Students arriving for classes at the University of British Columbia this fall will find most things appear perfectly normal. But beneath its placid facade, the school will be trying to cope with the type of public-relations crisis that can cause lasting brand damage, the kind institutions of higher learning fear and abhor.
We speak, of course, of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the departure of the university's president, Arvind Gupta, who was the celebrated, if somewhat unconventional, choice to lead the school just over a year ago. His exit was announced on a quiet Friday afternoon a few weeks ago. But the silence with which the news was initially greeted has since grown into a noisy cacophony of allegations and recriminations, including demands that the chair of the school's board of governors resign.
The fallout from the matter has publicly pitted faculty members against one another, which is never good, and can lead to resentments and ill feelings that can fester for years, ultimately damaging relationships that are pivotal to a university's success.
Let me say at the outset, I think the board of governors was extremely naive to imagine it would get away with announcing the departure of a president one year into a five-year mandate without a proper explanation. In fact, by issuing a release that said he wasn't leaving because of reasons related to competency, health or discipline, it only made the public and university community more perplexed and curious. No one believes the president left because he wanted to return to being a faculty member in the computer science department, as the press release announcing his parting suggested.
There is a deeper story here. Board of Governors chairman John Montalbano has said confidentiality agreements prevent either side in this affair from speaking.
While these types of pacts are not uncommon, they also suggest there is information neither side wants revealed. The problem in this case is UBC is a public institution, and an extremely important one. Transparency, at all levels, remains at the core of what a university stands for, along with academic freedom, a matter about which we'll speak more in a minute.
The truth of what happened here is going to come out. My suspicion? The board determined Dr. Gupta wasn't its guy. Board members didn't like the path in which he was taking the school or the way he was conducting business. Turfing someone after a year on the job is embarrassing for both sides but more so for the person leaving. Perhaps the board thought by issuing a release that said competency and performance had nothing to do with the decision, it would help Dr. Gupta save face. Signing a confidentiality clause would prevent either side from talking, helping maintain the cone of silence around the shocking departure.
All I know is this was not a move Arvind Gupta made voluntarily. If he resigned it was because he felt he had no choice. I had lunch with him not long ago and he told me he loved his job.
As for the other issue in this affair – the allegation that Mr. Montalbano infringed on the academic freedom of a faculty member who wrote a blog post that was highly critical of the board's decision and suggested racism may have played a role in Dr. Gupta's leave-taking – it's mostly a sideshow. The majority of the public does not care about this dispute, although I understand why it's important to some inside the walls of academia.
While I find many aspects of the concept of academic freedom absurd, and, in this particular case, an example of grown adults behaving like spoiled, privileged children, it remains an issue vital to most members of a university faculty. Consequently, any serious charge that academic freedom has been impinged by a member of the board of governors needs to be treated seriously. Frankly, I think Mr. Montalbano would have done himself, and the university, a favour if he had stepped aside from his position until the matter can be resolved.
So far, the provincial government has been mostly silent on the entire contretemps. That's not good enough. Someone should be clarifying what, precisely, is going on. Each year, taxpayers contribute tens of millions of dollars to help ensure UBC remains one of the top institutions of its kind in the world. They are stakeholders who deserve answers.
If UBC won't shed light on why Dr. Gupta suddenly vacated his job, a decision that left widespread angst and unhappiness among faculty and staff in its wake, then the province should.