WATCH: One-on-one with former UBC president Arvind Gupta
Former UBC president Arvind Gupta broke his silence about his abrupt resignation from the university last summer.
Gupta resigned just one year into his five-year term sparking widespread speculation about his departure.
Gupta spoke to Global News’ Chris Gailus Thursday to give his side of the story after the university inadvertently released private documents showing some on the board of governors had lost faith in his leadership.
Gailus: The documents that dropped obviously touched a nerve. What was it that upset you about what was released?
Gupta: Well, let’s be clear. There was a Freedom of Information set of documents that came out Monday, and then on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning a second set of documents that were not part of the Freedom of Information package. And my concern was that these new documents painted a certain picture of a discussion that looked very one-sided. And I think it’s important that the tone and the accuracy of what has been said is clarified, that there be no misconceptions and I thought it was important to speak about them.
Gailus: What was it you didn’t agree with?
Gupta: Well, these documents talk about certain discussions I was having with a sub-group of the board. They were expressing some concerns. And what’s not been captured there is the other types of interactions that are happening.
So specifically, I was asking when they were meeting with me and they were saying those things, I was saying, where is this evidence coming from? Who was saying these things? What evidence have you collected? Have you collected it? And as we tried to address these concerns, can we put a framework in place so we understand if they are being addressed. And I wasn’t getting feedback on that. But I still decided that I should take these worries on board and do the best I can in addressing them. So I did respond with a plan. I took other actions to respond.
The second part that isn’t being captured here is that my one-year as president was coming — my one-year anniversary. And my contract says that at the one-year anniversary the board will do a performance review. And I was asking when are we doing a performance review and wouldn’t that be a better way to address these concerns? Let’s look at what’s being accomplished, what needs to still to be done, and as part of that, we can develop a process to consult the stakeholder community.
And that process is agreed upon. So because if you don’t do that…you know, universities are very large institutions. We have 60 to 70 thousand people on our campus. It’s very easy to get back channels, to get innuendo and gossip forming. And as a leader, if you’re trying to fight gossip and you don’t know the source of the gossip, it’s very easy to feel like you’re shadowboxing or you’re dodging ghosts that are being thrown at you. So I wanted a formal process for this to happen.
Gailus: You’re referring to emails that went back and forth between you and John Montalbano, the former board chair. Things that said that you had an unsettled first year, that your relationship with key stakeholder groups were at risk, that you were unable to make the kinds of relationships and move forward, that you couldn’t move forward in a confident manner. Those are all the thing you’re referring to — you felt that you had no fact-based evidence that things were going sideways for you.
Gupta: Let’s talk about some of those. I was saying, where are these concerns coming from? And parallel, I started to reach out to various stakeholder communities. I would sit down with different groups and say, ‘tell me the concerns that you have’ so that we can work through them.
And I was hearing something different. And now I was in a real conundrum because on the one hand, as I sit down with these stakeholder communities, they’re feeling excited about the kinds of things I’m saying. Some board members are saying something different and I’m saying we need a more formal process. At the same time, because I’m not getting the formal process, I don’t want to be dismissive. One of the concerns was that I’m being dismissive of the board.
Gailus: That’s right. If it’s not an intended disregard of their authority. but…
Gupta: So I was saying I’m going to take these on board where I can develop a plan to address things. I’m going to put that down, but I’m also going to act on it. And so I took concrete steps to start acting on these things.
Some of these things we can all improve. We can all improve on our communication style. And I think we should listen when people express these concerns to us. Whether or not we feel that we know where they’re coming from in a boarder way we can listen to them.
And so I was, my communication back because they were asking me to write down what I was going to do. I was saying I’m going to take these on board and this is my plan to start addressing some of these things.
Gailus: It’s amazing how quickly things deteriorated when you go through the timeline. Were you surprised, and how much of it was your responsibility to try to bring it back together and be able to move forward. Do you feel any of the responsibility of how this went sideways?
Gupta: Sure. So in terms of timeline, what I didn’t know was that an ad hoc committee of the board, a sub-committee of the board had been formed that was talking about these issues. I had no awareness of the committee. I was never invited to address that committee or talk with them. So as that committee was doing its deliberations and I don’t know what they’re deliberating because I wasn’t party to it, I was in parallel looking at these kinds of concerns. You know these are very large-scale concerns. I was also counting on the formal review process that’s supposed to take place. And I thought I’ll work on these concerns and start moving towards having this formal review to make sure that we’re being evidence-based. So I was doing those things in parallel, not knowing this other process was going on.
Gailus: Did you feel betrayed when you found that out?
Gupta: Let’s just say I was surprised that within the governing structure of the university these types of things could happen. I’d been told many times that no sub-committee of the board could be formed without the president knowing about it and being invited to attend. So when I found out near the end of July that this had happened, the first thing I said was I want to talk to the whole board about this. Because I had serious questions about how this was being transacted.
Gailus: And were you denied that opportunity?
Gupta: I was told there’s no avenue for me to speak with the board. Unless the board requests a meeting with me, there’s no avenue for me to go and speak with the board.
Gailus: Is that when you made a decision about leaving? It came very shortly after that.
