Why UBC picked Arvind Gupta to be its new president

UBC’s new president, Arvind Gupta. Portrait by Brian Howell.
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

UBC’s Ponderosa Commons, a new student residence. Photo by Brian Howell
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

Former UBC president David Strangway. Photo by Ian Smith.
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

The Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre, which opens next spring. Photo by Martin Dee.
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

Former UBC president Stephen Toope.
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

Former UBC president Martha Piper.
Arvind Gupta | BCBusiness

The mathematician made a name for himself by connecting universities with businesses across the country. Now, Western Canada’s premier research institution is hoping its new president can supercharge industrial and community connections to UBC

In this anecdote are the seeds of future greatness: It’s 1970, and an eight-year-old Arvind Gupta is kneeling in the cold, lost in concentration over what looks—on a winter day—like an inadequate stack of kindling. Or maybe it’s summer. Maybe there’s blood trickling down his cheek from where he scratched the last blackfly bite. It doesn’t really matter, because either way, the scene is in Timmins, Ontario: a rock-hard town on the Canadian Shield, not even famous yet as the birthplace of Shania Twain. The climate here is relentless, deathly cold from October through March and so hostile in summer that the Weather Network issues a daily “Bug Report.” And yet there kneels Gupta, stacking and restacking sticks.

He’s been put up to it by his mother, who had been a college-level math teacher before the family moved to North America from the Punjab three years earlier. Arvind Gupta is one of four siblings, a girl and three boys, and, he says, his mother “really loved to give us puzzles—different things than school—to get us thinking outside the box. She didn’t really think about advanced math or easy math, it was all just math.” And, usually, fun. On this occasion, she had challenged young Arvind to figure out how many straight sticks he could stack in such a way that each stick touched every other stick. “I got to six quite quickly, but I worked a long time on seven,” he says. And then he began to consider that perhaps this particular math problem was, for his mother, actually a solution. “Maybe she just wanted us to go outside.”

If you’re looking for the qualities of a president and vice-chancellor for UBC—the office that Gupta assumed on July 1st of this year—it’s all there. Or almost all. You have to assume brilliance, because no one is going to get a shot at the top job at Western Canada’s premier research university without being inordinately bright. Then you add early training by parents who have both raw intelligence (his father was a PhD chemist, working at the local mine) and (by his mother’s example) an impressive amount of savvy. Throw in focus and discipline: the ability to work long hours at difficult problems, regardless of the distractions. And, perhaps best of all, add the ability to see patterns and make connections—and not just how the sticks fit together, but how they fit into the wider world.

Gupta will need those skills and more. UBC is a $2-billion-a-year operation with 58,000 students on two campuses (in Vancouver and Kelowna), a $500-million-plus research budget and an economic impact of close to $13 billion a year. It also has more than 15,000 faculty and staff, an overwhelming majority of whom are looking at the new guy wondering how he’s going to affect their lives and the institution they love. No pressure.

As a young man, Arvind Gupta completely internalized his mother’s love of math. From Timmins, he went to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to do a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science. He followed with a computer science PhD from the University of Toronto and then did a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Waterloo.

In 1991, by then married with two children, he came to the West Coast to check out a position at Simon Fraser University, “which has a really top-notch computer science department,” he says. It was pouring. But the next day, just before his lunch at the SFU faculty club, the sun burst through, casting that perfect sparkle off the snow-covered North Shore mountains. “I thought: God has kissed this place.”

Gupta stayed at SFU for the next 18 years, during which time he campaigned tirelessly for the cause of math in education, research and industrial development. And nowhere was that campaign more obvious—or effective—than in his leadership of an agency now known as Mitacs Inc.

Mitacs is an acronym for Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems, a mouthful that might serve as an object lesson on why mathematicians are sometimes poorly understood. The organization was born in 1999 out of a concern that Canadian industry was not making the best use of highly trained university graduates, and graduates often weren’t getting the transformative work experience that they wanted and needed.

