Arvind Gets Ready to Rebuild

Yesterday, UBC officially announced that the university’s Provost and Vice-President Academic David Farrar would be stepping down from the position to become an “Advisor to the President”. (In other words, Farrar isn’t quite ready to leave and simply keeping him on staff was probably cheaper than paying severance.) Anji Redish takes over as interim provost. This announcement made clear it wasn’t just the personnel that’s changing – the president is “going to initiate a review of the Provost model, including how it might be strengthened as well as its relationship to the University community and senior leadership.” In particular, it seems likely we’ll be moving to more of a “strong provost” model than we had with Farrar at the helm. More broadly it signals that Arvind is ready to start, in earnest, that time-honoured tradition for new university presidents: rebuilding the executive in his image after dismantling it.

To recap:

  • The first to go was Pierre Ouillet, former VP Finance, Resources, and Operations. Despite the fact that he was less than a year into a 5-year extension, he had clearly planned his exit well. He left UBC in September 2014 and just over a month later, was named CFO at UC San Diego. His replacement as VP FRO, Andrew Simpson, was named earlier this month.
  • Next was Pascal Spothelfer, former VP Communications and Community Partnerships. He was given the boot in December 2014 having only held the job since 2012. As of right now, UBC has not made any moves to find a replacement. There’s a decent chance this portfolio will disappear or be significantly re-tooled.
  • The most recent (although a level below the university’s VPs) was the director of UBC Athletics and Recreation, Ashley Howard. After the university went through the much-needed process of reining in its Varsity program, it struggled with sustained negative attention from Varsity boosters, helped out by a particularly ill-informed (and sexist) newspaper crank. As a result, Howard was thrown under the bus earlier this month, after less than two years in the job.

We certainly might still see more senior administrators leave in the next 6-12 months; some of them have been in their positions 10+ years. But talking about how the role of the provost might change signals that the overhaul has kicked into gear. Hopefully it also means we’ll soon get a far clearer sense for where the university is headed during Arvind’s tenure, something which has been sorely lacking up until this point. Although he started his term by outlining a five-point vision, it was merely a collection of buzzwords like research, engagement, and innovation. Every university president is going to cite those as things they want for their institution.

Can Arvind’s skills at schmoozing with politicians be counted on to extract more ongoing funding from government coffers? Can the university still be relentlessly bullish on international enrollment after Vantage college has had a rough start? Is there going to be a shameless push to rise in university rankings (almost certainly yes), and what cynical measures might be necessary to get UBC moving up the list? What becomes of UBC-O? And so on – there are dozens of big questions like that for a university president to think about. Doing a complete re-organization of the executive structure will require having tangible goals in mind, so that you can figure out how to get there. In a recent interview with the Ubyssey Gupta said that “as a professor, I probably knew five per cent of the university and discovering the other 95 per cent has been really gratifying.” Now over the learning curve, he’s ready to rebuild.


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