Vancouver Sun – UBC’s innovative new president

A computer science professor with a reputation for putting students in jobs, partnering with industry, and attracting government funding in fiscally conservative times will be the University of B.C.’s new president.

When Arvind Gupta steps into his role as UBC’s 13th president on July 1, he will take over a university from outgoing president Stephen Toope that is facing pressure to adapt to the needs of industry and to keep up with a rapidly expanding Okanagan campus.

Gupta, 52, said he is thrilled to be chosen for the position at UBC, which he said has “transformed itself from a regional powerhouse into a global player.”

“We at UBC are entrusted to prepare our students to take on the challenges in this fast-evolving world, getting them ready toapproach whatever gets thrown at them. They have to be ready with an open mind, a discerning eye and flexibility of thought,” he said.

Gupta’s words are appropriate as he prepares to take over a university that is being pushed to change. The provincial government is calling for reform of the postsecondary system to better align it with skilled trades, should a liquefied natural gas industry materialize.

Premier Christy Clark emphasized the overhaul during last month’s throne speech and budget, but the “re-engineering” of college and university courses has yet to play out on campus. But that’s just one challenge Gupta will face.

At UBC-Okanagan, students find themselves competing for seats in the library and beds in residences amid a rapidly expanding campus population. In Metro Vancouver, students struggle to get to campus with a, vital transit route along Broadway jammed to capacity during peak hours. It’s a problem that has UBC officials pleading for rapid-transit funding.

UBC is competing with universities from across Canada and around the world to attract promising international students who bring with them big money for tuition fees. Gupta, who has been a professor at UBC since 2009, seems to be a particularly strong fit for that aspect of his new role. As chief executive officer of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization headquartered at UBC, Gupta oversees Globalink — a program designed to compete with Ivy League universities and attract top undergraduate university students from around the world.

“You have to set high standards if you want to get the very best. You have to believe that they will choose you over everything else. I think Canada, as a country, should start believing this and our universities should see ourselves not as not as good as Princeton or Harvard, but that we can be better than Princeton or Harvard and the students will choose us over those institutions,” Gupta told The Vancouver Sun last summer.

Allen Eaves, professor emeritus of UBC and also founder of Stem-Cell Technologies, one of B.C.’s largest biotech companies, has known Gupta for about 15 years. The pair worked together when Eaves was chair of the Mitacs board of directors.

“This guy has a passion for education and getting people to work in the global marketplace,” Eaves said, adding that Gupta’s work at Mitacs pioneered a new educational model and internships for graduate students that help academia and business work together.

“Arvind has been passionate about supporting Canadian industry and building that up,” Eaves said. “He has a wonderful ability to deal with government and with business and not ruffle any feathers, but just to get things done.”

Gupta has shown savvy in devising programs that work for government. Mitacs got an $8-million nod from the federal government in its frugal 2014 budget for research and training for graduates. In 2012, it was granted $3 million from theprovince to help attract international students and support graduate researchers.

But Gupta said his first priority as incoming president is to meet with faculty and students. “Over the next few months, I hope to sit down with as many of you as I can to listen to your ideas and hear your perspective on what we can do together,” Gupta said.

His focus on innovation makes him conscious of the rapidly changing world. “In this new world the very major interaction between research, learning and work is morphing before our very eyes. It’s a world where networks, knowledge and ideas are supplanting traditional currencies as measures of empowerment, wealth and well-being,” Gupta said. “Our universities are at the vanguard of this change.”

A 22-member committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni and others, half of whom are appointed by the province, selected Gupta after an international search that began last September. 

“How good is it that we can conduct an international search and the very best candidate is one of our own?” said UBC board of governors chair John Montalbano. “The opportunity to lead one of the world’s great universities attracted  outstanding candidates, but Dr. Arvind Gupta clearly stood out as the best choice to lead this great university.”

Toope, who is leaving after eight years leading UBC said he is “delighted” that Gupta will be taking over. “In him, UBC has found a leader with rare attributes: critical thinking, inspiring vision and the courage to chart a bold course,” said Toope who will become director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “He brings a sense of strong purpose about

the role that the university plays in fundamentally discovering in the very essence of teaching and learning, which is our greatest achievement … and a sense of purpose about how the university can help us make the world a better place.”

Gupta earned his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1991 and is a member of the Government of Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council, an advisory body on science and technology.  Gupta’s will retain his professorship,but will resign as head of Mitacs. 

Gupta was born in Punjab, India in the city of Jalandhar. He moved to the United States, where he lived between the ages of five and seven, growing up in Timmins, Ont. 

He moved to Vancouver in 1991 where he lives with his wife, Michelle Pereira. He has three daughters, two of whom are students at UBC.