The spectre of University of British Columbia Board members and senior management scurrying around like field mice on a hot frying pan is both sad and entirely predictable.
But that’s exactly what the picture looks like since Arvind Gupta’s sudden and mysterious departure from the presidency of UBC.
First, I have a bias. I am a colleague and friend of Gupta. I served for many years with him on the board of directors of Mitacs, an organization he built into a powerful pan-Canadian model of unprecedented co-operation among universities, industry and governments. Gupta is one of the smartest and most accomplished scientists and organizational leaders I have encountered. When he ascended to the role of university president, I thought UBC was set to soar. I was apparently wrong.
Is Gupta demanding of the boards to which he reports? Absolutely. He’s an extraordinary person who requires a high-functioning Board chair and directors to keep up with him and carry out his vision. This begs the question: at what level is the UBC Board of Governors functioning?
I am a former journalist and am well aware of the tricks of trade. Did UBC really think it was going to get away with a banal and superficial announcement of the president’s departure late on a summer Friday afternoon? Friday afternoon press releases are the domain of sneaky people trying to avoid media and public scrutiny, hoping the masses are more focused on getting to their sailboats than examining the news of the day. It’s sleazy.
I am a former communications consultant, with experience in crisis management. Did the UBC Board really think it was going to get away with saying nothing? There is a well-known concept in crisis management called the “Golden Hour.” It dictates that an organization has about one hour into a serious crisis to protect its reputation and capture public trust. In that hour, you’ve got to come clean and tell the truth -- the whole truth -- and show what you’re doing to fix the problem. UBC did neither. A letter from the Board chair to the Faculty Association was an afterthought and a joke.
I am a former resident of Saskatoon. Did the chair of UBC’s Board really think he was going to get away with contacting and chastising a UBC professor who -- in the absence of any information from the Board -- offered her own assessment of Gupta’s departure? It’s called academic freedom. In my former hometown, a little more than a year ago, the top two officials of the University of Saskatchewan both lost their jobs for disrespecting that freedom.
The latest image, captured by television cameras, is of the interim president, the Board chair and the crisis consultant convening a secret meeting. In other words, UBC is no more adept at secrecy than honestly and frankly dealing with the departure of a president.
The UBC Board of Governors is clearly out of its depth and failing in its responsibility to provide transparent and accountable governance. Resignations are required.
Bill Peterson is the former editor and publisher of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, former publisher of the Prince George Citizen and Kingston Whig Standard and a retired partner in the Saskatoon-based strategic communications firm Creative Fire.