August 17, 2015 10:38 pm
Updated: August 18, 2015 4:09 pm

UBC leadership controversy escalates after alleged breach of academic freedom

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WATCH: Rumina Daya has details on the fallout over the sudden resignation of UBC’s president Arvind Gupta, only a year into his five-year term.

The University of British Columbia is investigating claims of a breach of academic freedom after a professor alleged she was intimidated over a blog post commenting on the resignation of former UBC president Arvind Gupta.

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Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of Gender and Diversity at  UBC’s Sauder School of Business, claimed that university authorities tried to intimidate and silence her for publicly speaking about university affairs.

In a blog post published about a week ago, Prof. Berdahl commented on the resignation, suggesting that Gupta may have lost a “masculinity contest” with the school’s leadership.

In a subsequent blog post, Berdahl said several senior UBC officials, including Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano, contacted her to express their displeasure.

The allegations come amidst rising controversy and speculations about the sudden, and mostly unexplained, departure of Gupta only a year into his five-year term as president.

READ MORE: UBC president’s departure leaves questions

In response, UBC made a statement indicating that they are investigating Berdahl’s claims.

When asked about the issue by Global News, Montalbano declined to comment, stating he is “not prepared to speak”at the moment.

WATCH: Global BC’s Justin McElroy on the controvery swirling around UBC

Call for resignation

Gupta’s sudden resignation led to questions of a possible ‘leadership crisis’ for UBC.

The school’s Faculty Association expressed it has lost confidence in the chair of UBC’s Board of Governors.

In a letter to the board, faculty association president Mark MacLean called out the Board of Governors over Gupta’s resignation, saying UBC needs to be transparent.

The current situation had also led to a call for Montalbano’s resignation. A former academic member of the Board of Governors, mathematics Prof. Nassif Ghoussoub told Global News he believes Montalbano should step down as “he is the first person who is responsible for this crisis”.

WATCH: Fallout over UBC president’s sudden departure

On Monday, Montalbano told Global News that he “will not resign.”

During today’s press conference, acting UBC president Martha Piper said the board has full confidence in Montalbano and will investigate the matter fully.

‘When work is a masculinity contest’

Berdahl’s initial blog post speculated about the possible reasons behind Gupta suddenly stepping down from his post.

A professor who researches gender and diversity in organizations, power and status in groups, and harassment, Berdahl explored the possibility of Gupta stepping down due to a difference of opinion.

Citing that she has little knowledge of the details about the resignation, she commented that the resignation shows “UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president.”

She wrote that the resignation may have been a result of Gupta having “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

‘Institutional pressure’

A week after her first post, another post was published by Berdahl claimed university officials tried to silence her based on her earlier commentary.

She wrote that shortly after her initial post she received a call from Montalbano, who is the donor of funds for her professorship at UBC and is also on the faculty advisory board at Sauder.

Montalbano had called her to complain that the first blog post was “incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and was “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.”

Berdahl said she told Montalbano that she had never intended to embarrass him, noting that the answer to the question she raised in her initial blog post might be a “no.”

Following the phone call, she says she was approached by the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity and the Division Chair, who relayed to her that they felt her post “had done serious reputational damage to Sauder and to UBC” and that she had “deeply upset one of the most powerful donors to the School who also happened to be the Chair of the Board of Governors.”

According to Berdahl, a meeting was set up with her dean to discuss the issue, but it was cancelled when the professor said she was planning to bring representation.

“I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent,” wrote Berdahl, saying she had never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events.

“Even if the university’s leadership doesn’t recognize it, I have a right to academic freedom and expression, free of intimidation and harassment. I cannot be fired for exercising this right,” said Berdahl.

Montalbano released the following statement on Tuesday:

First and foremost, I want to reinforce the University of British Columbia’s commitment to academic freedom and my commitment as Chair of the Board of Governors to academic freedom. At its August 17, 2015 Board meeting, the Board of Governors reaffirmed their confidence in me as Chair, which I respect and appreciate. It is an honour to volunteer my time as Chair and I will continue to serve.

It is important now that I briefly address some allegations that I interfered in a professor’s academic freedom. Let me first say, that I’m deeply concerned with the way in which my interaction with Professor Jennifer Berdahl about her recent blog post (August 8, 2015) has been portrayed.
As the acting President and Provost said in her recent
statement, it is important that an objective, independent and thorough process be followed to determine whether there is any validity to the allegations made against me. The Faculty Association collective agreement includes a thoughtful, thorough grievance process and I welcome – in fact, I ask – the professor to engage in this process. I commit to fully engaging in the grievance process if and when the professor lodges a formal grievance request.

My intention in contacting Professor Berdahl, who has been a trusted colleague for two years and with whom I have regular contact, was to discuss her blog post and to further understand the professor’s concerns. I asked the professor if she would be comfortable with discussing the blog and, in particular, I asked if she thought the discussion would in any way compromise her academic freedom. I asked her to stop me at any time if she felt uncomfortable. She agreed to the call and said that she welcomed the discussion and would not see it as affecting her academic freedom. At no time did I ask the professor to retract any of her blog and at no time did I threaten her funding. In fact, I reinforced that her funding would continue. At no time did I intend to impinge her academic freedom. At the end of our telephone call, Professor Berdahl agreed that we had a productive conversation and though we didn’t agree on all points, she confirmed that I did not ask for any retraction, that I affirmed her funding and did not interfere in her academic freedom. Given this, I’m sure most people can understand that I’m upset and hurt by the allegations that our call was an impingement on the professor’s academic freedom. I have immense respect for Professor Berdahl and I am saddened that our interaction has caused her such concern.

I want to thank my family, board colleagues and the campus and broader community for their support. Being subject to these allegations is difficult for me, and this support is much appreciated.

In closing, I would like to say that I look forward to working with Dr. Martha Piper, who will be interim President on September 1, to provide strong leadership as we continue our efforts to be one of the world’s leading universities through our core mission of teaching and research. We look forward to celebrating the many successes of the university and its people in our upcoming 100th anniversary.

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