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UBC’s Leadership Crisis Revealed in Unintentionally Leaked Gupta Docs

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

Discussion

Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Great reporting as usual! It is very interesting to read the correspondence between the senior admin of the university. From the limited amount of reading I did, it seems that John Montalbano was an engaged Chair trying to be as constructive as possible.

    Please explain how this most recent set of documents got released. Did someone make a mistake at the UBC or provincial FOI in release these docs? Or was this just the naturaly end of the FOI requests?

    Posted by Philip E | January 27, 2016, 10:32 am
  2. OK, UBC had intentionally or not violated the NDA. However all we have is evidence of board’s micromanagement as well as the fact that a small unelected subset of board members was running the university, instead of providing broad ovrsight (as they are expcted). As to who is right or wrong – we need to hear from Gupta. The release of the accusations toward him should entitle him to finally break his silence.

    Posted by Dr. E | January 27, 2016, 10:52 am
  3. what an absolute joke with whole incident has been. montalbano seems to have overpowered the board and seems to have been on a power-trip. he’s not even elected, is he? who is he accountable to?

    Posted by Katarina S | January 27, 2016, 11:34 am
  4. Philip – it seems that someone in the UBC Access and Privacy office made a mistake, simply leaving all the attachments to the redacted PDF intact and available. The entire 800+ pages have now been removed from the website. We will upload it soon. If you already downloaded the package, you just open it in Adobe and click on the paperclip.

    Posted by Maayan Kreitzman | January 27, 2016, 11:56 am
  5. Can someone summarize this for me please? It’s hard for me to read. Thanks

    Posted by Emily | January 27, 2016, 1:47 pm
  6. When I served as a Board of Governor I always had an aching suspicion that a lot board activity was going on without my knowledge. Reading this only furthers my suspicion. It’s interesting to see the complete sidelining of student reps during this whole thing.

    Posted by k | January 27, 2016, 1:54 pm
  7. This is complete garbage. All the governors who were complicit in these off-the-record or secret meetings should be fired and barred from holding similar posts in public institutions. If the UBC community wasn’t so apathetic there would be total outrage and calls for dismissals.

    Posted by Jean-François | January 27, 2016, 2:38 pm
  8. UBC has removed the entire FOI package. We’ve uploaded it and updated the link in the post: http://pixeldra.in/u/7qXDpk

    Posted by Maayan Kreitzman | January 27, 2016, 2:43 pm
  9. Some of the attachments to the PDF are downright weird. Check out any of the attached images that start with “Screenshot”. A bunch of searches for celebrity photos… an incoherent e-mail… a screenshot of “Arvind Gupta” trending on twitter…

    Posted by Jeff | January 27, 2016, 3:39 pm
  10. Outstanding work, UBCInsiders. Very well done. What a stunning set of circumstances revealed by these documents.

    Posted by s | January 27, 2016, 4:17 pm
  11. “…no aspects of the [University] Act are to be ignored at your discretion, only at the discretion of the Board.” Isn’t this an admission that (certain members of) the Board think they’re allowed to break the law? No wonder they do practically everything in closed session.

    Posted by J. | January 27, 2016, 5:20 pm
  12. Is it pedestrian of me to ask who is the bad guy here? Is it the board for its shady-seeming conduct and trying to preserve power they should have been delegating, or Gupta for being, what, confrontational and disrespectful to established relationships and venerable authority? Or did Gupta valiantly try and fail to change what seems to be–from the outside–a toxic work culture at UBC?

    Posted by Poppy | January 27, 2016, 7:48 pm
  13. Can anyone explain why there would be an e-mail cc’ed to FBI field offices and former PM Harper?

    Posted by DW | January 27, 2016, 7:48 pm
  14. Would it be too forward of me to suggest that the entire Board of Governors of UBC should be asked to resign immediately?

    Posted by Peter | January 27, 2016, 8:19 pm
  15. Of course, “unintentionally” is uncertain here UBC Insiders. Embedded files within a pdf is extremely intentional.

    We need to establish the embedded files are original records or were tampered with. For starters, the docx files embedded (e.g., in record 491) have no time or date stamp in the properties. When were they written?

