Former UBC president Arvind Gupta says he has regretted resigning his position last summer and did not push back against a board that lost confidence in his leadership.
In his first interview since his controversial departure, Dr. Gupta conceded his plan for the University of British Columbia clashed with the views held by members of the administration, including some deans. But he said he was only carrying out the vision that he pitched to the university board when he applied for the job – changes that would substantially affect the way students learned.
Dr. Gupta said he was not fired but chose to resign because he felt he no longer had the backing of the board and its chair, John Montalbano, who later resigned from his position amid the turmoil that engulfed the university after the president's abrupt leave-taking.
"In all honesty, I have spent the last six months reflecting on that decision," Dr. Gupta said in an exclusive interview. "I often think that maybe it wasn't the right thing to do. Maybe I shouldn't have resigned and I should have pushed back harder."
"It's hard for me to predict what may have happened if I made that difficult decision."
He said he was not asked to resign, but made the decision with his wife, Michelle Pereira, at their home after a meeting on July 28 at the school. He would not say who was in that meeting.
Earlier this week in response to freedom of information requests, the university released more than 800 pages of documents related to the resignation, most of which were heavily redacted. However, on Wednesday, more papers were discovered that had been released apparently inadvertently that painted a grim picture of the relationship that Dr. Gupta had with the board.
In correspondence between the-then president and board chair, it was suggested Dr. Gupta showed a willful disregard for the board's authority, contributed to sinking morale, rarely sought the advice of those who could have helped him make better decisions, failed to build trust among his closest reports and managed a ship that was effectively "rudderless."
Dr. Gupta told The Globe the documents painted a "one sided and incorrect" picture of his time as president. And when he realized the damage to his reputation the information could cause, he felt compelled to "set the record straight."
He said that it was his impression that most of the condemnation in the letters concerned deficiencies in "soft skills" – things he described as communication and inter-personal relations. He said he was "constantly" asking for evidence to back-up the complaints about his leadership that Mr. Montalbano relayed to him.
"I was constantly asking for the evidence of low morale and people being upset," Dr. Gupta said. "I regret that we didn't have a performance-based system. Isn't it incumbent on the board to do a performance review and see what was achieved against what was promised? Unfortunately, a formal review was never done. I should have insisted on it. It was in my contract. Maybe if there had been, it would have forced them to include substantive facts to back up what they were saying."
Dr. Gupta said that there was undoubtedly some tension at the administrative level, including deans, over his vision for where the school needed to go. He said he was clear from the first job interview that he believed universities in the 21st century would be very different than those in the 20th or 19th centuries.
"Universities need to embrace this and be outward looking and that is going to substantially impact the kind of instructional programs we have for our students and the types of research we do, and making those changes is not going to be easy," he said. "Making those changes is going to require us to rethink what we do, some of the processes we have, some of the structures that exist. It's going to ruffle some feathers, but, fundamentally, I think this type of reform is needed."
"If some people didn't embrace it, it's not surprising. It's a very large institution ... so some are not going to fully embrace this type of thinking. Change does cause some angst. Then it is up to the board if they want to keep going down this path or not."
Dr. Gupta also said his decision to hire Angela Redish as interim provost, a move often cited as what truly turned the administration against him, was approved by an executive committee of the board.
He said a non-disclosure agreement that prevented him from discussing why he left the school was built into his initial contract with the university.
Asked if he accepted any responsibility for what happened, he said: "I think we all should accept responsibility for our actions. The reality is, yes, I was a very new president and I was learning how to navigate the presidency, so did I make mistakes, absolutely, I'm a human being, I make mistakes. I put forward what I thought was a very impactful vision, and yes, an very aggressive agenda to realize that vision."
Asked to respond to speculation that the administration turned against him because he planned to shift resources away from their end of the university's operation to the academic side, Dr. Gupta said: "When you have a new vision for a university, there is going to be a shift in resources. That's just going to happen. It comes with the territory."
Dr. Gupta said he is exploring his options and is not sure what he is going to do next. He did not rule out returning to UBC, where he was a professor before ascending to the president's position in 2014.