Vancouver Sun: University of BC boss hates miss opportunities

A passion for math runs deep in Arvind Gupta, the University of B.C.’s new president.

His mother was a math professor in India before the family moved to Canada. One of his daughters is a math teacher in Toronto. When he was a boy, his mother gave him math puzzles to solve for fun, a pastime he repeated with his own children and their friends.

The 53-year-old got his first degree in honours math, combined with computer science. He says even if he was starting his education all over again today, he’d study math. But he admits he would take a wider range of subjects.

“I’d take a more eclectic mix of electives and explore other things,” he said. “If I had taken other subjects, who knows what I could have become passionate about.”

Gupta was installed as the 13th president of the 59,000-student university for a five-year term on Friday, following Stephen Toope. His new office is on the 7th floor of the Koerner Library, with a stunning view of the clock tower and the old Main Library, now the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.

The idea of getting students to try new things, to spread their wings and to study across disciplines is part of Gupta’s vision for UBC.

“There are very good studies that show that the more varied experiences you have, the more successes you will have,” Gupta said, adding those experiences could be taking a class you’ve never tried, joining a club, going on an international exchange, or spending a semester in a work placement.

“The world seems like it’s becoming more and more specialized, but the people who can cut across those silos who will be in more demand,” he said. “It seems to me that people who can understand the marriage of technology with content — suddenly that seems like a very powerful place to be.”

Gupta also sees opportunities for the university, which has a $2-billion annual budget, to engage with society to solve big problems around sustainability and demographic change.

“Universities are in a unique position to engage in that debate, to lead that debate and to think outside the box on some of these issues,” Gupta said. “There is a real appreciation now that research has both short-term and long-term impacts and makes the world a better place. For a research university like UBC, this is a huge opportunity.”

An example would be the teachers’ strike, during which a number of UBC professors have commented publicly on the dispute between teachers and their employer.

“Almost every article quotes UBC faculty on the way forward. … Universities have a lot to contribute in leading and engaging in societal debate,” Gupta said.

Gupta was born in Jalandhar in the Punjab state of India. He moved to the United States, where he lived between the ages of five and seven. The family then moved to Timmins, Ont., where he grew up. He moved to Vancouver in 1991 and became a computer science professor at UBC in 2009.

He was most recently the chief executive officer of Mitacs, a UBC-based national not-for-profit organization that aims to make Canada more innovative. Mitacs stands for mathematics, information technology and complex systems and operates research and training programs at several Canadian universities.

Gupta has three daughters and is married to family physician Michelle Pereira. Their eldest daughter, 26, is the math teacher, the middle daughter, 25, is studying pharmacy at UBC, and his youngest, 21, just began law school at UBC.

He says his family loves to play games like cribbage or Monopoly, but that he doesn’t believe in letting them win.

“The basic rule at our house, is everyone will say, let’s gang up on dad. They make an alliance, but that usually works against them, especially in Monopoly because the weaker players drag down the stronger players,” he said. “Even Monopoly doesn’t take that long if you’re more vicious at it. If you play by the rules, people go bankrupt pretty quickly.”

Another favourite at their house is the card game Cheat, in which players try to be the first to get rid of all their cards by laying them down in sets. Players can lie about what they’re laying down, but if they get caught, they have to pick up the whole pile.

“We use six decks of cards and at our house, you can cheat in any way you want. … There are no rules — it’s no holds barred Cheat.”

If Gupta has used any of his wily gaming ways in getting to the top at UBC, it’s not apparent in what his peers say about him.

Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University, said Gupta is energetic and enthusiastic with a strong drive.

“He was very successful in building the Mitacs organization and I think out of that experience, clearly has a really good understanding of how universities operate and the importance of collaboration,” Petter said.

SFU is turning 50 and UBC is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing to work with him and collaborate on things. UBC and SFU and other universities in this province collaborate on a lot of initiatives, such as TRIUMF, Genome B.C. and the Centre for Drug Research and Development,” Petter said.

It’s not only academics that speak highly of Gupta. Greg D’Avignon, president & CEO of the Business Council of BC, said Gupta is a big thinker, with global ideas.

