Academic Freedom Fail

Board chair of U of British Columbia resigns as the university releases an investigative report into "a cascading series of events" triggered by his phone call to a faculty member.

October 16, 2015

A major research university president resigns, abruptly and without explanation. A professor of leadership who researches gender and diversity pens a blog post speculating on possible gender and diversity-related implications of his resignation. The chair of the university’s board of governors calls the professor to register his unhappiness with the post.

The board chair is also a major donor to the business school who, as it so happens, gave $2 million to endow the chair held by the professor in question. Upon learning of the board chair’s distress, administrators in the business school proceed to reprimand the professor for causing “serious reputational damage” to the university and upsetting a powerful donor.

That’s the account of events presented by Jennifer Berdahl, the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of British Columbia, in an August blog post that raised widespread concern about the state of academic freedom at UBC. On Thursday, the university released the results of a third-party investigation by former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith, finding that UBC indeed “failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom.”

Also on Thursday, UBC's board chair, John Montalbano, announced his resignation from that body.

It is unclear whether the report will fully resolve the controversy over his call, which has roiled UBC, one of Canada's top research universities and one with an international reputation.

'A Positive Obligation to Support' Academic Freedom

A public summary of the report’s findings cites language on academic freedom included in the preamble to the university's collective agreement with the UBC Faculty Association. That preamble states that “all members of the university must recognize this fundamental principle [of academic freedom] and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom.”

Smith wrote in the report that this language creates a “positive obligation” on the part of the university to support academic freedom -- meaning that “academic freedom can be threatened not only by acts, but also by failures to act.”

“In the case of Dr. Berdahl, neither John Montalbano, nor individuals in the Sauder School of Business infringed upon Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom,” Martha Piper, UBC’s interim president, said in a press conference. “She was not censored. She was not asked to remove her blog. Her job was not threatened and her funding was not removed.”

“Rather, it was a question of what we did not do,” Piper continued. “We did not proactively support her right to say what she said. We did not express to her explicitly that she had the right to say what she said, and we did not clearly tell her we would defend her right to say what she said. That is to say we did not adequately support her in the exercise of her academic freedom. As a result, Dr. Berdahl, who is a distinguished scholar in the areas of gender and identity, felt isolated and reprimanded. The events had a significant negative impact on her, and so on behalf of the university I sincerely regret this and am committed to taking actions to ensure that the university upholds its obligation to protect and support academic freedom in the future.” Piper announced a series of planned actions to provide education and information on academic freedom-related issues to board members, academic administrators and others.

Mark Mac Lean, the president of the UBC Faculty Association, which is representing Berdahl, said he was disappointed that university officials did not in their press conference “choose to highlight the fact that academic freedom was interfered with here.”

“They certainly highlighted the fact that they hadn’t lived up to their responsibility to protect and support academic freedom, but it’s a bigger problem than that,” he said. “The whole effect was interference. That’s a serious thing for a university.”

'A Cascading Series of Events'

The report distinguishes between intent and effect, and failures at an individual and institutional level. In the public summary of the investigative report, Smith “concluded that no individual intended to interfere with Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom, or made a direct attempt to do so. However, sometimes several relatively small mistakes can lead to a failure of the larger system. The systemic failure in this case resulted from a cascading series of events in which there were some errors of judgment by Mr. Montalbano and some individuals at the Sauder School, and some unlucky circumstances. As a result, the institution failed Dr. Berdahl and missed an important opportunity to vindicate the principle of academic freedom.”

The report summary states that Montalbano made the call to Berdahl “in the context of a pre-existing positive relationship” with her and without the intention of interfering with her academic freedom. Nevertheless, the report notes, the call was “unprecedented and unwise.”

The report also faults subsequent actions on the part of the Sauder School of Business’s dean’s office without naming individuals in that office (Berdahl’s original blog entry identifies various administrators she had communication with by their titles).

“The dean’s office in Vancouver was aware that Mr. Montalbano found the blog post offensive and that he had telephoned Dr. Berdahl,” the report states. “Concerned about Mr. Montalbano, Sauder’s reputation and future fund-raising prospects, the dean’s office conveyed a message about those concerns to Dr. Berdahl. At the same time, it failed to elicit her point of view or state support for her in the exercise of her academic freedom.”

When asked whether Sauder School of Business employees would be disciplined in any way, Piper responded, “I think we will be looking at that very carefully.” UBC’s provost, Angela Redish, added in response to that question that university officials have been in discussions with the Faculty Association.

As for Montalbano, he said in a statement that he was “gratified that Ms. Smith's report confirms that I was mindful of the need to protect Professor Jennifer Berdahl's academic freedom, that I acted in good faith and that my intentions were not to infringe on Dr. Berdahl's academic freedom when I spoke with her.”

He said, however, he feels his continued presence on the board “might serve as a distraction from the important work facing UBC in the months ahead.”

Berdahl, in an email, used the word “gratified” relative to the finding in Smith's report “that UBC failed to support and protect, and interfered with, my academic freedom. Her report clearly validates my experiences of reprimand and silencing after the publication of my blog that raised uncomfortable questions about organizational culture, diversity and leadership, and her report confirms that these experiences were inappropriate,” she said.

“I was recruited to UBC to advance understanding of important issues surrounding gender, diversity and leadership. As someone who studies a controversial subject, it is inevitable that some of the things I have to say will upset some people. But as a faculty member at one of Canada’s pre-eminent universities, I have an obligation to exercise my right to academic free speech.”


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