The University of British Columbia should be revelling in centenary celebrations, exploiting the arrival of a milestone birthday to flaunt its reputation as a global academic powerhouse. Instead, the school has been enduring a public relations nightmare, one that has left students and faculty furious over the clumsy and inept manner in which the university leadership has handled a spate of controversies.
One has some sympathy for Martha Piper, the former UBC president who agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to return and serve in an interim capacity while the school searches for a permanent head. Of course, this was necessitated by the spectacular departure of Arvind Gupta in August after only one year into a five-year term on the job. Dr. Piper could not have taken over at a worse time.
This weekend, she was forced to issue an apology in response to a complaint from a group of students who said the school took 18 months to do something about a graduate student they allege sexually harassed and assaulted them. A CBC documentary, School of Secrets, details the unsettling story of six women who say the male student was allowed to continue his campaign of misconduct while the university dithered, leaving them feeling vulnerable and betrayed.
Betrayed might also be a word that would apply to how celebrated novelist Steven Galloway must also be feeling these days. Last week, UBC's dean of arts issued a memo that said Mr. Galloway, an associate professor and chair of the university's noted creative writing program, had been temporarily suspended from his job pending an internal investigation into what were described as "serious allegations."
Even Mr. Galloway was not advised about what his supposed crimes were. Meantime, media outlets from around the world wanted to know what was going on with the man who wrote such acclaimed novels as The Cellist of Sarajevo and The Confabulist. The dark cloud that suddenly descended over Mr. Galloway was impossible to ignore.
The city's cultural community has been abuzz with theories, gossip and innuendo.
The university's faculty association later admitted the school should never have publicly revealed that Mr. Galloway had been suspended. In a news release, the association said Mr. Galloway had a legal right to privacy regarding matters pertaining to his employment status and that there were guidelines around procedural fairness that were also not met.
You don't say.
This all comes on the heels of Dr. Gupta's leave-taking in the summer. No reason was given. His exit sparked an ugly internecine war among faculty and administrators. It also precipitated the departure of UBC board chair John Montalbano after it was alleged he infringed on the academic freedom of a professor, Jennifer Berdahl. Mr. Montalbano phoned her to complain about a pro-Gupta blog post she wrote that was highly critical of the board's decision.
A search committee is now looking for the right person to lead the university into the future. While certainly considered one of the plumb jobs anywhere in academia, the next president will have to deal with some troubling issues. The judgment displayed by senior members of the university's administration in recent months has been dreadful.
The handling of the Gupta affair was an unmitigated disaster. People who should have known better seemed to think if they announced the president's premature adieu just before the start of a summer weekend no one would notice. And no one would ask questions, least of all bewildered faculty. The term "amateur hour" does not do justice to the level of incompetence that was exhibited.
The botched handling of the six students' sexual assault complaints is unconscionable; the school's mea culpa, too little, too late. The same for the case of Mr. Galloway, who has been cast under suspicion, unsure of what is even being alleged. But now the whole world thinks it is something possibly quite heinous, that the school would not have gone to the extraordinary step of suspending him pending an investigation if it was not. Who imagined this was a fair and proper way of dealing this matter?
UBC is strong enough to withstand the damage of these imbroglios. But harm has been inflicted on the institution, which in turn has created tension on campus. The university is suffering from a leadership vacuum that needs to be addressed urgently. As it stands, 2015 will be remembered for something other than the school's notable birthday.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column stated Arvind Gupta had been president at UBC for five months when he stepped down. In fact, he was one year into a five-year term. This online version has been corrected.