Home / Cover Story / Prof. Dr. Arvind Gupta interview (Audio excerpts included)

Prof. Dr. Arvind Gupta interview (Audio excerpts included)

The number 13 is not normally associated with good things, but for Professor Dr. Arvind Gupta, it is a significant symbol of positive progress, both personally and for Canadian society in general.

Gupta, a renowned expert in research and innovation, was appointed on July 1 and installed as the University of British Columbia’s 13thPresident on Sept. 12 last year for a five-year term –the first non-Caucasian to head the university in its 106-year history.

In fact, 2014 marked exactly 100 years since the construction of the first building on UBC’s Point Grey campus.

Gupta’s achievement is a major milestone for Canada’s South Asian community as UBC is one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning, consistently occupying a very high position on regular world university rankings.

Gupta comes from a family of high academic achievement. Both his parents were academics, his father a chemistry professor and his mother one of the first women to teach mathematics in India at a college in Uttar Pradesh.

Originally from Lahore, now in Pakistan, the family moved to India’s Punjab during the Partition in 1947. Gupta was born in Jalandhar. When he was five, the family moved to Detroit, but within two years, they moved again to Timmins, Ontario. Gupta grew up in Canada.

He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. before earning a Masters and a Ph.D at the University of Toronto.

Gupta spent 18 years in the School of Computing Science at Simon Fraser University before being recruited by UBC in 2009 as a professor of computer science. In 2012, he joined the federal government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council.

From 2000 until his appointment as President of UBC, Gupta was CEO and scientific director of Mitacs Canada, a national non-profit that worked with government and industry to fund student researchers.

As President, Gupta heads not just a world-class academic institution, but a huge facility in terms of budget and human resources. UBC has grown to more than 58,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff, with an annual budget of $2.2 billion. It makes an estimated $12.7 billion annual contribution to the B.C. economy.

Gupta is married to Dr. Michelle Pereira. They have three daughters, two of them current UBC students.

Desi Today (DT): You are now about seven months into your tenure as president of UBC. Has it been fun, is it everything you thought it would be?

Professor Gupta (PG): Oh, it’s been really great. I’ll talk about two things that have impressed me very much.

First, the passion that’s on campus for lots of different things going on and how much people believe in what they’re doing. What they’re looking for is encouragement, that we’re supportive of them. And I’ve really enjoyed learning about all the different initiatives going on on campus. When you’re a regular professor, you don’t know (about the) many fun, interesting and exciting things on campus that are really pushing the envelope.

The other interesting thing for me is how supportive the external (non-UBC) community is of UBC, how many people on the outside are looking to contribute to the university and ensure its success. That’s been very heartening for me. What we have to do is to be good at articulating what it is that we want to accomplish, what are our aspirations.

If we can link those two things together – the passion inside the university and the external support – there is a huge amount that we can do here at UBC.

DT: Did you come in with a particular long-term vision you would like to see the university implement during your tenure? What is the direction you want the university to go? If so, are you succeeding in that?

Dr. Arvind Gupta (fifth from left) and other delegates of BC Premier Christy Clarke’s Trade Mission to India.

Dr. Arvind Gupta (fifth from left) and other delegates of BC Premier Christy Clarke’s Trade Mission to India.

PG: Well, I have a couple of big goals.

One is to really enhance the academic mission of the university – to focus on the excellence of the research that we do, to focus on whether we are making sure we are giving our students all the tools for lifetime successes.

The second is to think about how we integrate the university with the outside community, how we make sure that the outside community sees UBC as a tool for their own aspirations, whether that’s through sports or artistic endeavour, or through academic programming or new kinds of research meeting the needs of the outside world, or engaging in civil debate.

These are the two big pieces. And we have been having a pretty robust dialogue on campus on those two things, on what are the actions we need to take.

Universities are not top-down structures. They really work on the energies of their people. The community here on the UBC campus embraces this way of thinking, and we can see the path forward to see some milestones accomplished.

DT: You have a reputation for championing research and innovation. Is there something in particular in these areas that you would like to see done at UBC?