The solution was to link graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from over 50 universities directly to businesses through specially designed internships—like a co-op program for the “highly qualified people” set. It’s been an incredible success: more than 6,000 students have gone through the program and a huge number, having proved their worth, have stayed with their companies in jobs for which they are uniquely suited. Mitacs also started a higher-level program called Elevate, in which 250 post-doctoral fellows have designed and undertaken industrially relevant research projects, while being attached to their industrial partner for a two-year period. A third program, called Globalink, brings promising undergraduates to Canada from countries all over the world to participate in summer research programs led by Canadian academics. More than 800 students came this summer alone. They are brilliant—creamed from the top one per cent in India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam—and the Canadian government hopes that many will also come back to do their graduate work here in Canada.

So, what began in 1999 as a nationally distributed “Centre of Excellence” with a little over $3 million in federal funding is now a UBC-based, $70-million-a-year machine with 130 employees on more than 25 university campuses all over the country, with financial support coming one-third each from the federal government, provincial governments and the private sector.

The nature of Mitacs’ success also suggests what caused the UBC selection committee to cast so favourable a gaze on Gupta. At a time when universities across the country are under pressure to produce more job-ready graduates, Gupta and the Mitacs programming seemed ahead of the curve, even if the man himself lacked what are usually regarded as the expected qualifications for the job.

Then again, Gupta is used to exceeding expectations—and periodically startling old friends with the extent of his ambition. One friend in particular is UBC mathematics professor Nassif Ghoussoub. Gupta and Ghoussoub had collaborated on two other national-scale math projects in the 1990s, with Ghoussoub as the senior partner and Gupta the protégé. As one of the founders of Mitacs, Ghoussoub welcomed his friend’s involvement, but was shocked when Gupta put himself forward as a candidate to be Mitacs’ first CEO and scientific director in 2000.

“I thought his application was very presumptuous,” Ghoussoub says. But Gupta is “relentlessly persuasive” and he got the job, and he’s been bounding ever since from one presumptuous goal to the next. “He always surprised me,” Ghoussoub says. “Arvind would come in with these initiatives and I would think, ‘That is not achievable in this lifetime.’ And then, in six months, he would do it.”

Gupta moved the still-small managing office of Mitacs to SFU from its original home in Toronto in 2002, but seven years later he migrated himself and his organization to UBC, in part because he wanted a bigger platform on which to build. The move was initiated, or at least encouraged, by Brad Bennett (son of former premier Bill Bennett, grandson of premier W.A.C. Bennett and one of the current provincial government’s most trusted advisers). Then the chair of the UBC Board of Governors, Bennett had met Gupta and heard about what was happening at Mitacs and went immediately to then-UBC president Stephen Toope. Toope was only too delighted to scoop a top-notch professor and to put UBC’s greater resources at Mitacs’ disposal.

“Arvind gets a lot of good things done,” says Bennett, who has since stepped down from the UBC board and assumed the chair at Mitacs. “His big ideas impressed me.” Even more, Bennett says he was impressed by Gupta’s ability to connect with different audiences—“to be a broker between government, universities and industry.”

This isn’t always easy. As Ghoussoub notes, politicians and bureaucrats frequently disdain academics as being both demanding and condescending. Yet Gupta, with Mitacs, has been able to negotiate funding agreements from almost every provincial government in Canada, and the federal Conservative government has named Mitacs specifically in the last two consecutive budgets. Similarly, universities and industry don’t always speak the same language—and again, Mitacs has obviously cracked the code.

Here we come to the promise—or the threat—of any new university president. Whenever a new candidate is appointed, everyone always wants to know precisely what they’re going to do; and in the fiercely political academia, there is generally a group that passionately doesn’t want them to do it. (By way of full disclosure, I come to this conclusion with some insider perspective, having written extensively about or for university presidents at UVic and SFU, and for the last three presidents at UBC, Gupta included.) There were celebrations for—and dire warnings about—each new UBC president. David Strangway, who held the chair from 1985 to 1997, had been the vice-president academic at the University of Toronto, but he was originally a geologist; he was recruited by NASA to run the moon rocks program when he was just 36 and he brought NASA’s command-and-control rigour to UBC. People complained that his administration was like a train: you could be on it, or in the way. But he was also credited with transforming UBC from a provincial institution into one with national status and international funding. In fact, he raised more money than all the previous UBC presidents combined.

