Chair of Board of Governors sparks debate on academic freedoms

A phone call from John Montalbano, chair of UBC's Board of Governors, has prompted significant dialogue on academic freedom, and when it has been breached.

"He called me at home Sunday morning, and you know, proceeded to tell me ... just how upset he was by the post, how embarrassing it was to him and how it called into question my academic credibility," said Jennifer Berdahl, Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies at the Sauder School of Business, specializing in gender and diversity.

Berdahl's area of expertise is the impact of gender, race and other factors on leadership positions. Shortly after former President Arvind Gupta's surprise resignation, Berdahl published a blog post with her theory as to what happened. Even still, speculation is all that observers have to contribute to the conversation about what happened to president Gupta, since the university has yet to provide any clear answers.

Berdahl's post suggested that Gupta lost a masculinity contest that is present at high levels of leadership. Her post reads, Gupta "isn't tall or physically imposing. He advocates for women and visible minorities in leadership – a stance that has been empirically demonstrated to hurt men at work."

Shortly after Berdahl released her post, it began receiving attention from university administrators. According to her blog, it was her Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity that told Berdahl at a Sauder event that she seriously damaged UBC's reputation.

Berdahl also said that Montalbano invoked mention of her dean during their telephone conversation.

"I can't see how the chair of the Board of Governors thought it was okay to call my dean about my blog, and how he thought it was appropriate to affectively call me to scold me," said Berdahl.

The controversy has resulted in a debate about how highly UBC values academic freedom.

"I think Jennifer has the right to speculate on anything and with respect to the board I just wanted to understand how she reached that conclusion," said Montalbano. "When you have someone who’s an expert in a field claiming a process that may have been racially biased, I think it’s important for us to learn from that."

According to Montalbano, his phone call was a genuine attempt to learn from the diversity expert about how she had arrived at the conclusion outlined in her blog post. When asked whether he had, at any point, expressed that the post had embarrassed or done damage to UBC, Montalbano said "I expressed my concern that the blog had the potential to damage UBC based on its assertions, but I should also point out that in no time in that conversation did I ever ask her to retract the blog, did I ever threaten funding. In fact, I reaffirmed her funding, and at no time did I try to direct her research."

Montalbano does not believe he threatened academic freedom at UBC. However, Berdahl said that she has never, in a career that has spanned several university positions, felt "this kind of institutional pressure to be silent."

The day after Berdahl published a second post outlining the ways in which she had felt the institution apply such pressure, the UBC Board of Governors held a private, unannounced meeting. The media was not allowed in at any point, but by the end of the meeting the board had released a statement on academic freedoms.

"Universities serve society but are also established to question society and academic freedom is the bedrock on which a university exists," read the statement.

The statement also noted that an investigation into the allegations will be launched. While Montalbano describes himself as engaged in this process, he does not describe himself as having breached the principle of academic freedom.

"At the start of her conversation ... [I said] 'before I go any further, are you comfortable discussing the blog? Because I have concerns that you may see it as an infringement on academic freedom.' And her response was, 'no, I don’t have concerns,' and I said 'look, if at any point in the conversation you feel that this getting close to an infringement will you stop me?' And she said that she would," said Montalbano.

Montalbano would not speculate on whether this is a unique position because he has provided the funds that have made Berdahl's professorship possible.

At this point, Berdahl is agreeing with the call of no confidence in the board chair that was released by the faculty association.

"I just don’t think he understands very basic principles of academic freedom and university governance. So, it’s inappropriate for him to be in that position of leadership," said Berdahl. "I think we also need, as a university, to do some soul searching about ... what we’re willing to protect, whether it’s, 'our main value is our reputation,' or 'our main value is our integrity.'"