PG: I think it is very critical for a university to link our students with research. The students are the main way we impact the world. And if we can make sure our students have this ability to think about new problems and to tackle new issues, we can have a very significant footprint on the outside world. We can really make sure the outside world has lots of resources to tackle new kinds of challenges that it sees.

We are having a pretty good discussion on how to link our research and our students, how to support our students better.

DT: So far, have you faced any challenges during your tenure? Have there been any sort of unexpected obstacles?

PG: Well, I like to see every challenge as an opportunity for doing new things. UBC is a very large organization, so getting to know all of the university does take some time. Previously (as a teaching professor), I knew a piece of the university, and as I’ve discovered all the other parts, I’ve realized there’s so much more that we can do. Thinking through how all the pieces of the university fit into one picture of what we can accomplish has been what other people may call a challenge, but I call an opportunity to do much more.

DT: You are the first South Asian Canadian head of one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious universities. What are your thoughts on that?

PG: Well, I guess I think of a few things. I was born in India, so I’m definitely an immigrant to Canada. What’s great about Canada is that we Canadians work very hard to make sure that the best people move forward. People always ask me whether I faced a lot of discrimination in my life, and I say, well, everybody’s faced some kind of discrimination. Women face some kind of discrimination, short people face some kind of discrimination.

But when you live in a society that encourages people to succeed and doesn’t put glass ceilings in your way, that says that if you really strive for things and become accomplished, then there are ways that you can advance, it’s something very special.

It’s interesting how people in some other parts of the world have said to me that maybe this is the kind of thing that can more easily happen in Canada than elsewhere. I think what is great about Canada is that we perpetually push everyone to do well.

The other thing I wonder about sometimes is how do we make sure that UBC is accessible to groups that traditionally have not participated in university – we’re talking about aboriginal communities, we’re talking about certain immigrant communities – how do we really try to make UBC embrace the broader community. Education is so critical if we’re going to build advantages across all spectrums of society.
We’ve been thinking quite a bit about our accessibility to the broader society, to under-privileged communities, to communities that traditionally wouldn’t think about coming to UBC, and even international communities. We have a lot of international students, but are we really reaching out to some countries that traditionally don’t send students to UBC?

We have a very nice program at UBC where we bring about 100 African students to UBC. Africa hasn’t been a big draw for the Western world in terms of university participation. And yet we know if we want Africa to advance, we’re going to have to raise the quality of education there.

So when people ask me this question about my South Asian heritage, it is difficult in my mind to separate that and what I believe as a human being is the right thing to do.

DT: There’s a perception that foreign students, who usually end up paying double or more the university fees that Canadian students pay, are given preference in gaining places at UBC. Is that a fair assessment?

PG: I think UBC and other Canadian universities should do a better job in communicating how we do our admissions. The reality is that for our domestic enrolment (Canadian students), we get funding from the government. We get funding for about 32,000 domestic students. UBC has been very aggressive in this area, in that we try to take in more than the 32,000 domestic students that are funded.

We have huge demand from Canadian students for UBC entry. So we’ve been taking hundreds of Canadian students beyond the numbers funded by the government.

The international students are a separate pool. We don’t use our domestic seats for international enrolment. And we do expect international students to cover all their expenses. But they are not taking away any seats from the domestic students.

One thing we have done to meet the huge demand is to set up a second campus in the Okanagan, and that’s given us the capacity to make UBC more accessible. We have about 7,000 domestic students in that campus now.

Installation. Photo Credit Martin Dee

Installation. Photo Credit Martin Dee

DT: Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of South Asian Canadian students at UBC is far below what would be considered a reasonable proportion of the community’s size. If that’s true, why do you think that is the case?

PG: This is a very complicated question. Simon Fraser University has a campus in Surrey, and we see a higher proportion of South Asians going to that campus. At the same time, there are a number of demographics, including South Asian, that have lower representation at UBC. The aboriginal communities are in a much worse position. We have very low aboriginal access to post-secondary education. We only have about 750 aboriginal students at UBC. The total student population at this campus is just shy of 50,000, and in Kelowna, it is just over 8,000.

