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UBC faculty calls for resignation of chairman John Montalbano

WATCH: New developments tonight in the controversy swirling around UBC leadership. The president recently resigned and, as Catherine Urquhart reports, his early departure has raised questions no one seems to be able to answer.

VANCOUVER – A key player in a public battle about academic freedom at the University of British Columbia vows to remain chairman of the board of governors and says an outspoken critic should file a formal grievance.

However, the UBC Faculty Association has now called for the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors, John Montalbano.

In a letter published on Wednesday, the association says:

The concerns leading to this conclusion focus on the fact that the University itself has sidestepped standard protocols for handling grievances. More specifically, the Chair of the Board of Governors, the Board’s chief spokesperson, gave public, personal testimony related to the case in a University media release. We were shocked that this happened in a formal University media release posted on a University website. (This media release seems to have been removed from news.ubc.ca late Tuesday evening. We have a downloaded copy.) Mr. Montalbano has confused personal interests with the University’s interests.

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The letter goes on to say they were surprised to see Montalbano giving interviews to the media, in contrary to an Aug. 17 press release stating it would be inappropriate to comment further until the matter is concluded.

While the University has publicly said that a grievance involving Mr. Montalbano could be managed under our usual collective agreement processes, this no longer seemed possible. Mr. Montalbano is a government appointee, not a University employee, so establishing and implementing a fair process to investigate the Chair of the Board of Governors given that Chair’s dominating presence in and apparent mobilization of the entire system in his own interest seemed challenging, to say the least.

They say they have now lost confidence that there can be an internal investigation process “uninfluenced by Mr. Montalbano.”

We did not take this decision to request Mr. Montalbano’s resignation lightly. His handling of Professor Gupta’s resignation and his mismanagement of subsequent events are now compounded by breaches of standard protocols, and lead us to believe that his resignation will be in the best interests of the University and the public.

Montalbano responded Tuesday to allegations by Prof. Jennifer Berdahl involving the Aug. 7 resignation of former president Arvind Gupta.

Berdahl has accused Montalbano of trying to muzzle her. She wrote in a blog last week that Gupta, who she noted isn’t a tall or physically imposing man, “lost the masculinity contest” among the university’s leaders “as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by men.”

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In a blog posted Monday, she said Montalbano criticized her for “embarrassing” UBC’s governors.

“I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent,” she wrote, though Montalbano has denied that he issued any kind of gag order.

WATCH: Extended interview with UBC Board Chair John Montalbano

Montalbano is chief executive officer of RBC Global Asset Management, which is the asset management division of Royal Bank of Canada. In April 2014, the university announced that he provided $2 million in funding for Berdahl’s gender and diversity professorship under his name at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

In an interview with Global News, Montalbano said he never threatened to pull Berdahl’s funding.

He also said he never asked her to take down the blog post.

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“That was one of the things that we both agreed to at the very end, that I had never asked her to retract anything about her blog.”

“I’m very comfortable putting myself through an objective and independent grievance process,” added Montalbano.

The faculty association said in a statement that it has lost confidence in Montalbano because of his “apparent lack of understanding” of academic freedom.

It noted the “serious weaknesses” in the governance of the university and the “apparent failure to manage significant and perceived high-risk personal conflicts of interest involving Mr. Montalbano.”

WATCH: UBC’s leadership controversy

Gupta has not provided any explanation about why he resigned one year into a five-year term, and the university board has cited confidentiality in not offering any details.

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“One of the challenges that we do have in this case is we’re dealing with privacy laws and non-disclosure agreements,” Montalbano told Global News.

“Unfortunately as Chair, I have to uphold agreements that we have in place. Unequivocally, I would love to provide more transparency on this issue, but we are dealing with personnel matters and, for that reason alone, I am unable to break confidence.”

Gupta has said he will return to the university as a computer science professor.

-With files from Global News

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