UBC chair should step down during academic freedom investigation, demands Canadian Association of University Teachers and UBC Faculty Association

Arvind Gupta

THE Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is calling on the chair of the Board of Governors of the University of British Columbia to step aside while an investigation is underway into allegations he interfered with the academic freedom of a faculty member.

“Academic freedom is the right of faculty to teach, research, and publish without reprisal or censorship,” said CAUT Executive Director David Robinson. “It is the defining value of universities and everyone has an absolute obligation to defend and protect it.”

The controversy began when Jennifer Berdahl, Professor of Leadership Studies in Gender and Diversity at the Sauder School of Business, said she was contacted by Board Chair John Montalbano after writing a blog article about the recent departure of the UBC President, Arvind Gupta.

Her posting discussed whether Gupta’s unexpected and unexplained resignation may have been because he “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

Prof. Berdahl says Montalbano told her that the article harmed the reputation of the Board, raised questions about her academic credibility, and jeopardized her funding from the Royal Bank of Canada. Montalbano is vice-chairman of RBC Wealth Management, and in 2014 he and his wife established the professorship held by Berdahl.

In a statement released Tuesday, Montalbano admitted he spoke with Prof. Berdahl about her blog but denied he interfered with her academic freedom.

“In contacting Professor Berdahl to discuss her posting, Mr. Montalbano certainly displayed poor judgement, but he may have also crossed the line on academic freedom,” added Robinson. “If the allegations against him are true, they raise serious questions about his suitability to continue as board chair of a university.”

The UBC administration has announced an investigation, and Robinson says the matter will also be discussed at next week’s meeting of the CAUT Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers is the national voice of 68,000 academic and general staff at more than 120 universities and colleges across Canada.

 

UBC Faculty Association President Mark MacLean in a letter to the staff said: “We have lost confidence that there can be an internal investigation process uninfluenced by Mr. Montalbano, either within our usual labour relations processes or through a Board-driven process.

“Consequently, we are calling for Mr. Montalbano’s immediate resignation as Chair of the Board of Governors. He has shown an inability to allow proper procedures to proceed and has used his office as Chair of the Board to engage personally and publicly with the issues under investigation. This behaviour is ill judged and threatens the integrity of ongoing processes.

We did not take this decision to request Mr. Montalbano’s resignation lightly. His handling of Professor Gupta’s resignation and his mismanagement of subsequent events are now compounded by breaches of standard protocols, and lead us to believe that his resignation will be in the best interests of the University and the public.