by Leah Bjornson (@leahjuneb) in Vancouver, British Columbia
With both the the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) faculty association calling for the chair of UBC’s Board of Governors to resign, more professors are speculating as to the reasons behind the abrupt resignation of UBC President Arvind Gupta.
Gupta’s departure was announced in a vague news release sent out by the Board of Governors on the afternoon of Friday, August 7. Although no explanation was given in the original release, UBC Board of Governors’ chairman John Montalbano told the Vancouver Sun that Gupta’s reasons were “personal” and “in the best interest of his family, himself and the university.”
Nevertheless, the secretive nature of Gupta’s leaving has raised significant outcry from the UBC Faculty Association. Fourteen faculty members signed an open letter sent earlier this week in which they expressed concerns about a perceived lack of transparency in the processes surrounding the President’s resignation.
Gupta had only been in his term for 13 months, and will receive his presidential salary of $446,750 for the current year under the grounds of academic leave.
“It was shocking!” exclaimed Sandra Mathison, a tenured professor in UBC’s faculty of education, when asked about her reaction to the initial announcement. “It is not typical for someone in a position like that to abruptly leave barely into their contract.”
Varied speculations on departure
Although Mathison was not one of the faculty members who signed the open letter calling for the chair’s resignation, she says her sentiments are shared by many members of the university.
“There are a lot of faculty who are incredibly—one they were shocked and two upset,” she related. “I think that there was, among faculty and students, a generally positive or at least neutral response to him. So there was very little reason to believe that this was coming and happened so precipitously.”
Mathison speculates that there are two possible explanations for Gupta’s departure: one, that the Board of Governors made a non-traditional hire and later decided that they’d made a mistake; or two, that the Board didn’t give Gupta adequate time or support to figure out his role. Either, she says, indicates poor judgement on their behalf.
Sauder School of Business Professor Jennifer Berdahl offered a more controversial theory in a recent blog post. Berdahl suggested that Gupta resigned because he had “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC” by failing to act in ways a more traditional leader would.
Shortly after posting the article, Berdahl received a call from Montalbano, whose personal donation of $2 million created her teaching post. Berdahl claims Montalbano intimidated her, attempting to inhibit her from speaking further on the matter.
This incident and resulting media and social media uproar have spurred the Canadian Association of University Teachers to join the fight. The group issued a letter on Wednesday in which they asked Montalbano to step aside while the university investigates the allegations against him of violating academic freedom.
Montalbano denies all charges of violating academic freedom, stating that he only contacted Berdahl to further understand her concerns. Yet, the financial links between him and the university have caused some to question the chair’s intentions behind his conversation with Berdahl.
“He’s confusing his own personal interests and his public role as the chair of the board of governors, and no matter what his intentions may be, the effect of his actions and the way this was spun out are quite curious,” commented Charles Menzies, a UBC professor of anthropology.
An obligation for transparency
Menzies also did not sign the open letter from the faculty association, but has been an active voice on Twitter since the announcement, speaking out against the perceived lack of transparency on the Board’s behalf.
Based on Mathison’s limited personal experiences with Gupta, she disagrees with Berdahl’s observation that he was some exceptional champion of diversity. However, Menzies has suggested an alternative reason for his early departure.
He explained that Gupta was a “non-traditional” hire, emerging from a background of entrepreneurship and innovation rather than higher education administration. What’s more, Menzies said that Gupta chose to focus his term on research and education, which diverged from the university’s previous initiatives geared towards “money-making ventures.”
“In certain circles of those running this university, that [pursuit] actually is probably understood as a threat to their security,” he commented.
While their speculations may differ, Menzies and Mathison both agree that the faculty and public deserve a better explanation from the Board. “The obligation for transparency is absolutely the key element here,” said Mathison. “The Board of Governors has got to provide an explanation for why it is that President Gupta is no longer the President.”
Published in partnership with the South Asian Post.