Opinion: UBC's Board fails to improve reputation after serious academic freedom allegations

Dec 20 2017, 12:54 am

The University of British Columbia Board of Governors has issued a terse and hastily written statement in response to a Sauder School of Business professor who caused a stir Sunday evening when she published a blog post alleging some of UBC’s senior leadership team had “gagged and threatened” her in response to her public remarks regarding President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.

The university says “members of the University have the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them be fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic 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.”

But according to Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at Sauder, her academic freedom was infringed upon after she wrote a blog post critical of the way the university handled President Arvind Gupta’s sudden resignation on August 7, only 13 months after being instated as president. While Berdahl never pointed fingers directly at UBC’s Board of Governors or Board Chair John Montalbano, their resulting reaction indicated a strong insecurity and lack respect for academic freedom that many in the university community had not been aware existed.


Berdahl recounted their treatment of her in the days following her original article, saying that she was silenced, verbally disciplined and ‘gagged and threatened’ by several Senior Deans at Sauder as well as Montalbano.

If Berdahl’s allegations are true, of which we wouldn’t assume she would put her career in jeopardy for a lie or exaggeration, it shows a strong scent of insecurity on the Board’s part.

Her first article “Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” was not a written assault on the university nor the Board of Governors. As a researcher and professor, Berdahl knows much more than the average on the issue of diversity and gender in the work place and among organizational hierarchies. Her theory on the ‘masculinity contest’ was a critical approach to the reason why Gupta may have resigned or have been pushed to resign by the Board.

What it was not was allegations that the Board was racist, intolerant or failed in their position to support Gupta.

Yet, Montalbano appears to have read it that way, telling Berdahl in a phone call that her blog post was “incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.”

Some could argue Montalbano had a right to be embarrassed, however Berdahl’s theory should not have been the reason. What should have been much more embarrassing to him and the Board was the fact that Gupta had resigned only 13 months into his presidency, a position overseen and nominated by the Board. Searching for a new president comes at a huge cost to the university and takes an exorbitant amount of time. Montalbano should have been embarrassed about wasting the time and money of students, staff and faculty at UBC.

After Berdahl’s more defaming blog post telling of disciplinary back-room chats and run-around phone calls, it was only a matter of time before the public heard wind of the university’s response. That came mid-morning on Monday when a Ubyssey photographer stumbled across a secret Board of Governor’s meeting at UBC’s Alumni Centre.

At a public institution partially funded by taxpayer dollars and the rest paid for by students – and mostly student loans – and donors, the idea of closed-door Board meetings send a bad message but are unfortunately commonplace. However, today’s secret meeting went beyond.

According to a series of tweets from the Ubyssey,  after the student media realized they had found a story, the building’s fire alarm went off and everyone evacuated the building, except for the members of the Board. It is still unconfirmed, and likely never will be, whether the fire alarm was intentionally pulled by someone on the Board, but no fire or police vehicles responded to the call.

The meeting then apparently moved to the Old Administrative Building where Judy Kirk of Kirk & Co., a public relations firm dealing with consultation and damage control, entered the room. A growing media presence was asked to wait outside the room and at one point was taken down the stairs before the group overruled requests from the Board’s secretary to stay put in case they were to hear anything through the walls.

Outside the building, windows from the second floor meeting room were whited out.

At around 3 p.m., the all-day meeting let out and Angela Redish, Acting President read the university’s statement, distracting the media as Montalbano slipped out the back door.

The day was a sad display of the lack of transparency apparent in B.C.’s largest public post-secondary institution and identifies the university more as a corporation than a place for higher learning. The Board’s reaction to Berdahl’s academic theory on masculinity in leadership also reeks of sensitivity, insecurity and defensiveness.

But perhaps the Board responded like a corporation, because in essence they are a corporation. Their primary objective is to maintain the success and reputation of the school in order to raise funds for its operation. Board members’ backgrounds are no different.

Montalbano is past CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, and other Board member’s previous positions include Corporate Director at RBC, Director of BC Hydro, Managing Partner at Ernst & Young BC, Executive Vice President of Disney Online Studios, National Co-Chair of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, President and CEO of Medical Imaging Group, CEO of WhatsNexx, Partner at Yorkton Securities. Many Board members also serve or have served on various oil and gas corporate boards.

While the university’s statement acknowledges that members of the university have the right to “intellectual honesty and objectivity, unfettered by personal gain or financial or political considerations,” they are not commenting further on Berdahl’s allegations until the facts are gathered and all parties are heard.

UBC’s Faculty Association is not sold on the Board’s understanding of academic freedom and refuses to put their faith in Montalbano.

“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,” Mark MacLean, President of the Faculty Association says in a notice issued Monday afternoon.

“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.”

The lesson here for UBC’s Board of Governors should be making transparency a primary concern in all university matters. Had President Gupta’s resignation not been clouded in so much mystery and caused so much postulation, neither the university nor Berdahl would have had to endure so much reputation damage as they have in the last two weeks.

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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