The resignation of Arvind Gupta reveals worrying trends and damaging ideas about Canadian university governance.

The sudden resignation of a president is a disruptive event for any university, but when the reasons are shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the university has a severe governance crisis on its hands. On the afternoon of Friday August 7, 2015, during the dog days of summer, UBC announced that President Arvind Gupta had resigned, ostensibly to return to his life as a computer science professor. The announcement began an awakening of UBC’s faculty to the fact that transparency and accountability had long ceased to be central principles in the governance of the university.

Indeed, collegial governance had been eroding at UBC for many years, as it has at other universities across Canada. As more information came to light, many realized that President Gupta had been ousted, in part, because he intended to strengthen collegial governance at UBC. It is also now clear that President Gupta’s avowed policy to move significant resources from secondary activities to support the university’s core research and teaching missions seemed to threaten some members of the Board, including the chair, and some members of the administration. However, by the time a grassroots group of faculty members started the petition that ultimately led to the vote of no-confidence in the Board of Governors in March of this year, the issues under scrutiny were much larger than President Gupta’s resignation: a profound anger has grown as faculty have lost faith that UBC’s Board of Governors understood the nature of our academic mission and how to act in the best interests of that mission.

UBC’s publicly visible crisis is simply a bellwether of the widespread struggle to protect our institutions from external—and indeed, internal—interests that seek to reshape our academic mission to focus on the narrow development of human capital and the creation of marketable innovation and research. The erosion of collegial governance through administrative actions and policies designed to minimize faculty power is deliberate, as evidenced by Peter MacKinnon’s University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-first Century—a cynical, but influential, book read widely by Canadian university administrators and government policy makers. As faculty have effectively withdrawn from their formal governance roles on university boards and senates, the collapse of collegial governance has accelerated. To a great extent, faculty have been acquiescing to these changes with little resistance or comment. Recent events at a number of universities, however, give some hope that faculty are awakening to the situation and to their power to change the course of their declining influence over academic governance of their universities.

It is likely that the seriousness of the governance crisis at UBC would have remained hidden after President Gupta’s resignation had it not been for an academic blog post written on the day of Gupta’s resignation by Professor Jennifer Berdahl. Berdahl, an expert in gender and diversity in the workplace and the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies in the Sauder School of Business, asked whether Gupta had lost a “masculinity contest” with the leadership of UBC. While normally Professor Berdahl’s blog would be read by the relatively small academic community to which she belongs, this post was picked up by a widely-read Vancouver paper, The Georgia Straight. Shortly after, then-Board Chair Mr. John Montalbano made the ill-advised decision to call Professor Berdahl to express his concerns about her post.

What followed this phone call was a bizarre series of events that culminated with an investigation by the Honorable Lynn Smith, Q.C., and, ultimately, the resignation of Mr. Montalbano as Chair of the Board of Governors. Ms. Smith concluded that UBC had failed in its active obligation to protect Professor Berdahl’s academic freedom. Ms. Smith’s investigation also concluded that the combined actions of those involved had the effect of interfering with Professor Berdahl’s academic freedom even though no individual, on their own, had interfered with her rights as a faculty member. While the UBC Board and administration have publicly acknowledged UBC’s failure to protect Professor Berdahl’s academic freedom, they have not yet acknowledged the interference component of Ms. Smith’s findings. This is in spite of a clarifying conversation between the parties and Ms. Smith herself. As this issue is the subject of an ongoing grievance, we will not comment further here.

How did the Smith investigation help reveal the depth of the governance crisis at UBC?

Through all of this, the University of British Columbia Faculty Association’s (UBCFA) goal was to determine if there was due process leading up to the Board accepting President Gupta’s resignation. Before the Smith investigation, the Board had taken the position that the resignation was a “personnel matter” and it refused to provide any details of the events leading up to the Board’s August 7, 2015 decision to accept President Gupta’s resignation. During Smith’s investigation, however, a set of emails surfaced that discussed “Special Committees” that were part of the process that led to the resignation. While not much to go on, these emails became the basis for a set of freedom of information (FOI) requests submitted by the UBCFA. These seemingly mundane requests about Board committees ultimately turned out to be critical in piecing together key actions taken by Board members and the Board around President Gupta’s resignation.

