Topics

Did a Board Chair Overstep?

The board chair at the U of British Columbia objects to a professor's blog post on the president's sudden resignation -- fueling further concerns about that university's still unexplained leadership transition.

August 18, 2015
 
John Montalbano

As speculation continues about the reasons for Arvind Gupta’s abrupt resignation from the University of British Columbia presidency after one year in office, one professor whose blog post speculating that his skin color (brown) and advocacy for minority and female academics in leadership might have something to do with it has written a follow-up post describing what she characterizes as an institutional attempt to silence her.

Her account of the attempt -- and the UBC board chair's role in it -- has heightened faculty concerns about governance at UBC following Gupta's unexplained resignation.

It started when Jennifer Berdahl published a blog post last week titled, “Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” In that post Berdahl acknowledged that she did not know the “ins and outs” of the reasons for Gupta’s departure. “But what I do have are my personal observations and experiences after my first year here as the inaugural Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity,” Berdahl’s post says. “I believe that part of this outcome is that Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

Berdahl’s analysis apparently didn’t sit well with the chair of UBC's Board of Governors -- who also happens to be the donor who gave $2 million to fund her gender and diversity-focused professorship -- John Montalbano. In a second blog post, “Academic Freedom and UBC,” Berdahl reports receiving a phone call from Montalbano, who in addition to being board chair also sits on the Sauder School of Business's Faculty Advisory Board, which is a group of business leaders who advise on strategy and programs.

In that call, Berdahl said, Montalbano criticized her post about Gupta as hurtful, inaccurate, and unfair and embarrassing to the board.

“He said I had made him ‘look like a hypocrite,’” Berdahl wrote. “He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility. He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my dean about it. He also repeatedly brought up RBC” -- a reference to a wealth management firm managed by Montalbano -- “which funds my outreach activities, to say that people there were on ‘damage control’ should the media pick up on this.”

“I explained that it was never my intent to embarrass him, that I thought it was okay for us to have different perspectives, and acknowledged that the answer to the question posed on my blog -- ‘Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?’ -- might be no,” Berdahl wrote. “I was writing from my own personal observations of President Gupta as a leader and the culture of masculinity contest, a topic I study with others, that I witnessed at UBC.”

But according to Berdahl, things didn’t end with Montalbano's call. Berdahl’s post describes a subsequent conversation with UBC administrators in which she said she was scolded for upsetting a powerful donor (and board chair) and for the “serious reputational damage” caused by her blog. She said she was instructed to work with the business school's media relations office to “minimize” the impact of her post on Gupta’s departure. She also said she was called in for a meeting with the business school dean, but that it was canceled after she said she would bring representation.

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

UBC's media relations office declined to make Montalbano available for an interview on Monday afternoon. In a written statement, the provost pro tem, Angela Redish, and Interim President Martha Piper said that “the allegations of breaches of academic freedom in a recent blog post are serious and UBC has the processes to appropriately address such allegations.

“The collective agreement confirms that members of the university have the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them to be fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or nonacademic constraints. Suppression of this freedom, whether by the institutions of the state, the officers of the university or the actions of private individuals, would prevent the university from carrying out is primary function.”

At the same time, even as the blog posts were receiving heavy attention on social media, UBC's leaders urged against a rush to judgment. “The principles of fairness and due process are also fundamental to the UBC community, and we must respect the law to ensure all members of the university community are enabled to contribute fully to their endeavors. As such, UBC has rigorous processes in place -- established with the agreement of the Faculty Association -- to investigate any allegation of breach of academic freedom. It is imperative that we follow this impartial process embedded within and protected by the collective agreement before prejudging unproven and untested allegations at this time,” their statement said.

In the meantime, the questions facing the university continue to mount. Berdahl's accounting of her treatment seems to be further fueling UBC faculty concerns about the many unanswered questions surrounding Gupta's resignation.

The executive committee for UBC’s Faculty Association issued a letter on Monday saying its members had lost confidence in Montalbano as the board chair. In the letter they wrote that new revelations regarding “significant and perceived” conflicts of interest raised by the board chair's participation on a faculty advisory council and his alleged “meddling” in academic affairs have made it “even more imperative to have the full story behind the resignation of Professor Gupta as president of UBC.”

“The chair of the board should not be able to meddle directly in internal academic affairs,” states the letter, which does not refer to Berdahl by name. “Yet disregard for this organizational structure as well as interference in academic affairs is precisely what is alleged to have happened this past week in relation to the comments made by a faculty member concerning the president’s resignation by the chair of board.”

“We are also concerned -- in reference to the same faculty member -- about alleged violations of academic freedom and of the university’s respectful environment statement committed [to] by a number of individuals, including the chair of the Board of Governors. While these allegations are still under investigation, there are sufficient facts known to lead us to question how well those involved, including the chair of the board himself, understand the principle of academic freedom, and whether they understand their obligations under UBC’s public commitment to providing a respectful workplace environment.”

Berdahl was receiving support on Twitter on Monday from users who saw her characterization of the response to her blog post as a violation of her academic freedom. In her original post on Gupta's departure, Berdahl, an expert on gender and diversity in the workplace, described her firsthand observations that the now former president displayed the characteristics of a “humble leader,” one who widely sought others' input and expressed self-doubt -- characteristics, she wrote, that are not rewarded “when work is a masculinity contest …. Instead, those who rise to positions of leadership have won the contest of who can seem most certain and overrule or ignore divergent opinions.”

Steve Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, in Ottawa, wrote in his blog that Berdahl's post, while speculative, “applied her expertise on organization dynamics to the situation with some knowledge based on her interactions with the man. Her analysis of [the] 'masculinity contest' might have offended some folks, but was not an insult hurled without thought but a concept from scholarship in this area that applied well.”

“Should Berdahl have spoken up?” Saideman asked. “Hell, yes. Again, this stuff she wrote about is what she has been studying for quite some time. It was what she was hired to do. If it is inconvenient that she is using her expertise to make sense of (for herself and for others) her own institution, then suck it up.”

Read more by

Back to Top