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Canada Revelations in documents shorten list of candidates for UBC president

The deep fault lines revealed at the University of British Columbia this week have likely shortened the list of candidates willing to take on the job of president, observers in and outside the school say.

Next week, the search committee will release a candidate profile that will outline the qualities and experience they are seeking. And on March 1, they will start to review applications.

A number of deans and senior administrators were initially thought to be in the running. But documents released this week relating to the resignation of former president Arvind Gupta only one year into his five-year term have implicated some of those internal candidates, and strengthened support for someone from the outside. External candidates, however, will need to be reassured the episode won't be repeated, said David Turpin, the president of the University of Alberta.

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Some of the strongest questions are now coming from Dr. Gupta himself.

"If we don't solve the governance issue, anyone who wants to effect change is going to run into a problem," he said.

According to the documents the university released – many of them due to a technical mistake – some of the key members of the current search committee participated in informal and secret reviews of Dr. Gupta's performance that played a role in the resignation.

Before he left, the former president had developed a strategic plan for the university focused on increased investments in faculty, experiential learning for students and research relevant to the community.

The plan was the result of extensive consultation with professors and students across both the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, he said.

"It's a synergetic relationship that universities build with the broader community. The universities that look forward will be the leading universities of the world, and that's how we should position UBC," Dr. Gupta said.

If he still sounds like a university president, it could be because Dr. Gupta is not ruling out returning to a senior administrative job at UBC – if governance issues are resolved. (He is now a computer science professor at UBC and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto).

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"I want the very best for the university and to work with my colleagues in any way that I can to make a great institution," he said.

As with all searches for a new university president in Canada, the names of the candidates are kept secret. (Two possible internal candidates that enjoy support from administrators and faculty are interim provost Angela Redish and John Hepburn, vice-president of research.)

"Provosts and vice-presidents may get a feather in their cap for being considered. But for sitting presidents, it may look a bit odd," one source said.

Dr. Gupta says some candidates have called him, but he won't say what he advised them to do. The search committee has not spoken to him.

"To me, it's natural that the presidential search committee should want to know what happened to help inform them on the choice of the next president. But no one's reached out to me," he said.

At a faculty forum on the presidential search this week professors were in agreement that they would like candidates to meet with a representative from the faculty association, as well as a member of the president's academic advisory board.

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The latter group was convened by Dr. Gupta and has been consulted by current interim president Martha Piper.

Mark MacLean, the president of the faculty association, points out that the association used to sit on the presidential search committee. That practice was abandoned a decade ago. On Thursday, the association sent a letter to its members asking for an immediate review of the board of governors.

While the situation at UBC is an open window into the politics of one institution, difficulties between boards and presidents are increasing across the country. There are multiple reasons for that, said Dr. Turpin, who has researched the issue.

For one, as universities' mission has expanded beyond teaching and research, the job has become much more difficult.

"The number of Canadian university presidents whose terms have ended early in the last decade-and-a-half is quite striking. It really speaks to the complexity of these jobs," he said.

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