UBC’s responses to these requests did not include any information about the “Special Committees” that were mentioned in the emails the UBCFA had in its possession, and UBC insisted no such committees existed. However, documents UBC released inadvertently in January 2016 demonstrated that such committees had indeed been struck as part of the “resignation” process. This justified the UBCFA’s concern that in the matter of President Gupta’s resignation, the Board of Governors had acted via secret, in camera processes that did not meet the standards of best practices for public bodies in British Columbia. Worse, it became apparent that such a lack of public accountability was the normal mode of operation for the UBC Board of Governors. The UBCFA became concerned that the actions of the Board could expose the University to charges of contravention of the University Act and provincial privacy and access to information laws.

Moreover, President Gupta’s performance seems to have been evaluated personally by Mr. John Montalbano, together with a few other Board members. The formal committees of the Board that would usually participate in a review of the president appear to have been bypassed, and it is not clear whether the Board as a whole was ever apprised of the entire process initiated by Mr. Montalbano—most of which seems to have occurred via undocumented and unreported meetings.

It is also known from the email record that Mr. Montalbano arranged a meeting with President Gupta and Mr. Greg Peet, another member of the Board of Governors, for a “confidential discussion, not captured on email.” This was the last meeting recorded in President Gupta’s schedule before his resignation on August 7. The exact nature and content of this meeting is not in the records released, even in redacted form. It seems certain that this meeting precipitated President Gupta’s resignation, and yet there appears to be no record of it and it is not at all clear how it was reported to the Board. That any meeting with such a strong outcome could happen without any record—indeed, this appears to have been Mr. Montalbano and Mr. Peet’s intention—raises concern about how much UBC business is not accessible to the public through FOI requests. It is important to note that none of these clandestine actions of the Board would likely ever have come to light had UBC not mistakenly included a number of PDF’s containing compromising information in their response to the FOI request.

More generally, Board procedures appear not to be documented. Instead, they seem to be maintained as some form of “oral knowledge” managed by either the Board Secretary or the University Counsel, depending on the matter. Board practices or governance procedures, judging from the limited documents available, appear to be run at the whim of the Chair and Board Secretary, with little or no oversight. This is certainly inconsistent with a notion of open and transparent university governance, and seems to leave important governance processes open to abuse.

Faculty members (and the public) expect the UBC Board of Governors to operate in the best interests of the university, and to be seen to be doing so. The requirement for transparency and accountability is a formal one, spelled out explicitly in the Letter of Mandate from the BC Provincial Government. The failure to meet this requirement was certainly an important factor for faculty who lost confidence in the Board of Governors.

What really precipitated President Gupta’s resignation?

While the answer is not entirely known, it is clear from the available email exchange between Mr. Montalbano and Dr. Gupta, that a key point of strategic disagreement was Dr. Gupta’s plan to refocus the university administration on the university’s core functions of research and teaching, and the disappointment of some unidentified “key stakeholders,” notably the deans and senior executives, with this plan. Faculty became deeply concerned by the evidence that a culture exists in UBC whereby the Chair of the Board is personally involved with managing university personnel and their concerns, and whereby backchannels exist between the Board and the administration that bypass formal governance structures. Individual contacts between Board members and academic administrators other than the president should be limited to those directly sanctioned by the president. Beyond displaying a lack of respect for the presidency, such backchannel activities demonstrate just how far collegial principles are from the minds of those involved in top-level university governance.

While the Gupta affair at UBC and the subsequent imbroglio over academic freedom represent a perfect storm of failed governance, the problem of governance at British Columbia’s research universities is structural. Though it is common in other provinces for the provincial government to appoint individuals to Boards of Governors, BC’s system is uniquely politicized. BC is the only province in which legislation assures that direct government appointees will always have a working majority on Boards of Governors. All appointments follow a secretive Order in Council process with no public scrutiny or transparency and all appointments are signed off by the Premier.

