So, what happened last week? On Monday, pursuant to a freedom-of-information request submitted last fall, UBC finally released documents – mainly emails – related to the events surrounding the departure of Arvind Gupta. Much of it was redacted, including a flurry of fairly long exchanges that happened in May and June. On Wednesday, somebody figured out how to un-redact the document in adobe, and all of a sudden everyone could see the crucial exchanges. Then on Thursday, in view of the fact that the UBC leak effectively violated the privacy clause of the non-disclosure agreement with the former President, Gupta himself decided to give a couple of interviews to the press.
What did we actually learn from the documents? Apart from the fact that folks at UBC are really bad at electronically redacting documents? Less than you’d think.
We do have a better understanding of the timeline of where things went wrong. A discussion about a proposed strategic plan stemming from the February Board meeting seems to have been the start of the deteriorating relationship between Gupta and at least a portion of the Board. Clear-the-air talks about weaknesses in Gupta’s performance were held following the April board meeting. And then downhill from there. The documents make clear there were a lot of complaints within the Board about Gupta’s leadership: in particular, his relationship with his own leadership team and his handling of relationships with the Board. Read the May 18th letter from Montalbano to Gupta: it’s rough.
Some of the specifics were new, but frankly there isn’t much surprising in there. You didn’t need to know the details to realize that the heart of the whole affair was that Gupta lost the backing of the Board, and that this was something that probably happened gradually over time.
What has Gupta said in his interviews? He has said, first: the released documents provided a one-sided representation of the events of the spring, which is true enough. Second, that despite having resigned because he had lost the confidence of the full Board, he now regrets not having pushed back hard and wishes he could have fought back, which is puzzling (if you’ve lost the confidence of a body, how would kicking back have aided anything?). Third, he doesn’t understand why the Board didn’t support him because he had lots of support from professors, which seems to be a major instance of point-missing. Fourth, that the whole push against him on the Board came from an ad-hoc, possibly self-selected sub-committee of the executive committee.
Wait, what? There’s a lot of quivering about the fact that much of the Board were bystanders to the interplay between Montalbano and a few other key Board members, and Gupta – look, it’s a cabal, they had it in for him, hid it from the Board, etc. But some of this is overwrought. Generally speaking, a CEOs performance review is handled by the Chair of the Board and a few others, rather than by full Board. The unanswered process question here is: what was the relationship of this group to the executive? Was it duly constituted, or was it just a few people the Board Chair thought were “sound”? In the grand scheme of things, this is kind of beside the point. The fact that not a single other person on the Board has stepped forward and said “yeah, we were wrong about Gupta” suggests substantial unanimity on the key point: that even if something was amiss procedurally, any other procedure would have led to the same result.
(Similarly for the argument that there wasn’t “due process” for Gupta because he didn’t get the job performance evaluation that was in his contract: once the person/people responsible for evaluating a CEO decide the CEO needs to be replaced, what’s the point of a formal job evaluation? If you were the CEO in question, wouldn’t you resign rather than go through a formal review where a negative outcome is certain?)
Is any of this going to change anyone’s mind about what happened? I doubt it. Gupta’s backers will say “it shows the Board had it in for him for the start”; any evidence that could be read as saying “gosh, maybe relations weren’t going so well” is simply regarded as “a pretext” so the mean old Board could stitch Gupta up. A new set of rhetorical battle-lines seem to be forming: Gupta as champion of faculty (a point he himself seems keen to make) and the Board as the enemy of faculty. There is little-to-no evidence this was actually the reason for Gupta’s dismissal, but it’s nevertheless the hill upon which a lot of other people want to believe he died.
That’s unfortunate, because it entirely misses the point about this affair. Whether Gupta was popular with faculty, or whether he was a good listener and communicator with them, is irrelevant. Presidents have to run a university to the satisfaction of a Board of Governors – some directly elected, some appointed by an elected government – who are there to maintain and ensure that the public interest is being served. They have to do a large number of other things as well, but this is the really basic bit. Whatever other beneficial things Gupta did or might have accomplished – and I think he might have done quite a lot – this wasn’t something he managed to achieve. However nice or progressive a guy he may have seemed in the other aspect of his job doesn’t change this fact. And so he and the board parted company. End of story.