Opinion

UBC President's Resignation Deserves Public Inquiry

What happened to Arvind Gupta? Scant facts point to a 'University of Cards' toppling.

By Bill Tieleman 1 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it." -- Frank Underwood, U.S. president in House of Cards

When B.C.'s highest paid public servant suddenly resigns his job after just 13 months but won't say why -- and the Board of Governors involved has a majority of provincial government appointees with BC Liberal ties -- it's not a simple personnel change.

When B.C. Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson says that University of British Columbia president Arvind Gupta's resignation last month is merely "a matter between the Board of Governors and their employee" -- it's obviously not the whole story.

When Judy Kirk, a veteran BC Liberal-connected public relations expert, is seen attending a secret, unannounced Board of Governors meeting after Gupta's resignation -- it whiffs of provincial damage control.

When then-chair of UBC, John Montalbano, admits to calling a professor who publicly criticized Gupta's departure -- a professor his business funded -- it risks posing a threat to academic freedom.

Add up these factors, and it looks to me like the president of one of the world's top 25 academic institutions has been toppled in a University of Cards power play. But we can't know for sure, because of a confidentiality arrangement that shrouds the issue.

It doesn't seem possible that Gupta, who was paid $446,000 a year to run a $2-billion annual UBC budget with $575 million contributed by the province, decided to quit only one year into an ambitious five-year term on a whim.

I believe his board forced him out.

President had big plans

As UBC president, Gupta was ranked number 39 of Canada's 50 most important people by Maclean's magazine in November. His stated goal was to make UBC one of the world's top 10 universities and increase research funding by $100 million during his presidency.

What Gupta told Maclean's -- which noted Gupta "isn't afraid of stirring the pot" -- seems prophetic today.

"What we're doing now is not good enough," he said.

It's no wonder those involved don't want taxpayers to know why they are now stuck with an extremely expensive bill to replace Gupta, and why a world-renowned university is left with a bruised reputation just as it celebrates its 100th year.

The recruitment costs to determine Gupta was the best choice for the job were a reported $430,000 -- an amount that will need to be spent again or even exceeded to find a permanent replacement after a former UBC president returns for a one-year interim term.

Gupta is also being paid his $446,000 salary while taking a year's leave of absence from UBC.

Quick review needed

This unbelievable and reprehensible situation should never have happened.

Now, the only way to clear the air is through an independent review by a respected individual. It must be conducted quickly, in 30 days, with a report being made public.

That independent reviewer must have Gupta's explicit approval, and the "confidentiality arrangement" that Gupta and UBC signed must be exempted from impeding the review.

Whatever happened, and why, must come out. Anything less will leave UBC wounded for years.

Already major donor Allan Eaves, CEO of Canada's largest biotech company STEMCELL Technologies, is calling on Premier Christy Clark to launch an investigation, and for Montalbano to resign as chair.

"Something had clearly gone wrong, and we don't know what that is," Eaves told Global TV. "As a taxpayer, I want to know what's going on, why has this happened? I'm sure our wonderful government under Christy Clark would want to know too."

Provincial hand?

However, I suspect an investigation would show that the provincial government either had a hand in Gupta's exit or expressly authorized it.

Minister Wilkinson -- a lawyer, doctor and Rhodes scholar -- is no dummy. There is no way a UBC board with a majority of directors appointed by the province could demand and receive Gupta's resignation without political approval.

If Wilkinson didn't give the okay, it would have had to come from Clark herself. I don't see another realistic way that such an enormous step could have happened.

The provincial government appointed 11 of 21 UBC directors, and it's already known that many are BC Liberal Party donors and supporters, including Montalbano, former CEO of RBC Global Asset Management.

Gupta was initially well supported by Clark, who had him on her CKNW radio show as a regular guest when he was CEO of Mitacs, a non-profit connecting research with industry and government.

When he was made president, Clark said in September 2014: "The installation of Dr. Arvind Gupta as president and vice chancellor is a great moment for UBC and for post-secondary education in British Columbia."

"Dr. Gupta's outstanding track record in research, development, and innovation will further cement UBC's position as a world-leading research and teaching university that strengthens our whole province," Clark stated.

Clark also tweeted: "Congratulations @ArvindUBC on taking the reins at @ubcaplaceofmind. Great things ahead."

Gupta joined Clark last October on a trade mission to India.

But now "great things" and Gupta's UBC presidency are already behind him -- why?

I think the B.C. government knows, and it can tell -- but it will take faculty, staff, students and taxpayers to force the review of UBC that's now so urgently needed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics,

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