Martha Piper came next (1997-2006), originally a physiotherapist/epidemiologist coming from a position as the vice-president research at the University of Alberta. Many in the institution said they hoped she would restore a sense of calm after the Strangway years—even as others said that she would never match his pace as a fundraiser. Then, for her installation speech, she put on a baseball cap with “UBC” on the back and “Think about it!” on the front—and a whole cadre in the academy dismissed her as insufficiently serious. That got worse when she suggested that UBC should resolve to be the best university in Canada (Maclean’s was ranking it 8th at the time), and the complainers had a field day—until UBC rose to no. 2 on the Maclean’s list in just two years. In addition to adding the UBC Okanagan campus in Kelowna, Piper shot past Strangway’s 12-year fundraising total in her first five-year term.

As with all previous candidates, Stephen Toope (2006-2014) was also a seasoned university administrator—although, even having been the youngest dean of law in McGill history, some critics wondered if he was seasoned enough. But Toope was—and this was key—the McGill Law faculty’s most successful fundraiser ever, following a pattern established by his two predecessors. Under Toope’s leadership, UBC also reset its goals from national prominence to international recognition; it now cracks the top 20 in most of the international rankings for publicly funded universities. The selection committee members who chose Gupta have their eye on the top 10.

Nassif Ghoussoub, a faculty representative on the UBC Board of Governors, was also a member of that selection committee—and when he saw Gupta’s resumé on the pile, he says, “I thought it was presumptuous, again.” Gupta has never held an administrative post at a university (beyond being CEO of Mitacs, Gupta served as a professor of computer science at UBC); how could he imagine leaping into so prominent a role? But then Ghoussoub remembered who he was dealing with, and immediately started campaigning for his friend. “I declared my conflict—absolutely—but it didn’t stop me from singing his praises,” Ghoussoub says. “Arvind is a man of vision—and this is not some poetic thing. He is visionary and pragmatic. He is a mathematician in the true sense of the word. He sees details and patterns…. He sees where things can go wrong. No one will run circles around Arvind.”

So, what will Gupta do at UBC? When asked, the 52-year-old checks off the major items in a resolute, orderly way. He is passionate about UBC’s research mission (“We must reinvest—in research faculty, in graduate students and in undergraduate research”). He’s focused on skills training, but not at the risk of educational breadth (“We must gain a deeper understanding of educational and skills needs, short-term and long-term. And we want to do this in the context that we are educators, fostering a hunger to learn, think, question and debate”). He is attuned to the needs of UBC Okanagan (“We must use our two-campus structure to create different learning environments in the context of the UBC standards of excellence”). And he is sensitive to the opportunities and complexities of living in so multicultural a community (“We want to ensure that UBC is an environment that celebrates a diversity of opinions, welcomes respectful debate, doesn’t shy away from tackling the tough socio-economic-political-cultural questions, and thus develops our students to become engaged citizens”).

But the defining Gupta strategy may be the one for which he was chosen: “We must develop true two-way partnerships with the business community, government, cultural organizations and not-for-profits,” he says with determination. “Such relationships require us to listen to the challenges our partners face, to understand where we can add value through our research and discovery.”

This, despite the concerns of those who fear Gupta will stress math and hard sciences—applied learning over theoretical—includes “the big social questions: environmental sustainability, aging population, new and emerging countries, changes in social networks and the way people inter-relate.”

Now it’s just a matter of making all this happen in the course of a “normal” workweek and Gupta, famous for his tirelessness, acknowledges off the top the extent of that challenge.

The President’s Office informed him shortly after his appointment that they would look after his calendar, in which they felt there are 70 bookable hours in a week. As of the middle of June—two full weeks before his appointment took effect—they had already booked up an average of 42 hours a week for the fall semester.

“I worry about being pulled down from thinking about the issues to just surviving day to day.”

This may not be a problem, according to Nassif Ghoussoub: “Arvind has no other hobby but to work. He doesn’t drink alcohol. He doesn’t even like chocolate!”

So, even if the to-do list seems, in hyperbolic if not mathematical terms, infinite, Gupta himself is optimistic. In industry, in government, in the academy and the community, he says that he sees “a set of ideals, values and a shared sense of purpose that unites us.” And, apparently, if his agenda seems ambitious—even “presumptuous”—you shouldn’t be surprised by the results.