Indira Samarasekera is president emeritus at the University of Alberta
It is September, return-to-school month, and a time to look forward rather than back, especially at the University of British Columbia.
UBC has endured a wave of critical media coverage following the Aug. 7 resignation of its president, Arvind Gupta, only 13 months into a five-year term. My own interest in this matter is both professional and personal. Having just spent 10 years as president of the University of Alberta, I have an abiding curiosity in university leadership and governance. But I also have a deep personal affection for UBC. I did my PhD there; I taught there for 25 years; and I was the vice-president of research before being recruited to U of A.
I am not privy to the details of Dr. Gupta's departure, but I know this: universities are large and complex organizations, and because of collegial governance, there is a perception that everyone and no one is in charge. In this context, a president must inspire students, empower faculty, motivate staff and maintain the support of alumni and government funders – all while managing competing demands for resources and providing a transformative vision to advance the institution and serve society. It's no surprise, then, that a $2-billion-a-year institution might usually choose a candidate who had administrative experience – as a dean, a vice-president or president at another university.
But the selection process is neither fixed nor dominated by the board of governors. The 22-member committee that chose Dr. Gupta included students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as four board representatives. The group was collegial by design and the board accepted the search committee's recommendation.
As with the selection, an early resignation could never occur at the whim of the board, which is also constituted of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as well as members of the public. But curious as we may be about what inspired Dr. Gupta to resign, for which there may be many reasons, we must accept that he has done so and respect his right to privacy.
Having grown his previous organization, MITACS, from a $3-million academic centre of excellence to a $70-million national program, Dr. Gupta is clearly capable of making an important contribution. It would be irresponsible to allow an airing of grievances to compromise his future opportunities.
The relative silence is not a lack of transparency; it's a matter of discretion.
Still, it is no surprise that Dr. Gupta's friends and supporters have decried his resignation. There are more than 5,000 faculty members at UBC; it would be stunning if there were no critics. It is unfortunate, however, that some of the complaint has taken on a personal tone – and especially grievous that there was speculation of racial intolerance. My own experience, at U of A and UBC, has given me great faith in the openness that is typical at Canadian universities. I also feel strongly that such commentary should never be levelled idly, speculatively and without evidence.
But here's the important part: as was reaffirmed last week with the release of the 2015 Academic Ranking of World Universities, UBC is regarded as second in Canada, and in the top 40 among research universities in the world. That reputation is secure: It rests on the quality of a university's scholarship and research, and the efforts of many leaders.
So, important as it is to review the events of the last month, including any accusations that academic freedom may have been compromised, the brilliant faculty that has secured UBC's place on the world map remains in place. The tens of thousands of students, who care nothing about presidents, but who choose carefully on the basis of teaching excellence, opportunity and reputation, will continue to fight for a seat at UBC. And the funders, who overwhelmingly support the university because it has transformed their lives and helped them make their fortunes, will continue to favour UBC with their donations.
More than 50,000 students are about to flow back to UBC's two campuses. I have enormous faith in my friend, former UBC president Martha Piper, who has been seconded to resume that role this year. She is the perfect person to steady this institution – indeed to lead the celebration of UBC's 100th year – while the search occurs for a new president.
UBC is a remarkable institution and there is no limit to its capacity – and every reason to expect another century of top-tier education and world-class research.