Chair of UBC Board denies academic freedom allegations, will not resign

Dec 19 2017, 4:55 pm

The Chair of UBC’s Board of Governors has responded publicly to allegations made by a Sauder professor that he and other UBC administration staff infringed on her right to academic freedom.

John Montalbano, Chair of the Board, released a statement Tuesday after a grueling day of closed-door board meetings and public relations chaos on Monday that came about after Sauder professor, Jennifer Berdahl, claimed she was ‘gagged and threatened’ for speaking her mind on the issue of President Arvind Gupta’s resignation earlier this month. The controversy also led the UBC Faculty Association to call for Montalbano’s resignation as Chair.


“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. 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,” Montalbano wrote.

“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.”

He went on to say that at no time did he ask Berdahl to retract her post or threaten her funding.

“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.”

Montalbano was on the defensive after Berdahl claimed that several of Sauder’s Senior Deans and Montalbano verbally disciplined and threatened her after reading what she calls her “personal observations” of President Gupta as a leader.


“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 wrote in a blog post titled “Academic Freedom and UBC” published Sunday.

She said she was also pulled aside at a social event and scolded by two of Sauder’s Senior Deans and asked to contact the faculty’s media relations department in order to “minimize” her engagement and the impact of her blog post. She said that incident led her to believe “I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.”

Montalbano says he is “saddened” his actions caused Berdahl so much concern but he is also “upset and hurt” by her allegations.

He also took the opportunity to reinforce his understanding and the university’s belief in academic freedom, as well as remind the public that an “objective, independent and thorough process” will be followed in order to determine the validity of Berdahl’s statements.

However, UBC’s Faculty Association President Mark MacLean stated Monday that he and his organization had lost faith in Montalbano as Chair and called for his resignation.

“Mr Montalbano’s apparent lack of understanding of the principles of academic freedom, and the questionable judgement he is alleged to have exhibited in interfering with internal operations and with university employees, have caused the Faculty Association Executive Committee to lose confidence in Mr. Montalbano as the Chair of the Board of Governors,” said MacLean in a statement.

Montalbano has not resigned and instead reiterated the Board of Governors confidence in him as Chair and welcomed a bright future working alongside interim president Martha Piper beginning September 1.

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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