by Neal Yonson and Maayan Kreitzman
- “As leader of an organization, you are fully accountable for your actions and the actions of others who are reacting in response to your behaviours. To be completely transparent with you, we are still not certain that you fully appreciate the scope of your accountability. As President and leader, issues such as low employee morale on campus, the relationship challenges with your key stakeholders and the simmering external reputational risks developing as a result of these challenges, are fully yours to own.”
From John Montalbano’s notes following a May 18 meeting with Arvind Gupta, Alice Laberge, Lindsay Gordon, and Greg Peet.
The document dump from the dozens of Freedom of Information requests pertaining to Arvind Gupta’s resignation finally landed on January 25th. Unsurprisingly, the most useful parts of the correspondence and documents requested were redacted. Turns out, they were actually hiding in plain sight. A post made tonight on the /r/UBC subreddit pointed to the fact that a large volume of attachments were contained in the PDF of the records released. The attachments are completely free of redactions, and are already saved on the hundreds of hard drives that downloaded the package. Three key documents – letters between John Montalbano and Arvind Gupta – point to a significant deterioration of the relationship between the Board and the President starting just months into his term. They contain unrelenting and thorough criticism of the President’s divisive communication style, dismissive attitude towards the Board, lack of a plan behind his vision, misinformed and unprofessional office staff, dismissal of executives without a plan for replacement (particularly of the then-provost David Farrar), and lack of understanding of formal governance.
The FOI release indicates that trouble may have been brewing as early as March 2015 when some Board committee meetings were taking place. (Side note: these committee meetings were outside the Board’s normal meeting schedule and the Board even recently denied that they took place). Since members of the Board would all be together for these meetings, John asks Arvind “do you want to meet with us to have a chat in confidence with private members of the Board as we discussed?” [pg 393] This meeting is clearly meant to be taking place off-book. A few messages later in the same email thread Arvind says “It’s tough love but in the end it’ll be better. Let me know if I need to do anything.” John responds: “Just give some thought in advance what you would like to talk about. It is your hour with us.” Ultimately, the attendees at that meeting appear to be John, Arvind, Alice Laberge, Greg Peet, and Doug Mitchell – not members of a particular Board committee, but rather an ad hoc group of Board members.
A few months later, things don’t appear to have improved. On May 14, Arvind emails John looking to set up another off-book meeting. “I spoke with Brad and would like us to work together to get things back on track.” (The Globe and Mail has reported that “Brad” is Brad Bennett. He is a former Chair of the UBC Board and his wife Birgit currently sits on the Board.) A meeting ends up occurring on May 18, also with an ad-hoc handful of Board members. A week later, John sends Arvind 6 pages of notes from that meeting.
That document, which was entirely redacted in the original FOI release, is perhaps the most sensational part of the entire FOI package . It can be read in its entirety here (summary notes below). While John goes out of his way in the letter to repeatedly state that his main wish is for Arvind to succeed as President, most of the letter is a pointed and unrelenting thrashing, detailing nearly every aspect of leadership style and management skill that you can think of as deficient. Here’s the opener:
- “The Board has noted that your first year as leader of The University of British Columbia has been an unsettled one. Relationships with key stakeholder groups, notably your senior executive, the Faculty Deans and the Board of Governors are not at functional levels to allow you to move forward in a confident manner – unusual even for an organization undergoing strategic shifts in vision and key personnel.”
From John Montalbano’s notes following a May 18 meeting with Arvind Gupta, Alice Laberge, Lindsay Gordon, and Greg Peet.
Another private meeting between Arvind, John, and Lindsay occurs on June 2. Arvind emails the next day: “Hi John, I appreciate the candor at our meeting and our collective desire to look forward constructively.” The day after, John once again sends Arvind notes about their discussion, detailing ways he would like Arvind’s planned response to the Board to be changed. That document, which was also entirely redacted in the original FOI release, can be read in its entirety here (summary notes below). It’s clear that the exact same topics were covered as in the previous meeting. While John once again tries to use supportive language in parts, it’s clear that he feels Arvind’s response to most of the issues are unsatisfactory. Here’s one of the more dramatic passages:
- “There is general consensus that your actions and reactions to the Board’s concerns, advice and inquiries suggest you possess an indifference or intolerance of the Board at best ‐ or worse, an intended disregard of its authority”
Letter from John Montalbano on June 4th following up on June 2nd meeting with himself and Lindsay Gordon
A few days later, on June 8th, Arvind submits a letter to the Board’s Executive Committee. That document, which was also entirely redacted in the original FOI release, can be read in its entirety here (summary notes below). Arvind expresses his desire to improve relationships with everyone at the top – UBC Executives, Deans, and the Board. He lays out his plans for improving communication, information flows, and general morale. He promises to engage an executive coach to develop his leadership skills.
The events of late July, immediately before the resignation occurs, are still unknown, except that there was one last private meeting between John, Greg, and Arvind [pg 578-579]. Greg sent a follow-up email the day afterwards [pg 589] and then Arvind was gone.
