British Columbia

John Montalbano steps aside as UBC board chair during investigation

John Montalbano is to step down as chair of UBC's board of governors, following public denials of an allegation he tried to compromise a professor's academic freedom.

Montalbano under fire over claims he tried to compromise professor Jennifer Berdahl's academic freedom

The chair of UBC's board of governors, John Montalbano, says he never threatened the academic freedom or funding of a professor who wrote a controversial blog post. (University of B.C.)

John Montalbano is to step down as chair of UBC's board of governors, following public denials of an allegation he tried to compromise a professor's academic freedom.

According to a statement on the board's website on Tuesday night, at Montalbano's request, he will remain on the board, but vice-chair Alice Laberge will assume his duties as acting chair while the university investigates.

Former UBC Law school dean and former B.C. Supreme Court justice Lynn Smith will conduct a fact-finding mission to determine if allegations that Montalbano violated university policy are true. Smith is set to report findings by Oct. 7.

The terms of reference make it clear that Smith cannot recommend "any actions to be taken" related to her findings.

The faculty association can also initiate a grievance process, after the fact-finding work is completed.

Earlier in August, Prof. Jennifer Berdahl claimed Montalbano intimidated her in a phone call after she wrote a blog post that suggested former UBC president Arvind Gupta lost a "masculinity contest" with the school's leadership.

In a second blog post about her phone call with Montalbano, Berdahl claimed he was upset with her.

"He said I had made him 'look like a hypocrite,'" she wrote. "He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility. He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my Dean about it."

In a written statement released last week, Montalbano said he was deeply concerned about the portrayal of the phone conversation, and says he only contacted Berdahl with the intention of further understanding her concerns.

"At no time did I ask the professor to retract any of her blog and at no time did I threaten her funding," wrote Montalbano.

UBC Sauder School of Business Prof. Jennifer Berdahl alleges the chair of UBC's board of governors and administrators at the school tried to stop her from expressing her views on the recent resignation of the school's president. (CBC)

"In fact, I reinforced that her funding would continue. At no time did I intend to impinge her academic freedom."

Berdahl also claimed that following her conversation with Montalbano, she was scolded by an associate dean and advised that she might need to do damage control with the media. She said she felt gagged.

Berdahl holds a teaching position created through a $2-million donation from Montalbano, an RBC executive. The university is investigating her claims.


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