Reasons behind Gupta's UBC resignation leaked in hidden FOI documents

Dec 20 2017, 3:51 am

The real reason why Arvind Gupta left his Presidency at the University of British Columbia has become a lot clearer.

While the results of numerous Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were released on January 25, most of the important content in the 861 pages of emails, receipts, and notes was redacted due to privacy legislation and a binding non-disclosure agreement. But unintentionally hidden in the large PDF document were dozens of attachments putting what happened to Gupta in clear sight.

In those documents are telling letters between Gupta and John Montalbano, Chair of the Board of Governors, showing a deteriorating relationship.

“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,” Montalbano writes in one letter dated May 24, 2015 (view it online here).

In that same letter he tells the President his leadership style and management requires a “course correction” and offers some scathing suggestions on how to move forward.

Montalbano goes on to say that there is a low level of trust among those that work closely with Gupta and “morale is low”, but the reprimanding continues beyond. A few of the select criticisms include:

  • “You are rarely seen to solicit or seek advice from those best positioned to support you. You are deemed too quick to engage in debate in a confrontational or dismissive manner, which is demoralizing to a group of executives in fear of their employment security.”
  • “You are reinforcing a view that you trust no one’s opinions but your own.”
  • “You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud, especially when the facts are far from certain.”
  • “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 of change and strategic vision has been poor.”
  • “While the communications are fact based, they are void of empathy, often not tied to University strategy and deemed to be hastily released with proper pre-consultation.”

Montalbano also calls Gupta out for treating the Board as “a distraction or a nuisance,” criticizes his method for implementing his strategic vision, and raises concerns that Gupta’s staff is inexperienced and under resourced.

The ultimate kicker in the letter pokes at Gupta’s possible disregard for his responsibilities.

“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.”

He ends it by asking Gupta to “formalize [his] thoughts on paper” and produce a “roadmap forward.”


Another letter by Montalbano dated June 4 is also included in the release (view it online here). Here he references a June 2 conversation and continues to emphasize issues with Gupta’s leadership.

“It will be ideal that you explicitly acknowledge your understanding that you report to the Board. This may seem like overkill, but the 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,” Montalbano wrote.

He continues to suggest Gupta’s team is inexperienced and not trustworthy and tells him that he has not so much built foundations for change as he has weakened them.

Gupta responds with an email to Montalbano and Chancellor Lindsay Gordon on June 4, saying: “Hi John, I appreciate the candor at our meeting and our collective desire to look forward constructively. I’ll be very happy to consider other thoughts you might have and then revise my letter accordingly. Enjoy your trip.”

He then formally responds in a letter dated June 8 where he expresses his appreciation of the Board’s support (view it online here). Much of the letter is a reinforcement of his priorities and lightly addresses the criticisms in Montalbano’s letter, but one noteworthy statement stands out when Gupta says: “For the university to thrive and move in tandem, it is also essential that there be no perceived gap between the Board and the President; any public perception of such a gap must be dealt with quickly.”

Between the dates of those letters and late July, there is not too much information to piece the dots together. In mid-July, Gupta shares several emails with Montalbano over some unidentified “serious issues”.

“I have new information to share with you,” Gupta emailed on July 16. Much of the email is redacted but he ends with “We have additional confirmation that this is a serious issue but are not quite done investigating.”

Then, all of a sudden, on July 27, Montalbano requests a “quick, confidential discussion, not captured on email” with Gupta. He is not keen to schedule the meeting during his vacation time, but asks “what is the agenda for the meeting?” Montalbano doesn’t answer the question but pushes to have the meeting as soon as possible. On July 28, Montalbano writes “If there is no way to meet today or tomorrow, can we meet the soonest you are back?”.

Gupta’s response is not included in the release, however the next notable exchange is on July 30 between Gupta and Board member Greg Peet. Peet emails to say “I am following up on our meeting yesterday morning and particularly in relation to your [redacted]”.

On July 31, one day later, Montalbano sends out a meeting notice to the Board to “To consider the resignation by Professor Arvind Gupta of his appointment as President of the University of British Columbia.”

The news of his resignation was officially released on August 7.

While one can speculate that it was continued pressure from the Board and specifically Montalbano that pushed Gupta to hastily resign in a moment of passion, the emails and letters are not enough to quantifiably prove it, but they do shed some much needed light on an issue that has plagued UBC for the last seven months.

The documents were hidden as attachments in the large PDF file released by the university on Monday and first discovered by a user on the r/UBC subreddit. They were not meant to be included in the release.

“It has been brought to our attention that some information relating to the resignation of former UBC president Dr. Arvind Gupta that was redacted under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been made public,” the university’s VP of External Relations and Communications, Philip Steenkamp said in a statement Wednesday.

“UBC deeply regrets that this privacy breach has occurred and we will immediately launch an independent investigation into how the material became public. UBC will not be commenting on the substance of the information as we must respect B.C. privacy laws.”

H/T to UBC Insiders for breaking this story early Wednesday morning.

PLEASE NOTE: The original FOI document dump has now been removed by UBC and is currently unavailable online. The university says they are investigating how the leak occurred.

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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