Martha Piper, UBC’s past and present president, looks to the future

WATCH: Chris Gailus sat down with interim UBC President Martha Piper to discuss why she came back to the university in crisis.

One day this summer, Martha Piper was vacationing in Hawaii with her four grandchildren.

The next, she was offered the chance to become President of the University of British Columbia – for the second time in her life.

“It was totally unexpected and I was shocked, and of course my first reaction was no. My life has moved on, and I have different priorities,” she said to Global News about the sudden offer by John Montalbano, chair of UBC’s Board of Governors, to return to the university she led from 1997 to 2006.

“But upon reflection, there’s only one institution I care deeply about, and it’s UBC.”

Piper, who became interim UBC President on September 1, replaces Arvind Gupta, who suddenly resigned at the end of July for unknown reasons.

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His departure only became known a week later, in a Friday afternoon press release, with little explanation as to why he was leaving just 13 months into a five-year mandate.

In the month since, a series of controversial decisions made by the Board of Governors – all stemming from Gupta’s mysterious departure – has created a level of criticism by faculty and media unseen this century.

BALDREY: Gupta’s UBC exit clouds school start

To hear Piper talk about it though, the threat to UBC’s reputation is much smaller than it may appear.

“I think it depends what you mean by the reputation,” she says.

“The reputation of universities, and when you look at the rankings…is really based on the output of universities. They don’t really evaluate the presidents, they don’t evaluate the administration, they don’t the evaluate the boards. They look at the quality of the students, the quality of the faculty, the quality of research, the quality of the learning that’s going on. Those things have not changed, and my job is to ensure they continue to get better.”

And that, as much as anything, is Piper’s goal for her ten months as interim president. Her job isn’t to push the university in a new direction, but to support stakeholders. Stay the course. Ensure confidence in UBC remains high.

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“I will be following Dr. Gupta’s initiatives, I will be looking at his vision, I’ve made that commitment…there’s not going to be change in course,” she said.

Still, there are specific policies that she will have to address during her term. In the week’s following Gupta’s departure, there has been grumbling by several faculty members that UBC’s increase in administrative staff- up 25 per cent in the last five years to 3,640 people – was a focus of the ex-president, and a point of contention with the Board of Governors.

“I’m very cautious in just making a gross number and looking at it. We will however, prudently, you must always look at that. That is an issue, and it deserves careful analysis,” says Piper.

And another jump in tuition for international students after last year’s 10 per cent hike isn’t being ruled out.

“We must remain competitive with our peers. We need to benchmark what we charge for international students with our competitors. That’s what our board is instructed to do, and that’s what we will be doing,” she says.

At this time, there are many more questions on campus about the last two months, rather than the next ten.

But it’s not a conversation Piper is focused on.

She won’t discuss Gupta’s departure directly, only to call it “regrettable”.

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“We have to recognize that we always have to respect the rights of an individual to privacy and confidentiality,” she said, citing the non-disclosure agreement signed by both UBC’s Board and Gupta prior to his resignation.

“You feel badly that for whatever reason someone who has only served a year has decided to step down. But I have to respect that decision, and I respect the university, and so we need to move on.”

She won’t discuss the allegations that Montalbano, who has stepped down as acting chair, threatened the academic freedom of professor Jennifer Berdahl by intimidating her after a controversial blog post on Gupta’s departure.

“I think we have addressed that,” she said, alluding to the report former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith will submit to UBC and the UBC Faculty Association about the affair.

READ MORE: The investigation’s terms of reference

“I don’t really [have an opinion] because I don’t know the circumstances, I don’t know what the conversation was, there’s nothing that prevents people from calling people,” she said.
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“The question is what was the conversation, what was the dialogue, and I couldn’t possibly pass judgement on that.”

Her answers are unlikely to assuage the critics inside and outside of UBC.

But the past and present leader of British Columbia’s largest university is determined to look to the future.

“We’re moving forward, and I’m not going to be creating a new strategic vision or a new plan,” she says.

“My job is to support the executive team, the deans, the faculty, the students who are actively engaged in those programs, and ensure best they can they’re moving forward.”