Fall from grace: crisis at a world class institution

If there is one thing that made Jennifer Berdahl’s blog post harmful to UBC, it was John Montalbano calling her to say the post could be harmful to UBC.

Jennifer Berdahl is the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies in Gender and Diversity at the Sauder School of Business. As an academic focused on how institutionalized racism and sexism affects high levels of leadership, Berdahl posted a speculative argument on her blog about why former President Arvind Gupta may have resigned.

“Did President Arvind Gupta lose the masculinity contest?” read the headline. The post posits that Gupta, who is not tall and non-white, was the victim of stereotypical ideas about who looks the part of a good leader.

The post got some attention and was viewed quite a few times, according to Berdahl. But, on the whole, Berdahl’s post was one of many speculations being presented in the aftermath of Gupta’s sudden and unexpected departure.

By the following week, the post would be the focal point of a national debate.

“[Montalbano] called me at home Sunday morning and proceeded to tell me… how upset he was by the post, how embarrassing it was to him and how it called into question my academic credibility and how he’d been speaking to my dean about it,” said Berdahl.

To sum up, the chair of UBC’s Board of Governors, John Montalbano, called a tenured professor to discuss her blog post and during the conversation, “expressed my concern that the blog had the potential to damage UBC based on its assertions,” said Montalbano.

Berdahl responded with another post. This time she detailed the conversation she had had with Montalbano, as well as similar criticisms she received from various members of UBC’s administration. Despite numerous attempts to have UBC's Public Relations connect the Ubyssey with Berdahl's dean at Sauder, no one responded.

The two successive blog post have sparked both a debate on academic freedoms and an investigation into their possible breach.

“His contacting her is an absolute and abject failure of understanding the mission of academic freedoms, open speech and the role of a professor in criticizing and trying to understand how a university is run,” said psychology Professor Chris Crandell of the University of Kansas, who wrote to Berdahl’s dean to demand that he immediately and publicly make a statement in support of Berdahl’s rights and freedoms.

“It's not just inappropriate, it’s wildly inappropriate. It’s a ‘I should resign now, because I don’t know my boundaries’,” said Crandell.

Albina Gibadullina is a fourth year student in the Sauder business school. In her opinion, it seems that the way the Board viewed the post "or the way John Montalbano [did] is [as] a personal offense on him.”

“She’s committed all her life to understanding how gender, race and equality show up in the work place,” said Gibadullina. “So what she meant is that there’s a bigger issue going on, UBC doesn’t have enough diversity in its leadership…[and] this could be one of the reasons why Gupta was not as successful.”

On August 18, the day after Berdahl's second blog post was released, the Board held an unannounced, in-camera meeting. Now, discussion about Board transparency, or lack thereof, is growing in conjunction with the debate on academic freedoms.

The media statement that came out of the August 18 Board meeting affirms a committment to the principle of academic freedoms, and “all members of the UBC community recognize and value this fundamental principle.”

It was also announced after this private meeting that an investigation into allegations of a breach of academic freedoms will be undertaken. The university has yet to say who will be conducting the investigation.

When the question of who would conduct the investigation was raised in the last council meeting of the UBC Vancouver Alma Mater Society (AMS), no specifics were provided but Ava Nasiri, VP Administration, and Aaron Bailey, AMS President, said that it would be conducted by an external arbiter.

Some have speculated that a personal blog on the internet does not constitute an academic argument and therefore may not be an infringement of academic freedoms, but, as Amy Ryder, a third year Political Science major points out, censorship is censorship.

“Whether or not it's academic freedom it’s still freedom of opinion…. no matter how you look at it whether or not that can be considered academic,” said Ryder.

Though Montalbano has expressed that he is engaged in the process of the investigation, he denies that he infringed on Berdahl’s academic freedom by contacting her to discuss her posting.

“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.

However, that isn’t good enough for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), who, last Wednesday, called for Montalbano to resign until the University has completed its investigation into the claims of infringement on academic freedoms.