This is by far the clearest picture anyone has had so far of the crisis leading up to the resignation. If the criticisms in John Montalbano’s letters to Gupta are to be believed, the rumors that Gupta was feared by his Executive team, facing mutiny from the Deans, and experiencing mounting distrust from the Board of Governors all seem to be true, with problems connecting to the Public Affairs department, and a weak staff in the presidential office to make matters worse. The dismissal of Provost David Farrar seems to have been a turning point, and the search for a new provost is dwelt on considerably as a test of Gupta’s leadership. The letters paint the President as an arrogant leader with a confrontational communication style, who failed to build trust with his closest reports and with the wider academic leadership circles within the University. Anyone can see that his letter of response to the Board’s criticisms is not particularly meek, and even defiant in places, emphasizing that change and centralization of vision must leave some people unhappy.
Yet questions remain about the way that these criticisms were funneled through the university ranks to the ad-hoc groups of Board members who seemed to be most involved in the critique of the president’s performance. The extent that each narrative truly reflects UBC’s administrative and academic leadership will probably continue to be controversial. What isn’t up for debate anymore are the two opposing narratives from the Board and President Gupta himself.
Highlights from May 18th letter:
- The Board has noted that your first year as leader of The University of British Columbia has been an unsettled one. Relationships with key stakeholder groups, notably your senior executive, the Faculty Deans and the Board of Governors are not at functional levels to allow you to move forward in a confident manner – unusual even for an organization undergoing strategic shifts in vision and key personnel.
- The Executive Committee of the Board has identified key aspects of your leadership style and management skills which require a “course correction” in order for you to lead the University effectively. To be very clear, we all wish you to succeed, as it is in the best interest of the University that you do.
- Because there is a low level of trust among those that work most closely with you, morale is low. You are rarely seen to solicit or seek advice from those best positioned to support you.
- Creating division among individuals whether within the Executive, the Board or the Deans must cease immediately. The role of the President is to bring people to together. [sic]
- We are deeply concerned that your office is not providing you with the information you need on a trusted and timely basis. The issue with the Dean’s in response to the Provost announcement was a catastrophic example that you are not either being informed in a timely manner or worse, the very people you are relying on are unable or currently not in a position to develop relationships of trust to provide you with the information you need prior to any major initiative.
- We are also very concerned that your office is not only inexperienced and perhaps under resourced, but that certain members of your team do not reflect well on the tone that the office should wish to establish with stakeholders on and off campus.
- Communication releases of key departures have inflamed concerns on campus and in the community. Specifically, while the communications are fact based, they are void of empathy, often not tied to University strategy and deemed to be hastily released without proper pre-consultation to prepare key stakeholders in advance.
- We appreciate that you have come to understand that you have some key deficiencies in your leadership style that must be addressed. No doubt, it is difficult to reconcile how the very skills that made you a success at Mitacs are the very skills working against you as the President of one of Canada’s most important Universities.
- As leader of an organization, you are fully accountable for your actions and the actions of others who are reacting in response to your behaviours. To be completely transparent with you, we are still not certain that you fully appreciate the scope of your accountability. As President and leader, issues such as low employee morale on campus, the relationship challenges with your key stakeholders and the simmering external reputational risks developing as a result of these challenges, are fully yours to own.
Highlights from June 2 letter
This letter discussed a meeting between Chancellor Gordon, Montalbano, and Gupta. Montalbano suggests edits to a draft of a letter Gupta is preparing to send to the Board Executive, and reiterates many concerns left unadressed from the May 18th letter.
- Deans: both Lindsay and I found this section light on further strategies to improve your engagement with the Deans. We completely understand your desire to ensure that Dr. Redish has every opportunity to succeed in her role as Interim Provost, however, we ask that you reflect further on how you will build trust with the Deans in a more interactive manner.
- no aspects of the [University] Act are to be ignored at your discretion, only at the discretion of the Board. It will be ideal that you explicitly acknowledge your understanding that you report to the Board.
- Board is very concerned that you may not fully appreciate the importance of formal governance, in every aspect of your role. There is general consensus that your actions and reactions to the Board’s concerns, advice and inquiries suggest you possess an indifference or intolerance of the Board at best – or worse, an intended disregard of its authority.
- How do we remove the sense, fairly or unfairly, that the “ship is rudderless”? Can you lead in anyway differently to inspire and guide your team?
- You mention in your letter that your first year of leadership concentrated on building the foundations for change. From the Board’s perspective, it feels that the foundation has weakened, as a result of the turmoil on campus, within key stakeholder groups
- we suggest that we spend considerable time discussing your letter at the Executive Committee of the Board with you present, but then end the meeting with 30 minutes of in-camera.
Highlights from Arvind’s June 8 response
This is a letter sent to the Board Excecutive replying to the concerns in the two letter above.
- It is my goal, in close working relationship with you and with others in the UBC community, to lift UBC from the top 25 to the top 10
- engaging an executive coach to help enhance leadership skills
- One on one meetings with Executives
- Strategic planning retreats with Executives and Deans
- I particularly appreciate your identification of the need for improved resourcing in the President’s Office. With your support, I intend to address this gap
- change can induce anxiety and resistance. This is further magnified in a university setting; universities are places of great innovation, but also, historically, places which resist institutional and structural change [...] The current highly decentralized nature of UBC, often exaggerates this