This politicized process has had predictable results. In 2015, nine of the 11 provincially appointed UBC Board members were BC Liberal Party donors. These nine individuals have contributed a combined $137,395 to the party since 2005, and a tenth appointee donated money through a personal corporation. The provincial appointees were also prominent in corporations that in turn donated to the BC Liberal party, bringing contributions connected to these Board members to a total of $387,274.

At the University of Victoria, Board Member Ida Chong, a former Liberal Cabinet Minister of Advanced Education, was appointed to the Board almost immediately after she lost her seat in the 2013 provincial election. At the University of Northern British Columbia, the Board of Governors, by a narrow 7-6 vote, recently appointed former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore as Chancellor. Elsewhere in Canada, universities generally appoint well-respected and non-controversial individuals to the largely ceremonial position of Chancellor. By contrast, Moore is an extremely controversial figure within the university sector given that he was the federal Minister-in-charge when grant agency budgets were cut, and the voices of federal scientists were muzzled.

All of this begs the question: in whose interest are these governors working? Patronage appointees are of course capable of working in the broader interest of a university, but the current appointment system should give student, faculty, and community members pause to consider who is really running their institutions.

In addition to the transparency and accountability challenges of Boards of Governors, BC’s universities are also seeing an increasing constriction of collegial governance—in both spirit and letter. The common pattern in these controversies is that governments and senior administrators are slowly backing away from the academic model of collegial governance, in which faculty have meaningful input into the academic management of universities.

This burgeoning shift in the model of collegial governance finds explicit voice in Peter MacKinnon’s University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Mackinnon has, in effect, written a manifesto designed to encourage and support efforts to blunt the role of faculty unions in protecting and, in some circumstances, expanding the scope of collegial governance. MacKinnon’s ideas have had considerable sway as a clarion call to reign in faculty unions and he has made numerous presentations to senior university administrators across the country on his particular views on governance and faculty unions.

Mackinnon’s treatise for university administrators boils down to a few simple (and simplistic) principles:

  1. i) Faculty unions have become too powerful (read: successful) and have been able to enshrine collegial governance provisions in collective agreements. In Mackinnon’s view collective agreements are no place for collegial governance and these provisions should be removed in bargaining when possible and never be bargained into new agreements. MacKinnon goes further to argue that anyone active within their faculty union should be excluded from all aspects of collegial governance, and tenure and promotion committees.
  2. ii) Working conditions for faculty are so advantageous and generous that faculty have no need for the protections offered by unions. He further argues that labour legislation and human rights codes have become so robust that any concerns faculty have could be addressed through these
    legislative protections.
  3. iii) Intimately linked to this argument against unionization, MacKinnon also argues that two of the defining features of academic work—academic freedom and tenure—should be revisited. MacKinnon argues, in a familiar trope, that academic freedom has become too robust and the only way to save it is to allow university presidents to reign it in. He also suggests that university presidents should have more control over hiring, tenure, and promotion, of both faculty and deans. MacKinnon further argues: “The question is fairly asked and renewed, whether tenure serves an important public policy piece in Canada in the twenty-first century” (150).

MacKinnon’s views are worth reviewing in this context, not because they are new or particularly compelling, but because they are a coherent registry of oft murmured but rarely articulated ideas about faculty unions in Canada. Employers complaining about robust workplace rights is as old as collective bargaining itself, so we should not be surprised when a university administrator expresses these types of views. MacKinnon’s real objection seems to be that effective faculty unions restrict the freedom of administrators and governing boards to roll back collegiality and impose their own vision on universities. His unspoken and authoritarian assumption is that administrators and governors—simply by dint of the positions they hold—are the only legitimate guardians of academic excellence and good governance.

But as the Gupta case and the ongoing challenges in university governance in BC clearly demonstrate, if the power of administrators and governors is allowed to go unchecked, the principles of accountability and transparency—and indeed the integrity of the university—are at risk. The adversarial approach espoused by MacKinnon toward collegial governance and faculty unions therefore exacerbate rather than solve the problems he purports to address. AM

Mark Mac Lean is President of the University of British Columbia Faculty Association. Michael Conlon is the Executive Director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations—British Columbia.