“His statement is rather telling because he does admit that there was a call, he does admit that he raised the issue of academic freedom, he does admit that he talked about funding,” said the CAUT executive director David Robinson. “So he admits a lot of what Professor Berdahl is alleging but what he essentially says is because she didn’t raise any concerns I therefore didn’t affect or didn’t infringe upon her academic freedom.”

Alongside CAUT’s open letter asking the chair to resign was one from the Faculty Association. The letters were published on the same day, and many major news outlets ran them together. Headlines and social media feeds were filled were words such as “Pressure grows on UBC board chair John Montalbano to resign.”

The case raised by the Faculty Association (FA) does differ somewhat from that of CAUT. According to the letter, the FA was shocked that Montalbano himself spoke, on behalf of the university, to issues in which he is implicated. According to the President of the FA, Mark Mac Lean, this “thwarts the natural processes that we have."

“We have the Chair of the Board, who is now the spokesperson for the university on this issue, up front there doing a media release in which he’s also giving testimony,” said Mac Lean. “So he’s clearly confused his personal interests with those of the university.”

Though CAUT and the FA have made it clear that they have officially lost confidence in the chair of the Board, the highest body of student governance, the AMS, has taken a different position.

On Thursday, Aug. 20 the organization released an official statement outlining their position on the issues at hand. Point 3 reads, “we do not currently call for the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors during this turbulent time due to a lack of public information.”

The other three points iterate that the AMS demands an investigation into the possible breach of academic freedoms, they are working towards more Board transparency, and that the AMS asks the “media and members of the university to avoid speaking on behalf of the student community.”

Despite the AMS officially asking that members of UBC, including its media groups, avoid speaking for the student community at large, it should be noted that a full comment on Gupta’s resignation and the subsequent controversies was not released until 13 days after Gupta’s resignation was announced.

Though Montalbano would not speculate on whether this situation is unique because he provided the funds that made Berdahl’s professorship possible, it has made for a lot of speculation. Montalbano donated the $2 million that allowed for Berdahl’s position in the university.

“There’s definitely the implied threat, or threats in the message, about my reputation [and] about my funding,” said Berdahl. “To me it was not like he was curious about my perspective."

A parallel could be drawn to an employee-employer relationship, in which one person is paying the other for services provided. Though Montalbano would not speculate on whether the position he holds in relation to Berdahl makes this a particularly unique situation, Robinson said that “if your boss calls you into his or her office to say, I want to talk to you about that email you sent yesterday, that’s not a friendly chat.”

That exact power differential is what is prompting many of the calls for the resignation. Robinson called it completely inappropriate for Montalabano to call her because of the “relationship of power.”

“He’s the chair of the Board of Governors, you know, the chair of the Board of Governors doesn’t just make casual phone calls to professors,” said Ryder. “His phone call holds weight automatically because of who he is, and inquiring about that blog post ... automatically suggests the university’s not happy with it.”

However, Montalbano has remained firm on the argument that his calling Berdahl was a legitimate effort to learn about the post.

When asked whether he believes Berdahl has the right to openly speculate on Gupta’s resignation, Montalbano answered “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…. 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.”

Now the question becomes, was Berdahl’s stipulation that problems arose due to a lack of board diversity correct, and is that why Montalbano reacted the way that he did?

“It was their reaction to her blog post, which may be an accurate understanding of what happened … [that] lends credence to the underlying argument that she was making in the blog post,” said Crandell.

Female members do make up just under half of the board, and there is some racial diversity, though caucasian members do make up the majority. However, there seems to be a trend in terms of political leaning, as nine out of the 11 provincially-appointed board members gave substantial donations to the BC Liberal party.

“My concern has been also that many of the appointments seem to be political appointments and don’t necessarily reflect that you would need as a board member,” said NDP spokesperson, Kathy Corrigan.

So fast-forward to today, and you have serious questions about whether the board has enough diversity and transparency, as well as Montalbano's efficacy as chair.

And still, no answer about what happened to former President Gupta.