The question is, how do we reach out to these communities, and make sure they have the tools to succeed when they come to university? We want to make sure that not only do they get access but that they succeed when they come here. We have to work with the high schools, we are looking at maybe we should create summer programs.

It’s not an easy problem to tackle. Other universities have also tried to tackle this problem. I think we should work on this as a system (of universities). That of course doesn’t take away the onus on UBC to be looking for a solution.

First Nations Welcoming Ceremony

First Nations Welcoming Ceremony

DT: You grew up in Canada. Do you still have connections with (your birthplace) Jalandhar?

PG: Well, I have family in Jalandhar. A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent some time there.
Lately, it’s becoming harder and harder to visit. Every time I go to India, my trips are getting shorter with more work to do on each trip. Since I’ve been appointed to this position, my life has got a lot busier.

In Jalandhar, we have my uncle’s family and they have a house there. My dad was actually born in Lahore, and during the Partition his whole family moved to Punjab.

My family says my appointment as UBC President was covered in all the local papers there.

DT: Let’s say you’re talking to a group of young Canadians – seven, eight years old. What would be your advice to them on the kinds of jobs they should train for when they become adults?

PG: Let me tell you a story. I was talking to a parent last night. She said her daughter was really good in science and maths, and that they (the parents) want her to go to UBC and become a doctor, but she wants to study English literature. The parents really don’t see a future for their daughter in English literature.

I said to her that at some point, you have to tell people to follow their passion, and they’ll figure out what to do. If you pursue your passion, at some point you will understand what you want to do with the rest of your life. People who are passionate do very well in life, because when you are passionate about something, you can also become passionate about other things. But when your passions are subdued, everything becomes a business, something you do because you have to do it.

You want to do things because you love doing them. You have to be open-minded to try things. And you can find other things you have a passion for. And you will eventually sort it out on what you want to do.
Here’s the reality. Nobody knows what the job market will look like 20 years from now. But people who are passionate naturally morph into what society is looking for. I also believe that being creative is always a great route to success because creative people solve problems that are ahead of them, instead of looking backwards.

So what I say to young people is, work extremely hard at your passions but keep an open mind to new things. Always try new things. Don’t worry if you fail somewhere.

Dr. Gupta and his family at his installation.

Dr. Gupta and his family at his installation.

DT: Isn’t it also a challenge for universities to look 20 years ahead and tailor programs that will be relevant then?

PG: We have to make sure the skills we give to our young people can easily be changed as society changes. Trying to read and guess what the job market looks 20 years from now is very, very difficult. But we know that people who communicate well, who are critical thinkers, who are analytical, who question things, who know how to take new challenges and solve those problems – we know that these kinds of skills are always going to be useful.

It’s hard to imagine that these skills would ever go away because if these skills go away, then you don’t need human beings. So you’re right, we (the universities) have to be very reflective of society. The reason to have engagement with the wider community is to really gauge what’s happening in the community, but the reverse is also true – the community also needs to engage with us because young people will be the citizenry of tomorrow. The community can help us shape the young people we have so that they contribute the maximum possible to society.

We know that the more different kinds of experiences young people gain in their lives, the better they will do. So whether it’s co-ops or volunteer work, or gaining international experiences, or doing research with somebody, the more experiences they can get, the better they will do. We are not going to create work opportunities on campus. We need the outside world to do that.

So I think it is a real partnership between us and the broader community in shaping these young people that we have to become contributing citizens. We should all think together about how we can produce great Canadian citizens.

It’s a multi-faceted effort. Many people say to me, oh, we need you to produce students who get great jobs so that they pay taxes. I say, absolutely. (But) we also need great students who will participate in democracy. We want them to question society and participate in societal debate. We want them to volunteer their time or money or both for good causes. We want them to have kids and instill good values in their kids.

DT: Would you say that computer and web technology will be a must-have skill in the future no matter what job you do? Even today, most jobs seem to require at least some skill in operating computers.

PG: One thing I will tell you, all these young people on our campus are very technologically savvy! Yes, it’s become innate having a fluid understanding of technology. Technology is now so embedded in societies everywhere in the world that it’s understood that technology has an impact on everything we do.

