A conversation with Arvind Gupta

Q: We are now nearing the end of your first year at UBC. How was the year for you?

A: Well, it’s been really fun. You know, what I say is that, as a professor, I probably; knew five per cent of the university and discovering the other 95 per cent has been really gratifying. I sometimes think that they should give a course called UBC 101, so we can all learn about this university.

Q: What are some of the things you’ve learned?

A: Well, I’ve gotten to see some fantastic research happening across campus. I’ve gotten, I think, a deeper appreciation for how all the pieces fit together, how research in the arts informs medicine, how engineering and technology and development in engineering can have ramifications, whether they’re legal or social ramifications. I’ve learned a lot about the students. I’ve had lots of time to sit down with students here in Vancouver and on the Okanagan campus and understand a little bit of their concerns and where they’re coming from. One of the things that happened at almost every meeting I’ve had with students is this emphasis on experiential learning and so I’ve had a chance to dig down into that and to understand why that’s so important to our students.


Q: UBC has recently released the budget for the 2015-2016 year. What will it prioritize and what will upcoming budgets prioritize as well?

A: Well, one thing we’re doing is putting a very strict focus around the core mission of the university. We want to make sure that anything we do, we remember. The primary mission of UBC or any university is learning, teaching and research, so when we went through the budget exercise, we asked ourselves that question. Are these initiatives supporting the core mission of the university? At the same time, we’ve put a lot of energy around student wellbeing, student mental health. One of the things you probably don’t know… On my very first day here, the first thing I found out was that one of our students had committed suicide on the previous weekend and it really impacted me and it got me exploring this whole area of student mental wellbeing and I realized that we need to take some pretty dramatic action and so we made sure this first budget, that it really put the resources in that direction.

Q: And will similar trends continue for future budgets?

A: Well, I think that as we understand where we need resources to ensure our students get good outcomes will definitely have to make sure we press on those areas. Of course, I go back to the core. It’s important that we remind ourselves all the time why we’re all here and if we’re not doing that, then it’s easy to get distracted. We try to remind ourselves all the time: learning, teaching, research. But there are other areas. So I mentioned experiential learning, which we’re now starting to figure out what it takes to get good outcomes in experiential learning. And so I think you’ll see some emphasis on that in the future.


Q: What do you think of campus media and our paper in particular?

A: Well, actually, I read The Ubyssey a lot and I like the fact that The Ubyssey holds everybody accountable. The administration, the AMS, the GSS. So I like the fact that The Ubyssey asks lots of hard questions. And, you know, for example, we’ve had some issues – the divestment, the BDS issue and I appreciate The Ubyssey trying to bring all points of view forward.


Q: Several UBC administrators have chosen to leave this year. Is there a reason for that or is that coincidental?

A: Well that’s, I think, a normal thing that happens when you change the administration and you start looking at where you want to focus. Whenever you have a new president, there is a realignment of priorities and then you tend to see some changes. I think that’s not even just at universities, you’d see that in other organizations, whether it’s corporate, government or hospitals. A similar thing. So I think that’s just, you know, a normal course of action to happen at a university.


Q: So now one of the lighter questions. Are you keeping up with the playoffs?

A: I’m trying. The first game was Wednesday when I was at Senate, so I caught the last minute. So I watched just in time to see the Canucks lose and the goal at 29 seconds, a real heart-breaker, and then I watched a little bit of last night’s game. So the only one I missed was the second game and we won, so I’m not sure if the gods are sending me a signal that maybe I should not watch hockey any more.


Q: Do you think the future of UBC Athletics is better after last year’s sports review?

A: Well, the sports review is a tough time for the university. On the one hand, we want to make sure we’re fostering a sense of excellence amongst our varsity teams. And so what is the right way to be doing that? I think that a lot of good came out of the sports review, it opened up a lot of questions that we, frankly, needed to ask. And so now we need to take what we’ve learned at the sports review and make sure we apply it in the best way possible at the university.


Q: One of the biggest events on campus this year was the international tuition and residence fee increases. How involved were you with the decision to make those increases?

A: Well, of course, I was involved and those kinds of hard decisions could come both to the executive and the Board of Governors and I’m on both, so I was very aware this was going on. And, as you know, these are really tough decisions and tough conversations to have. I think we need to make sure that, going forward, we can have these conversations with our students and with the campus community and think through how we make decisions and how we allocate resources and be very clear in where the budgetary pressures are at the university. And I think partly what I learned from the process is that sometimes these things seem to come just out of nowhere. We need to be signaling ahead of time the kinds of thoughts that are going on. So, as much as possible, we want to make sure that’s happening.

Q: Despite the university’s communication with students, many students were still dissatisfied with the decisions. Do you feel that increasing UBC’s international reputation and keeping up with UofT and McGill provides a benefit to students?

A: Absolutely. We know that one of the main reasons students choose UBC is because of our reputation. And so, you know, it’s a little bit hard to make sure you keep the reputation without the resources and the budget to invest in the core parts of the university. Having said that, you know, as I said earlier, we want to make sure every dollar we is focused in the right way and so we do spend time thinking about supporting the core mission of the university. We do think about how to get the resources to make sure that that continues happening, but I think, even more than that, we need to make sure that the students benefit from the reputation we have. So how do we create opportunities for our students that link them to the reputation of the university? How do we make sure they get access to professors? How do we make sure that they get access to our research labs and the forward thinking that happens in a research university. So I think there is a huge benefit for our students to be at a globally-acclaimed university, but we want to make sure that we maximize that for the students.

