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Education Documents show UBC board had issues with president’s leadership style

Arvind Gupta’s appointment to UBC’s top job was originally hailed as a sign of the school’s commitment to innovation.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta as president of the University of British Columbia this summer was caused by deep disagreements with members of the board of governors, documents mistakenly released by the university show.

The documents include letters sent to Dr. Gupta by John Montalbano, then chair of the board, which reveal that the board had serious issues with the president's leadership style and his vision for the school's future.

Read documents released by UBC regarding former president Arvind Gupta

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"The executive committee of the board has identified key aspects of your leadership style and management skills which require a 'course correction' in order for you to lead the University effectively," Mr. Montalbano said in a letter to Dr. Gupta in May that summarized the many areas of concern.

The former president's response argued that an increase in collegiality and trust between him and the board was needed and that many of the tensions were caused by resistance to his plan for changes, including an increased focus on research and recruiting top faculty. Change "can induce anxiety and resistance. … This is further magnified in a university setting; universities are places of great innovation, but also, historically, places which resist institutional and structural change," Dr. Gupta wrote.

While the documents will put an end to frenzied speculation about why the president stepped down one year into his five-year term, they raise new questions about the university's search for a new leader and how it plans to ensure that person succeeds.

"I would not want to sign a contract until I asked if there had been full disclosure about the problems I am going to face. Are you really together on where we are going?" said Ross Paul, a former president of the University of Windsor and author of Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President.

Dr. Gupta lacked senior administrative experience when he got the top job at UBC, but had founded and led Mitacs, a non-profit that fosters partnerships between government, industry and universities. His appointment was hailed as a sign of the school's commitment to innovation.

Within a few months of the start of his term, his relationship with Mr. Montalbano was fraying, with the latter asking to review the résumés of staff the president had hired to work in his office.

In a meeting on May 18, 2015, Mr. Montalbano and members of the board's executive committee found fault with every aspect of Dr. Gupta's management, including a tendency to be outspoken.

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"You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when the facts are far from certain," said the letter to Dr. Gupta detailing the issues raised at the meeting.

It added that low morale among senior administrators, inadequate consultation with deans and administrators on the university's future, poor communication about departures of key executives and disrespect for the board's role all needed to be addressed. The "board must not be treated as a distraction or a nuisance," the letter states.

About two months after the May 18 meeting, Dr. Gupta was asked to attend another meeting, which included Mr. Montalbano and Greg Peet, a government-appointed member of the board. That was Dr. Gupta's last recorded get-together with board members before he resigned as president.

The B.C. government said it was not told the details of these meetings.

"We have periodic consultations with all boards of governors in the province, roughly 25 of them. I check in with boards to see how they are doing," said Andrew Wilkinson, the Minister of Advanced Education.

The ministry is working on an orientation manual for all members of postsecondary governance boards.

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The documents were attachments with a heavily redacted 861-page release the university posted on its website on Monday in response to freedom of information requests regarding the details of Dr. Gupta's departure. Posters to Reddit, an online message site, discovered the attachments.

Many of the key reasons that The Globe and Mail has reported were behind Dr. Gupta's departure, including the dismissal of David Farrar, the long-term provost, and a strategic plan that dismayed some deans and administrators, were confirmed in the letters.

A draft of the strategic plan was also among the documents. It outlined the need for more money to hire and retain top faculty, provide housing and daycare assistance for professors, recruit graduate students, expand experiential learning for undergraduates and increase student aid.

"Unfortunately, you have mapped out a strategy prior to key stakeholders becoming deeply engaged," Mr. Montalbano's letter said of the plan.

The letters back up research that has found disagreements with governance boards is a crucial reason Canadian university presidents resign or are fired.

"When you look at presidents who haven't completed their terms, there has been a disconnect between the board and the president. There is no institution that has been able to make big strides forward without a positive relationship between the board of governors and the president," said David Turpin, the president of the University of Alberta, who has studied Canadian university presidents.

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UBC had said a non-disclosure agreement prevented it from releasing the exact circumstances of Dr. Gupta's departure. That agreement, which included 18 months of presidential salary and an additional research grant, may no longer be valid as a result of the publication of the documents.

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