Our Campus: Nassif Ghoussoub

In the scandal that has engulfed UBC since university president Arvind Gupta resigned several weeks ago, one professor has made his frustration very public.

Nassif Ghoussoub has used his personal blog and Twitter account to demand transparency surrounding Gupta’s departure, defend his colleagues’ right to academic freedom and even call for John Montalbano, chair of the Board of Governors, to resign.

Ghoussoub, a professor of mathematics who served on the board as a faculty representative from 2008-2013, has long had a frank style of communication which runs counter to the careful diplomatic language that normally characterizes university affairs in Point Grey. He has used his platform to advocate for a faculty housing plan to allow the university to attract top talent and clash with the federal government over research funding, among other causes.

But his public persona was never a given. Ghoussoub came to UBC in the late 1970s to conduct graduate studies and has been here ever since. Until the early 1990s, though, Ghoussoub said he was focused solely on his academic work and avoided faculty committees and administrative issues.

“I was very possessive of my research time,” he said. “Most faculty members are -- that’s why they don’t stick their necks out too much.”

Starting in the 1990s, Ghoussoub became engaged in the fight to bring research funding and academic prestige to western Canada through the creation of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences and later the Banff International Research Center.

“Western Canada needed to develop its own infrastructure and I knew this wasn’t going to happen if one university did it trying to stand on its own,” Ghoussoub said. “You don’t have the concentration here as in southern Ontario or Montreal, where you have four universities all at one subway station.”

The Pacific Institute brought together universities from across western Canada and the northwest United States to provide the critical mass of academics needed to attract serious attention. Similarly, the Banff Center hosts 48 weeklong workshops a year on different kinds of quantitative science in order to draw professors who otherwise would not make the trek to western Canada.

But even as his profile rose through work on these projects and others, Ghoussoub said his non-academic writing simply began as a lark. Sick with a fever five years ago, Ghoussoub said he was messing around on his laptop when he decided to create a blog, Piece of Mind.

“I was restless, so I started writing and I never stopped,” he explained. “It’s not like it was a conscious decision."

For someone who clearly expresses his convictions and studies one of the most empirical of the sciences, Ghoussoub wants to discourage reading too much into his emergence as a faculty advocate.

“Sometimes I feel all the decisions I’ve made in life were just random,” Ghoussoub, whose current research focuses on partial differential equations, said.

Born into the Lebanese diaspora in Africa, Ghoussoub’s mother sent him from his birthplace in French Sudan, now Mali, to boarding school in Lebanon at the age of two after his nanny fell ill with small pox. He studied in Lebanon during the years leading up to that country’s disastrous civil war and moved to Paris for university on the heels of the violent 1968 student protests which gave voice to a fervent antiauthoritarianism brewing among the younger generation. After graduation he toyed with the idea of accepting a teaching position at a Beirut university -- “I would be dead probably,” he said -- before coming to the United States to do his graduate work in a country still reeling from the Vietnam War. Arriving at UBC in Vancouver he found himself in the company of American draft dodgers who had sought refuge north of the border.

“I was raised in anarchy wherever I went,” Ghoussoub said. “I feel some people are compelled to feel turmoil and change more deeply than others. I categorize myself as very sensitive to societal events.”

Ghoussoub has certainly been affected by the recent turmoil on campus, pining for a return to the stability of former president Stephen Toope’s term.

“The guy is a class act, a true intellectual, so I really miss Stephen,” he said. “We all miss Stephen Toope now.”

Ghoussoub also got to know former president Gupta through their work at MITACS, a foundation that creates academic partnerships with the private sector, and would like to see him returned to the presidency. More broadly, Ghoussoub wants a board more attuned to the university setting rather than the business world.

Gupta, Ghoussoub said, received hundreds of letters from minority students heartened to see a non-white leader at a major institution like UBC. He doubts the psychological impact of unceremoniously dismissing Gupta -- on both the university community and those who looked up to him -- was even considered by the current board leadership.

“We need humanists on the board, not just rich people and bankers, who are fine -- but we need humanists too,” Ghoussoub said, suggesting businesspeople were not properly attuned to the community.

“All of the sudden—bang! -- he is gone,” Ghoussoub said of the jarring impact of Gupta’s departure. “I’m sorry … the bankers didn’t see it!”

As for why he is one of only a handful of professors speaking publicly about the issue, Ghoussoub said faculty workload is only part of the equation.

"People really aren't very courageous," he said. "Maybe I'm just crazy, but life is too short. If you don't stand up for a few basic principles that you believe in, what is it good for?"