Q: And what are some of the ways that we can maximize it?

A: Well, we’re in the process, as just one example, of thinking about how we can bring more research methods into our undergraduate teaching. You know, what we see around us is a world that is changing very, very quickly. There are people now that estimate that a young person coming out of the university system may change careers five or more times. And we’ve had some other studies that say that 25-50 per cent of today’s jobs may not exist 30 years from today. So how do you educate someone so that they’re able to change as the times change, and change pretty rapidly, I have to say, much more rapidly than when I graduated from university. And one the things we see is that understanding the methodology behind research, the ability to ask different kinds of questions, the ability to think outside the box is actually very beneficial in that environment, so one of the things I’d like to see is more of an emphasis on those research methods in our undergraduate classes. The second thing is to make sure that our research labs are available, our whole research enterprise is more available to our undergraduate students. So how do you bring the whole research piece at UBC to the undergraduate students? We’re just starting those conversations and, of course, it’s very different, depending on where we are in the university, but I think it’s an important conversation to have.


Q: You recently came back from your trip to China. How was that?

A: You know, it was great. It’s interesting how, first of all, both the government sector and the education sector in China are looking for partnerships that will enhance postsecondary education inside China. And so they’re looking to build their universities, they want to build their research profile, they want to build their undergraduate curriculum and they’re looking for partners. And everyone emphasized how UBC is a critical partner for them. The second thing they’re looking for is more of a two-way exchange of people. Right now, 20-25 to 1 students are coming from China versus our students spending time in China and everyone on the Chinese side is looking for more of a balance and I think that everyone on our side is also looking for more of a balance, so we’d like to see more students going to China and having meaningful academic experiences in China. So we had a chance to talk with 8 different universities and 3 government departments about how we can create those opportunities for UBC students.


Q: You were actually in China when a dead body was found at the Norman Mackenzie House? Was that a shock to you when you were over there?

A: It was a total shock. My phone rang at five o’clock in the morning and we were in shock and, of course, my daughters were at home, so we were worried about them. We were also worried about how this whole incident happened. As far as I can see, the RCMP handled it very professionally and carefully and that investigation is ongoing, so I actually don’t know any more than, probably, you do, but the RCMP is handling that and we want to make sure that we provide a very safe environment and so this unfortunate incident is another example of how we have to keep that discussion going on safety on campus.


Q: Just a few more questions here. So why is the university choosing to expand Vantage College?

A: Well, Vantage College is an interesting academic experiment in understanding how we can bring in international students that, perhaps, don’t have quite the language skills, but are academically very strong. And what we’re talking about then is… You know, language is very closely linked to socialization and culture. And so, how we enhance that… We’re in our second year, so it’s a pretty new experiment to see whether a) we can actually address that issue, so it’s been bringing in students whose language scores are below our normal standard and whether in one year we can raise their language skills, students’ language skills, and b) whether we can identify the type of students that would benefit from a program like Vantage. One of the things we did understand as we started building Vantage College up is the full cost of doing something like that. And because we decided not to ask the government for any funding for Vantage, so it’s fully self-contained funding and, as you know, it’s an 11-month program, that had to be all thought through what the true cost model is, and so we’ve tried to reflect that carefully in fees and have been very clear with students that we’re recruiting that this is not about different standards, this is just… The academic standards are all the same, but we do want to enhance the language basin. I think we’re monitoring very carefully two aspects, one is: are the students coming through Vantage finding it easier to integrate as their language skills come up? And two: what can we learn from that language training that we can then apply to the international student body more broadly? So I think those are things we want to monitor very carefully.


Q: How will the university make UBC a more accessible place for students in future years?

A: Yeah. That’s a really good question because there are many facets to accessibility. We’ve already worked a lot on a very diverse international student body. We have students from something like 130 different countries here and we’re continuing to work to identify other regions of the world where we want more diversity and so that’s definitely happening. But I think we should spend more time thinking about diversity even in our local population. Definitely on the Aboriginal side. We have a pretty aggressive strategy to give better access to First Nations groups and we’re working in partnership with places like Langara to look into feeder programs and accessibility programs. I think we should think about certain immigrant groups that, traditionally, had a hard time participating in postsecondary. We also have to think about the fact that UBC is sitting at Point Grey and we’re the university for all of British Columbia. So how can we make sure that, regionally, we’re giving access? I think, there, UBC Okanagan is helping us a lot in giving access into the Interior, but we have other regions of this province that we have to think about accessibility. So lots of work to do on that.

Q: So will that be in terms of scholarships or reaching out? What are some specifics?

A: I don’t want to hypothesize because I don’t have a clear set of strategies yet. This is something that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, finance is just one issue, there are other issues to accessibility that we have to think about, especially because there are some groups who traditionally have not participated in postsecondary. So how does one ease the mental burden for parents from those groups to send their kids to university? A lot of times, when you’re talking regionally, you’re talking about kids leaving home to get to university. How do you make it easier for someone to think for the first time of sending their son or daughter away from home? We thought about everything from, as you mentioned, scholarships to using technology to bring some of UBC into people’s homes, at least in an introductory program. We thought about summer programs, so I think there’s a host of different tools that we have, but I think we should develop a strategy around it that is not just do something for the sake of doing something.

The full video of the interview can be found here.