Gupta: If you’re told that this sub-group of the board has no confidence in you, and you have no way of addressing the entire board, then you realize you have one of two options. Either you resign or you go public and have a public battle with this group of board members.
You really have to think, what’s really best for the institution? Is a public battle in the best interest of the institution? And I made the determination rightly or wrongly that’s what’s best for the institution is that I step aside and the board seek new leadership that they all can believe in. You know the reality, Chris, is I could not predict the turmoil that took place on campus after I resigned. I couldn’t predict how many people would feel hurt that things happened, that other governance structures were also breaking down. And the reality is that I wonder if I had taken on this issue in August whether some of those other things wouldn’t have happened.
Professor Berdahl really did feel that she was being asked to suppress her views. At a university, we don’t do this. The thing we cherish the most in a university is our academic freedom. The only institutions we have in our society where people are free to enquire, to question how we do things, to state their opinion and be challenged on them, are universities. And so we don’t want to go down those roads. In fact, I believe that it’s incumbent upon us as a university community that I’m a part of to apologize to Professor Berdahl, and to say to her this should not have happened to you and we will make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Gailus: The chair of the board, John Montalbano, has now resigned. Do you feel some sense of satisfaction when you heard that news? Be honest.
Gupta: Let me say first of all, I’m the type of person who always look forward, and I always think about what can I do to contribute to this province and this country.
The second thing I always do is believe that everyone has the best of intentions. And of course, many things have now come out since these activities took place, but I think that it’s very important that we all just look forward and not keep harping about what happened in the past. Except in the following way: we should learn. And I guess it really surprises me that in the six months that have gone by the board has not asked me: what happened? From your perspective, what happened? The kind of questions you’re asking me about today. I’m really surprised the board hasn’t asked those questions.
Gailus: I’m surprised to hear that too…
Gupta: So I think to myself before and after August 7th, nobody wanted to know my view on what had happened. That we’re launching a presidential search without asking what happened. And the only people who have contacted [me], a couple of people who are thinking they might apply for president reached out to me. But wouldn’t the presidential search committee want to know? Because we are an educational institution. We are the vanguard of learning. For us to put our heads in the sand and decide we don’t want to know what happened I think is a disservice, not just to the university, but to the entire province and the country, because we’re not setting a standard to always learn from what’s transpired. And this is the 100th anniversary of UBC. What better time to learn?
Gailus: And what a distraction from the party, in many ways, this is. Do you regret your decision to leave when you did? Do you wish you were still there fighting for the interests of the university?
Gupta: You know regret is such a strong term. And I like not to have regrets. But I do believe that if I knew in early August what I know now, I may have made a different decision. I may have decided that governance is broken down enough that it’s time for me to take a stand and to challenge this group of board members and to force this issue. And let’s address it then and there, instead of letting it devolve into what happened afterwards.
Gailus: What’s next for the university?
Gupta: Well, let me say two things. I came in with what I think was a clear vision. I said it from the very first interview until today that we need to modernize universities. We need to build 21st-century universities that are much more engaged with their communities, that are much more engaged with the broader world. I still believe that.
And what I found as I went and consulted university communities, a lot of people were excited about that. And I believe that the university community wants to see this happen. So that’s one thing. The second piece is that so much of our community now is aware of issues of governance and leadership.
You know, when I took this job, a lot of people said to me, ‘so what does a president do?’ Many people weren’t even aware there was a board of governors or that there is a chair of the board of governors, and the board has subcommittees and how it operates.
I think the first step in reforming the governance of the university is awareness and engagement by the community. The students, the faculty and the staff have to be engaged in the process. They’re the ones who have to take leadership in making sure these systems are modernized and that governance is done appropriately.
Gailus: Can that happen with the current board in place or does it need to be tossed out?
Gupta: You know it’s funny, on Twitter lots of people are asking those questions today. We want to hear the voices, I think, of the stakeholder communities and there are processes to get those voices on the table. Because I don’t think we want to do things in a vindictive way or in a knee-jerk way in any sense.
We want to have a proper process. I’ve always been in favour of putting in processes because these are human beings that we’re talking about. All of them have a right to due process. Let’s put a process in place that actually looks at the governance, that reviews what happened, that involves the board of governors. Just as I felt needed to be involved in my review, the current board of governors should also be involved in that discussion. And let’s figure out the right strategy for asking these very, very difficult questions from our university.
Gailus: What do you think the new incoming president, whoever that happens to be, needs to know? If you have one piece of advice or anything to tell them, what would it be?
Gupta: First, it’s a great university, wonderful faculty. Really engaged students who are very socially responsible and dedicated staff.
Gailus: But in terms with dealing with the…
Gupta: So I want to be clear. It is a wonderful university. So I think anybody who takes this job has to know that this community really wants to build a phenomenal institution that gives back to this province and to the people of this province.
The second piece is: let’s learn, let’s modernize the governance structure. It’s not just about modernizing the outreach of this university to broader society, but modernizing what happens in the university. We will need to change what goes on in the university if we’re going to reach out because the university is supposed to be at the cutting edge of social change.
So however that happens, whether it’s the next president that does that or it happens before the next president comes, I think it’s a critical step to make sure that everyone is on the same page about how we’re going to govern this institution.