DT: We know what happened in Paris recently (the attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff), and it seems to reflect what’s happening in the wider world. What are your views on what seems like a general resurgence in religion, on what sometimes appears to be people going backwards rather than forward? Millions of people around the world don’t seem to be headed towards a good future.

PG: First of all, let’s look at the optimistic side. Throughout history, we’ve had large parts of humanity put into very unfortunate situations – in the big scheme of things, probably less today than in the past. We had times in our history where a third of the world was starving to death. So we have made progress in some areas.

Unfortunately, around the issues of violence, there’s been a continuing challenge for us as humanity for many, many years. And we don’t seem to be able to bridge to an understanding that we’re all the same, and we have the same aspirations for our children. We all want to live in a safe world, we all want to have basic necessities of life. We really have a problem getting to that place.

We are lucky in Canada that for the most part, we have a very respectful society, and we value and cherish the same fundamental beliefs in the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. We haven’t had the kind of clashes we see elsewhere.

I think one of the questions we should be asking ourselves is, what can we do as a society to propagate this idea of fundamental human rights. That really means we have to step back and ask, where is the breakdown occurring in the conversation around the world?

I don’t think there are any short-term fixes. I don’t think somebody will find a magic wand and solve things. But I do think education has been a huge facilitator in solving some of the past challenges humanity has faced. I think as the level of education rises, one sees a reduction in these kinds of conflicts occurring.

Dr. Gupta tips off a varsity basketball game.

Dr. Gupta tips off a varsity basketball game.

Education is not the only thing, but education is one tool. Also, forms for respectful dialogue (are needed), and universities provide that. We at UBC very much encourage respectful dialogue. We encourage people to speak in ways that aren’t directed as hatred towards other groups. We’ve defended that vigorously at UBC. I’m really proud about what past university presidents have done to keep our campus open and accessible to all groups, but also make it clear that anything that’s violent and promotes hatred will not be tolerated on campus.

We need to have places for those dialogues. I often wonder whether universities should be doing more to facilitate those conversations that might lead to some better understandings. When people are dying, whether in France or in Syria, I don’t think any of us can rest and say it’s not an issue for us. It’s an issue for all of us.

DT: Another creeping, what some would call disaster, for the world is the degradation of the environment. It seems like it’s a losing battle. What are your views on this issue?

PG: It is possible to address environmental issues, (but) it takes a lot of work. And it takes a little bit of not being too selfish to address this. The reality is we need to do the research to make the world more environmentally sustainable.

We know that emissions of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not a sustainable way to build this planet for the future. So we need now new ways of addressing these issues. In our university, we’ve had a sustainability initiative going on now for more than 10 years, and we’ve met our Kyoto targets. We are one of the first universities in the world to do that.

(UBC reached its Kyoto Protocol targets in 2007, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from academic buildings to six per cent below 1990 levels, despite a 35-per-cent growth in floor space and a 48-per-cent growth in student numbers.)

We put a lot of energy into understanding how one develops the technologies, the policies, the frameworks to create more environmental sustainability.

Every building we now put on this campus has to be a LEED gold or LEED platinum, meaning that it’s going to be very low in consumption of water and production of waste.

(LEED certification is the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability. The LEED rating system – developed and run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington D.C.-based, non-profit coalition of building industry leaders – is designed to promote design and construction practices that reduce the negative environmental impacts of buildings.)

So we’re putting a lot of work in. That’s the role of universities. We have to take the leadership on these big issues, and then we have to make sure that as we develop these new policy ideas, new technologies, new ways of doing things, we’re letting the world know about it.

My personal view on the environment is that we shouldn’t just jump from one thing to another. We should actually do the hard work to find better solutions. And that’s why I’m very proud that UBC is putting so much energy into looking for solutions. We have to address this major issue of long-term environmental sustainability. What’s the solution for 100 years, 200 years from now? When I say we have to be a little selfless, it’s because most of us won’t be here 100 years from now. We have to think today about two, three, four generations from now.

That takes a lot of heavy lifting. But I’m very optimistic that we’re doing it, that we’ll find better ways to do things.

 

— By Bachan Rai

 

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