Beyond the BoG Standard: UBC Governance and the Need for an Academic Voice in Choosing Our Next President

“The opportunity to lead one of the world’s great universities attracted outstanding candidates, but Dr. Arvind Gupta clearly stood out as the best choice to lead this great university. The Board will provide its full support to Dr. Gupta as he guides UBC in its pursuit of excellence, so that we may better serve the people of British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – John Montalbano about Arvind Gupta, March 2014

“You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when the facts are far from certain.  Creating division among individuals whether within the Executive, the Board or the Deans must cease immediately.  The role of the President is to bring people to together.” – John Montalbano to Arvind Gupta, May 2015

These are strange times at UBC.  In the opinion of the then Chair of the Board of Governors (BoG) the person who was the “best choice to lead this great university” in the winter of 2014 became, by spring of 2015, someone who failed to understand the basic job of the President. By the middle of summer 2015 that person was no longer the President.

Despite the revelations in the recent accidental document dump, we still do not really know why Gupta left office. That is, we know he left because a small group of Board members including Montalbano (and others who are still on the BoG) lost confidence in him and made it impossible for him to do the job as he saw fit.  But we still don’t know why they lost confidence in him.  From the evidence of the document dump, they found him not sufficiently consultative, overly aggressive, too controversial. The BoG, the executive, the Deans seemed to tremble before him.  It is, as I said, all very strange.

But with whom should the UBC President consult and about what?

According to Montalbano, the President’s job is to bring people together—by which he seems to have meant to forge consensus among the BoG, the central administration, and the Deans.  Faculty and students seem not to enter into Montalbano’s picture of UBC.  While being unnecessarily disagreeable or divisive is not a good thing in a leader, bringing even the small set of people Montalbano cares about together is not the job of the President of UBC.  According to the BC University Act, the job of the President is to be the “chief executive officer” of the University.  The President “must generally supervise and direct the academic work of the University.”  This academic work is teaching and research, activities of the faculty and students.

What is the job of the BoG?  The Act says: “the management, administration and control of the property, revenue, business and affairs of the university are vested in the board.”  In other words, the Act clearly indicates that the BoG manages the business side of the University in order best to aid the President to look after the academic activities that are the core activities of the University.

I suggest that the heart of the problem is to be found in the term “chief executive officer.”  Because nearly every unelected BoG member is from the corporate world, they seem to think that the President manages the day-to-day business affairs of the University, while the BoG provides the mission and vision.  But the general tenor of the Act goes in the other direction: the Board manages the University’s business affairs in such a way that the President can best direct the actual work of the University, its teaching and research.  The chief body meant to advise the President on the matter of academic vision is the Senate, in which “the academic governance of the University is vested.”

In other words, the root cause of our current difficulties is a misunderstanding in the BoG about their role.  The UBC BoG does not stand to the UBC President and a corporate Board of Directors stands to a corporate CEO.  UBC has a non-business purpose: it exists to foster the public good, to pursue research and teaching.  The President manages this mission and is aided in its governance by the Senate.  The BoG exists to help run the business side of the University in such a way that the academic mission can be discharged as the President and Senate see fit, while remaining mindful of its fiduciary duties to both the University and the province.

The people the President and the Senate should consult most with in thinking about the academic mission of the University are the faculty and students.  Arvind Gupta was doing this.  In the meetings I was in, he was not arrogant (or not more arrogant than the rest of us were), aggressive, or even terribly controversial.  Controversy was loaming, of course, since any actual plan for becoming a top-ten public university would require hard choices.  But the academic community thrives on controversy and knows how to handle it.  We often find ourselves thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when and because the facts are not clear.

Given the chance, the UBC academic community can make UBC great.  The UBC BoG just needs to understand its role, stand back, and let us do it.  This is why UBC faculty and students should have a role in the next Presidential appointment—it is our goals and our mission that person will lead.