British Columbia

UBC chair John Montalbano resigns after report finds academic freedom not protected

The chair of UBC's Board of Governors has resigned following the release of a report that found the university failed in its obligations to protect professor Jennifer Berdahl's academic freedom.

Former Justice Lynn Smith was tasked with conducting a fact-finding mission

The chair of UBC's board of governors John Montalbano has resigned in the wake of a report which found the university failed to protect a professor's academic freedom. (University of B.C.)

The chair of UBC's Board of Governors has resigned following the release of a report that found the university failed in its obligations to protect professor Jennifer Berdahl's academic freedom.

While former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith found John Montalbano didn't personally break any of UBC's policies, the university said the RBC executive decided to step down "in the best interest" of the school.

Smith fell short of blaming any one person, but said UBC collectively failed Berdahl in response to her blog post suggesting former president Arvind Gupta resigned after losing a "masculinity contest" with the school's leadership.

"No individual intended to interfere with Dr. Berdahl's academic freedom, or made a direct attempt to do so," Smith wrote.

"However, sometimes several relatively small mistakes can lead to a failure of the larger system."

Controversy over blog post

Smith was tasked with investigating a series of events which occurred in the wake of the blog posting by Berdahl, an expert in gender and diversity who occupies a professorship created by a $2-million donation from Montalbano.

In the first post, Berdahl questioned Gupta's surprise resignation, a little more than a year into a five-year term.

Little is known of his reasons for leaving, due to a confidentiality agreement between the former president and the board.

But Berdahl suggested Gupta — who is, she noted, "a brown man" — had lost a "masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men."

In her second post, Berdahl claimed Montalbano called her after the first post ran.

"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."

But Montalbano said he only contacted Berdahl with the intention of further understanding her concerns.

Gratified by report findings

In her report, Smith noted the flood of media inquiries and attention which came the university's way in the hours following Berdahl's initial post.

She said Montalbano announced his plans to call the professor, but "no one thought to advise" him against it.

The office of the dean of the Sauder School of Business also came in for criticism for conveying their concerns to Berdahl about the school's reputation and future fundraising prospects.

"I concluded that Dr. Berdahl reasonably felt reprimanded, silenced and isolated," Smith wrote.

"The events had a significant negative impact on her."​

Berdahl said she was gratified by Smith's findings.

"Her report clearly validates my experiences of reprimand and silencing," she said in an email.

"As someone who studies a controversial subject, it is inevitable that some of the things I have to say will upset some people. But as a faculty member at one of Canada's pre-eminent universities, I have an obligation to exercise my right to academic free speech."

Montalbano also said he was gratified with Smith's findings that he did not personally infringe on any of the university's policies: "I feel, however, that my presence might serve as a distraction from the important work facing UBC in the months ahead."

Interim UBC president Martha Piper said no one tried to censor Berdhal, but the university didn't stress to her enough that she "had the right to say what she said."

As a result, she said, Berdahl felt isolated.

Piper said the university plans to hire a specialist to work with UBC staff to ensure the protection of academic freedom in the future.

"We did not adequately support (Berdahl)," Piper said. "On behalf of the university, I sincerely regret this."

Read the full report.