“He’s an inquisitive big thinker, incredibly personable and one of the most entrepreneurial people I’ve ever met,” D’Avignon said. “He’s always looking for an opportunity to engage smart people with challenging problems to find solutions.”

In 2006, when he took over, Toope said he planned to attract more out-of-province undergraduates and more international graduate students to UBC. He reached those goals, but fast forward eight years and the university faces new challenges. In 2006, just 12 per cent of UBC’s new undergrads came for outside Canada. Today, 17 per cent of UBC students are international students.

Fees paid by international students boost the university’s budget, which is under pressure as the provincial share of funding has dropped significantly over the past decades. Fundraising has increased and today UBC’s endowment is worth $1.1 billion.

The business model of universities is under threat from technology like massive online open courses, which offer free courses from Ivy League universities to thousands of people.

And more specific to UBC, last year news of a “rape chant” at a frosh event and a series of sexual assaults on campus made headlines.

For Gupta, challenges are seen as great opportunities.

For example, the rape chant resulted in workshops for student leaders this summer.

“When I was a student at McMaster, we did things that now I’m ashamed of, but that’s how you learn,” Gupta said. “This is an opportunity for us to say, what can we be doing better on campus? How can we create a safe environment on campus? That’s what’s special about a university — yes, we have those issues, but we can take them and turn them into a learning platform.”

Gupta said the idea of the workshops was met with “eye-rolling” but when the students came out, they said the sessions should be repeated every year.

The fact that the provincial share of the university’s revenue is shrinking? Another opportunity.

“We would like to see the province invest more in the post-secondary system,” Gupta said. “I get it — the province is financially stressed. We appreciate that they have challenges, but we believe there is a good case for more investment in the post-secondary system. We just have to make the case of where we sit on the priority list. If we don’t get an increase in the budget … we will do our very best with the budget we have and go back and ask again next year.”

The province’s focus on jobs training, and the angst felt by students and parents about their job prospects, are also challenges. Gupta says his plan is to embrace that angst and make sure the university seizes all of the opportunities that come with significant change.

“Society is knowledge-sophisticated and they are using knowledge in many new ways. The gap between universities and society has shrunk so much. I think it is a wonderful time for us to be partnering with the outside world,” Gupta said. “This is why I’m interested in the university, because suddenly we have all these natural partners out there, so we can do much more. We don’t have to be separated from society.”

Amrik Virk, minister of advanced education, said he looks forward to working with Gupta.

“It is an exciting time for post-secondary education in the province as we collaborate with public post-secondary institutions such as UBC on the implementation of B.C.’s Blueprint that is aligning education and training with jobs,” Virk said. “Dr. Gupta is well regarded in academic, private and public sectors. … I trust that he will bring the visionary leadership and management required to lead a large, complex organization such as UBC.”

When asked where the focus on job skills leaves the student studying poetry or the professor teaching philosophy, Gupta said it’s a false dichotomy to say that studying science and technology gives employment skills while studying the arts doesn’t.

“Do you know what companies are looking for? They’re looking for people who speak Asian languages, or who understand Asian culture,” he said, adding that companies tell him what UBC can do better is to prepare people to be better communicators and leaders, who are skilled at working in teams.

“Where do we really emphasize these skills in the university? It’s in the arts,” Gupta said. “We want people to be passionate — passionate people have successes in life.”

He said the courses in highest demand from international students are those in the arts, because in Asian societies business and life are more integrated.

“The way they see the world is the blending of business and artistic endeavours. When they come here, they want to take lots and lots of arts courses because they value them.”

He said Facebook hires most of its staff from arts faculties, especially with the demand for “digital humanities.”

“The people studying poetry are technology savvy. They can build apps. It’s the content that’s more important. It’s not so much about are you studying poetry or are you studying computer science. It’s about are you taking this knowledge base and using the tools that we’ve created,” Gupta said. “Whatever it is you’re studying, you can use it in different ways.

“I’m the one with a PhD in computer science, but it’s my daughters who actually know how to do stuff.”


Byline: Tracy Sherlock, Education Reporter.