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WTF Is Happening At UBC?

Why did Arvind Gupta resign?

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The University of British Columbia has been rocked by controversy for the last month.

handout / UBC

On Aug. 7, the university unexpectedly announced the resignation of president Arvind Gupta only one year into his five-year term.

But what started as a mystery soon blew up into a full scandal when a business professor claimed people high up in the school's administration had tried to stop her from speaking publicly about Gupta's departure. This set off alarm bells within the university community. The uproar has led to an investigation into whether this was a breach of academic freedom and the chair of the university's board of governors has temporarily stepped down.

The UBC student newspaper The Ubyssey has been covering the controversy since the beginning. BuzzFeed Canada asked Emma Partridge, a news editor at the paper, to explain what's been happening at the school.

This whole thing started with Gupta's resignation in early August. What questions remain unanswered about that?

Cherihan Hassun / The Ubyssey

Emma Partridge: The biggest question is still: why did he resign? How far in advance did the board of governors know he was resigning? Was this a decision based on the board forcing him out or faulty communication between Gupta and the board?

A lot of students, myself included, also want to know why it was announced the way it was because the announcement itself was pretty sloppy. It was a Friday afternoon, and it seems like the board was trying to push it through without much notice.

How did Jennifer Berdahl get involved?

UBC

EP: She's a professor at Sauder [School of Business], and she was actually hired to study gender and diversity at high levels of leadership. That professorship was made possible, ironically, by a $2-million donation by [chair of the board] John Montalbano.

Given her academic field of interest, she posted an argument after Gupta resigned suggesting that there were institutionalized ideas about who looks the part of a good leader as Gupta was not white, not very tall, not very imposing. She posted an argument that that could have played into why he resigned.

Then she posted a second blog post a while later, about a week later, saying the chair of the board had called her and expressed that the blog post had the potential to do damage to UBC's reputation. She also outlined that other administrators had taken the same stance, basically scolding her, which has led to allegations of a breach of academic freedom.

The chair of the board calling her to say he didn't like her post seemed as if he was trying to stifle her and her ability to say what she wanted to say in an academic context.

What is John Montalbano's backstory?

Geoff Lister / The Ubyssey

EP: He's an executive of RBC, he is extremely well connected, and he is a huge philanthropist who's donated a lot of money to UBC. But how he was chosen as chair of the board is not clear. He was in that position for about a year, starting around the same that Gupta did.

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Gupta signed a non-disclosure agreement and the board is also keeping mum, both about Gupta and the Montalbano fallout. Has it been hard to report on the issue with such secrecy?

Will McDonald / The Ubyssey

EP: It's been a nightmare. They're saying they have to stick to the confidentiality agreements they've signed, which is true, but a lot of people are asking why were there confidentiality agreements in the first place.

It's frustrating just as a student. But as far as reporting on it, it's been quite difficult: a lot of emails that have not been replied to, a lot of emails that get statements back that don't address the issues at hand. So it's been a lot of piecing things together and getting statements when you can, but it's been really difficult and there haven't been a lot of full interviews we've been able to conduct.

What has been the reaction on campus?

Kosta Prodanovic / The Ubyssey

EP: Judging from comments online, students are interested. I couldn't say if those are average students or just the ones following this closely. The board of governors is quite far removed from the average student.

The AMS, the alma mater society, which represents students, did make a statement that they wanted John Montalbano to stay on as the chair of the board until the investigation into academic freedom was fully conducted.

[Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, UBC's faculty association and the graduate students' association have called for reform and greater transparency from the board, including on Gupta's resignation.]

Where is this story likely to go from here?

Martin Dee / UBC

EP: The investigation is now underway, and it will be interesting to see what comes out. A lot of people are already quite convinced that this did infringe on academic freedom. No matter what the result of that investigation is, it is going to be controversial.

Also I don't think people are going to stop asking why Gupta resigned. They'll either be forced to release some kind of information or we'll just see more speculation. People will probably start piecing this together eventually but right now nobody knows.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ishmael Daro is a social news editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.

Contact Ishmael N. Daro at ishmael.daro@buzzfeed.com.

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