UBC president search continues despite recent turmoil

The University of British Columbia's search for a new president continues, despite controversy surrounding its former president's departure.

UBC says the search committee is aiming to name a new president by June

UBC has been marred in controversy surrounding the sudden resignation of its former president, Arvind Gupta. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The University of British Columbia's search for a new president continues, despite controversy surrounding its former president's departure.

Arvind Gupta left his role as president and vice-chancellor of UBC last August, one year into a five-year term. Since then, documents that revealed friction between him and the board of governors were accidentally released, and the board chair has resigned. 

The university's vice president of external relations, Philip Steenkamp, says a 21-member committee has been meeting for the past couple of months and the job of president was posted last week. 

"It's a very attractive position," he said. "UBC has been on this remarkable trajectory over the last 20 years, from this sort of middle-ranked university to now in the absolute top rank."

Former UBC president Arvind Gupta resigned one year into his five-year term. (UBC)
Steenkamp said the committee is aiming to shortlist candidates in early March and to name a new president by June — although it's unlikely anyone will actually begin at that time. 

He said the university decided to go ahead with the search despite some suggestions to wait until issues regarding Gupta's sudden resignation and the board of governors were resolved. 

"We think the most important thing to do is actually identify a new president, because then a new president can unite the campus and move forward," Steenkamp said.

Concerns the search would be marred by the scandal were also raised, but Steenkamp said search consultants told him they haven't seen any impact in terms of the quality of candidates that have come forward. 

'A large order'

UBC adjunct professor Ross Paul, who wrote a book about presidents at Canadian universities, says the candidate will face numerous challenges.

"It's a very large order," he said. "The job has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, so you're looking for somebody who really is the CEO of a major corporation. At the same time, academic governance and academic management are still critical." 

Ross Paul wrote a book about the challenges for Canadian university presidents.

Paul says the failure rate for university presidents has risen to more than 25 per cent — a big change in recent years. 

"Boards put a ton of effort into finding the right person, and then they have a tendency to kind of sit back and expect this person's going to know how to do everything," he said. 

Paul says clashes often occur when inexperienced university presidents fail to build a strong relationship with the board of governors and the senate. Conversely, the frequent presence on the board of CEOs and senior business executives used to having their own way can also create problems. 

"That's a recipe for some considerable conflict and sometimes dissension," Paul said. 

His suggestions for ensuring a president's success include a strong mentoring system, clarity around evaluation, and the ability to delegate to those more knowledgeable in certain areas. 

"What's really important is not just the search, but what happens after the search," Paul said. "No individual can be good at all the things that's expected of a president nowadays ... It's just such a big job."

As for dissent regarding the university's goals and how to achieve them, Paul says it's just part of the job; presidents need to balance consulting with staff, students and faculty with having the fortitude to make tough decisions. 

With files from Farrah Merali and Mike Laanela


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