A UBC professor who wrote her perspective of President Arvind Gupta’s sudden resignation earlier this month claims she was effectively gagged and verbally disciplined for publicly speaking about university affairs.
Jennifer Berdahl, the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity at UBC’s Sauder School of Business has been teaching at the post-secondary level for 17 years specializing in gender and diversity in organizations. Berdahl’s interest and expertise in that area led her to write a complimentary piece about President Gupta after his resignation on August 7, titled “Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?”
“President Gupta was the first brown man to be UBC president. He isn’t tall or physically imposing. He advocates for women and visible minorities in leadership – a stance that has been empirically demonstrated to hurt men at work,” Berdahl wrote.
She also served on an executive search committee Gupta chaired, in which she said she observed a man who “encouraged the less powerful to speak first and the more powerful to speak last” and “exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence.”
But the implications of Berdahl’s blog post hint that UBC’s Board of Governors, a unit that has stayed strangely mum and avoidant on the topic of Gupta’s mysterious resignation, was in the mode of a masculinity contest and therefore clashed with Gupta’s strategies.
“Those who rise to positions of leadership have won the contest of who can seem most certain and overrule or ignore divergent opinions … Against men this usually takes the form of “not man enough” harassment, with accusations of being a wimp, lacking a spine, and other attacks on their fortitude as “real men” (or leaders, which occurs for women as well),” said Berdahl.
Berdahl’s blog post was shared numerous times around social media, but what those on Twitter didn’t hear until now was how Sauder’s leadership team reacted by effectively gagging and threatening her to be silent.
The astounding allegations Berdahl puts forward in a post titled “Academic Freedom and UBC” published late Sunday evening say that several of Sauder’s Senior Deans and John Montalbano, Chair of UBC’s Board of Governors, verbally disciplined and threatened her after reading what she calls her “personal observations” of President Gupta as a leader.
The saga of Berdahl’s silencing began with a phone call from Montalbano, who also serves on Sauder’s Faculty Advisory Board and funds Berdahl’s professor position, in which she claims he said her academic credibility was under question as was her standing with Sauder’s Dean Robert Helsley and with the Royal Bank of Canada which funds part of Berdahl’s position. She wrote:
His purpose in calling was to tell me that my blog post from the day before was”incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.” He said I had made him “look like a hypocrite.” 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, which funds my outreach activities, to say that people there were on “damage control” should the media pick up on this.
She was then called by her Division Chair and was asked to speak with Sauder’s Media Relations team to get advice about how to handle media inquiries. She was also told numerous people had called the Dean’s office in reaction to her blog post.
At an evening reception that night for Sauder alumni, faculty and staff after the annual Academy of Management meeting in Vancouver, she says she was verbally reprimanded for speaking critically about UBC.
I was pulled aside by our newly-appointed Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity during a conversation I was enjoying with colleagues. She brought me inside, signaled my Division Chair, and they showed me to the back of the room. They proceeded to tell me that my blog post had done serious reputational damage to Sauder and to UBC, and that I had deeply upset one of the most powerful donors to the School who also happened to be the Chair of the Board of Governors. They said they had heard he was even more upset after talking to me on the phone that day.
I was instructed to call Sauder’s Associate Director of Communications & Media Relations to get advice on how to handle likely media inquiries in the morning, and to “minimize” my engagement and the impact of my blog post. At this point I realized that the purpose of this conversation was not just to scold me, but to discourage me from speaking further.
I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.
When then asked to meet privately with the Dean, Berdahl informed him she would be bringing legal representation, after which he cancelled the meeting.
UBC and the Sauder School of Business’ reaction to her remarks on Gupta’s resignation signal a deep lack of transparency and disrespect for freedom of speech. She says she has “never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events.”
Berdahl is a tenured professor at UBC, meaning she has the right to academic freedom. Tenure is a contractual position for professors that was originally created to guarantee the right to academic freedom, including full freedom from institutional censorship or discipline in research and teaching as well as freedom when speaking or writing as citizens, within reason.
In her recent blog post, Berdahl recognizes this, but questions what would have happened to her if she had not had tenure.
I am a full professor. 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.
When I imagine being an assistant professor at this university, or anyone without the protection of tenure, this experience becomes unspeakable. I would be terrified, not angry. I would have retracted my post, or not have written it at all. I would avoid studying and speaking on controversial topics.
Imagine a university of scholars so silenced, and the implications for the world we live in.
Communication with Berdahl, Dean Robert Helsley, Associate Dean of Faculty Darren Dahl and Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity was not returned by deadline.
UPDATE: According to the Ubyssey student newspaper, a top-secret Board of Governors meeting occurred on Monday morning in relation to Berdahl’s blog post and the public reaction to Arvind Gupta’s resignation. Tweets from the student media indicate that the meeting was happening at the new Alumni Centre when a Ubyssey photographer discovered the meeting. The building’s fire alarm then went off and everyone excluding the board evacuated the building. No fire or police vehicles responded.
The meeting then apparently moved to Koerner Library where Judy Kirk of Kirk & Co., a public relations firm dealing with consultation and damage control, entered the room.