    Montalbano says “excuse the typos”– he’s knocking this off in transit–but there are no typos.

    I’m not yet convinced that these two embedded docx files are the actual or entire records.

    Tampering with records gets one into trouble RE FoI Act. https://fipa.bc.ca/library/Reports_and_Submissions/Proposed_Reforms_of_FOIPPA–Aug_2005.pdf

    Posted by Stephen Petrina | January 27, 2016, 8:21 pm
  16. Great job UBC insiders. student journalism that matters!

    Posted by AJ | January 27, 2016, 8:42 pm
  17. I see this differently than many of the commentators. The President was clearly over his head, unable to change direction and was quickly leading the university toward disaster. The Board hired him and had every reason to want him to succeed. His promises to respond, though, never seem to have led to any meaningful correction. In the end the Board recognized it had made a disastrous mistake and cut its losses.

    Posted by emeritus | January 27, 2016, 10:21 pm
  18. @Emeritus.

    Still the Board’s “disastrous mistake”, not Gupta’s.

    Posted by Poppy | January 28, 2016, 4:30 am
  19. I think the entire board should resign along with Gupta. Gupta should have a second chance with a board whose opinion he trusts, because there was probably a lack of trust which led to the problems in this group.

    Posted by Sue | January 28, 2016, 8:51 am
  20. “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”

    Having worked at both SFU and UBC in Management positions I can tell you that this is a statement of facts. I’ve witnessed million of dollars wasted because of resistance to changes by the power that be. The institutional culture at these two organization are so ingrained in the mentality of “this the way it has always been” that innovation and structural changes are nearly impossible to implement. Proven industry best practices are non-existent across the entire organization. It’s rather ironic that the institutions that are charged with furthering society are so slow to adapt to changes.

    Posted by M8 | January 28, 2016, 9:07 am
  21. As a past UBC employee, there’s was always a sense that there was a boys club running things at UBC.

    Now we see that the boys club has been exposed in these documents as the ad hoc board and predetermined that Arvind had to leave no matter what the president did or said.

    Arvind’s mission was to make UBC a top 10 university. That doesn’t happen by being status quo and there had to be change. The board members resisted having their power upended.

    Posted by Ex UBC Employee | January 28, 2016, 11:26 am
  22. None of this is surprising.

    Senior UBC admin had been very vocal within administrative units about their concerns with Arvind.

    More interesting, however, was the lack of connection between Arvind’s executive staff (mainly Dave Hurford) and Arvind himself where information was intentionally withheld, manipulated, and selectively released to shape the man’s thinking.

    Overall, he surrounded himself with the wrong staff, was in over his head, and was combative and over-confident in his treatment towards senior administration.

    That said, the Board (especially the Board Liaison who was continually poking around units asking for feedback) had their own end game that was far more dubious than any actions Arvind ever took.

    Posted by EX UBC STAFF MEMBER | January 28, 2016, 4:31 pm
  23. “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.”

    What Dean is referenced here and what did he/she say?

    Posted by C | January 30, 2016, 12:10 am
  24. To “ex staff member” – Found your comment on “That said, the Board (especially the Board Liaison who was continually poking around units asking for feedback) had their own end game that was far more dubious than any actions Arvind ever took.” super interesting. I assume the liason is http://ubyssey.ca/salaries/employee/reny-kahlon – why would this person have any official reason to “poke around units asking for feedback”?

    Posted by Dr. E | January 30, 2016, 11:31 am
  25. Might we assume she (assuming she is a she) was taking her orders from Montalbano and his secret cabal (this cabal including the Chancellor)?

    Posted by Peter | January 30, 2016, 1:42 pm
  26. I think all of us at the UBC community should initiate a movement / petition to compel the Province holds an inquiry in the whole affair and makes it public. Then only will there be some corrective action in the whole Board.
    A report with full transparency is due to all of us for the future good of the UBC.

    Posted by Oscar Pinto | February 2, 2016, 6:04 pm
  27. In my opinion the Deans’ statement on this matter published today is 500 words too long. They could have said what they wanted to say in just 3 words: “Crisis? What crisis?”

    Posted by Peter | February 11, 2016, 4:27 am