Anatomy of a UBC presidential crisis…

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Unless you live in Vancouver you may not be aware of the UBC presidential crisis that’s occurring right now. Even if you live here, however, the scale of it is hard to believe…

I once made a bad hiring mistake. I was 20 years old, working at a weekly newspaper and I’d selected a person for a job — she had to take classified ads over the phone — for which she was ill-suited. Her writing was illegible.

I had to fire her on her second day, which was hard. Then, I had to call back the second-most-qualified candidate, which was also surprisingly challenging. But the new person accepted the position, did well at it and lasted for two years. I learned the rough way that you have to put extra effort into making sure a person is well suited for a job.

If only my alma mater, the University of BC, had learned that lesson. Much in the news, recently, for the sudden and mysterious departure of its president, Arvind Gupta — one year into his five-year term — the university has only made things worse by the way in which it handled this crisis.

First, they made the announcement on a Friday in August. Really! Did they think that would cause people to fail to notice? UBC has more than 60,000 students. And it’s ranked as the 32nd best university in the world. People care about who the president is. They’re not going to be lulled by warm August temperatures and the promise of a long weekend.

Second, they gave no reason for the departure, citing privacy concerns. Their thoroughly inadequate press release announced a “leadership transition” and said that Gupta had resigned to “return to the pursuit of his academic career.” They should have understood that nature abhors a vacuum and that, in the absence of any useful information, people will speculate

Third, when a tenured professor of business, Jennifer Berdahl, posited on her blog that Gupta may have lost what she described as a “masculinity contest” at UBC, the chair of UBC’s board of governors, John Montalbano phoned her to complain. This has since degenerated into an ugly public slanging match of the he-said/she-said variety. (I find her story slightly more believable than his, but both agree that he called her. Point blank, this was wrong. She has tenure. She has a right to her opinion.)

All this aside, I think UBC’s biggest mistake dates back to the presidential hiring. They either chose someone who disliked administration or simply disagreed with the board’s values (so he decided to resign) or they chose someone who disagreed with their basic values (so they had to fire him.) In short, they made a hiring mistake.

Not only that, but they compounded it with a variety of firing mistakes: including failing to provide any issues management and interfering with academic freedom, by harassing a professor who blogs. A former president, Martha Piper, is returning for a year so a replacement can be found. Can she turn things around?

The better question is: Is she a miracle worker?


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