BRITISH COLUMBIA

UBC Chairman John Montalbano Resigns After Review Finds 'Errors In Judgment'

10/16/2015 12:40 EDT | Updated 10/16/2015 12:59 EDT
Tibor Kolley/CP

VANCOUVER - The University of British Columbia's chairman has resigned after a former judge found the institution failed to protect a professor's academic freedom.

Retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith was tasked with investigating allegations that John Montalbano and the Sauder School of Business tried to muzzle Prof. Jennifer Berdahl over a blog post questioning why UBC's president abruptly quit.

The university released a summary of Smith's report Thursday, in which she cleared Montalbano and others of wrongdoing but said they made "mistakes" and UBC as a whole fell down.

"The systemic failure in this case resulted from a cascading series of events in which there were some errors of judgment by Mr. Montalbano and some individuals at the Sauder School, and some unlucky circumstances," Smith wrote.

The clash between Montalbano and Berdahl erupted in August when president Arvind Gupta quit one year into a four-year term, setting off a flurry of speculation. