UBC’s new president wants to make university “more outward thinking”

Arvind Gupta became UBC's 13th President on July 1, 2014. UBC Public Affairs

When the new President of the University of British Columbia was a first-year university student, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do.

“My parents thought I was going to do premed,” said Arvind Gupta to Global News. “But I took some biology courses and found I really didn’t like it. I loved my math and physics courses though, so I had to tell my parents I was going to be a math major.

Gupta, who became UBC’s 13th President on July 1, knows that many students approach their university degree a bit different now.

“I wasn’t at all thinking what I was going to do afterwards. I notice now, at least my daughters even out of high school, they’re thinking what am I going to get out of a university degree? It’s in the air more. I think back then you just went to university and hoped things worked out in the end.”

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For the past 13 years Gupta has been CEO of Mitacs, a nonprofit organization based out of UBC. It works with government and businesses, linking students directly with opportunities in research projects and internships.

It’s a background Gupta hopes is ideal for the changing role of universities.

“Universities have to be much more outward thinking. At Mitacs, that’s all we do. We’re constantly working with companies, we’re working with governments, we’re working with non-profits, hospitals, everything we do is externally facing. [Outgoing President Stephen Toope] thought those were the skillsets we needed in the academic sector going forward.”

He knows that any changes to UBC, with its nearly 60,000 students and $2 billion annual budget, will come slowly. But Gupta is excited for the possibilities of students doing more “external facing” activities.

“The world has a lot very interesting things to say to us. It’s become much more sophisticated. Companies are doing phenomenally interesting things. Governments have really interesting questions they can work with us on. It’s to our benefit,” he said.

“Some people view this external facing idea as we should be out there helping business. I actually think it’s become two-way. Businesses have a lot of interesting things to say to us, and we have interesting things to say to business. If we do it in an intellectually honest way, then our students will benefit.”

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How Gupta’s ideas change UBC will be seen in the coming years. For now, he’s meeting with deans, talking with stakeholders, and getting excited about the challenges and opportunities in leading the largest university in western Canada.

“It’s hard for me to see why we wouldn’t be able to keep building UBC. The question for me is how to make sure that people don’t lose their passion, their drive, their energy. It’s a really remarkable thing. Every day, I learn a little bit more about UBC. Somebody said “do you think at the end of your time. The whole point of a university is to empower people’s passions.

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