a full explanation for why it failed to retain him. "Arvind Gupta was no quitter," wrote Nassif Ghoussoub, a former board member, and, indeed, Prof. Gupta had only begun to roll out his agenda. He'd launched an ambitious restructuring of the budget, started re-examining capital projects, was pushing the university's internationalization and had put together a task force to address pressing problems of faculty retention and recruitment caused by Vancouver's astronomical housing prices.

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The board released its announcement at the end of a work week during the summer exodus, as if to imply that it felt guilty or embarrassed about the whole affair and hoped that no one would notice. It gave no hint that any details or explanation would be forthcoming.

But such conspicuous inconspicuousness raises a red flag. In 2013, Stephen Toope gave a full year's notice that he would resign early from the UBC presidency, and that was after a respectable tenure. Prof. Gupta's abrupt departure is no such orderly retreat.

If Prof. Gupta was driven out, it certainly wasn't by the faculty. Mark MacLean, president of the UBC Faculty Association, in an e-mail to professors, called Prof. Gupta's stepping down "a serious loss to UBC."

Prof. Gupta's administration had been in the process of shifting more funds from the administration to academic units.

Was the board signalling that it "no longer supports realigning the university's resources to better support the research and teaching missions?" Prof. MacLean asked.

Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of leadership studies at UBC's business school, suggested that Prof. Gupta's departure was the result of bias among UBC's leadership. That is a troubling possibility for an institution that has also recently seen the departure of its chief academic officer and two other vice-presidents.

One thing is clear: As it prepares to kick off centennial celebrations this fall, UBC is facing leadership problems.

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The board nevertheless seems eager to brush uncomfortable questions about its governance of the university under the rug. Mr. Montalbano claims that UBC won't "miss a beat." The university is running just fine, thank you very much. Nothing to see here.

But this attitude shows contempt for peer review, a core principle of the modern academy, which insists that decision-making be transparent and decision-makers accountable. It also disrespects the public, which has a right to know the truth about major changes at a public institution.

If the board sacked Prof. Gupta because of some policy disagreement or philosophical difference, it should explain and justify its actions. The board's current strategy encourages speculation that it somehow created such a hostile work environment that the president decided he couldn't work with them.

I would go further: If the board made Arvind Gupta sign a non-disclosure agreement, it should nullify it and allow Prof. Gupta to explain his reasons for his stepping down. After all, it's not about Prof. Gupta; it's about UBC.

Canada should care when one of its top global universities suffers a leadership crisis, even more so when that crisis is compounded by the evasiveness of those responsible for its governance.

University presidents are not expendable and the cost of replacing them goes beyond their severance package. The board's next action should be to signal goodwill with a full explanation of what really happened. If it wants to start UBC's next 100-year trek on the right foot, that will require some straight talk.

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Christopher Rea is a UBC faculty member

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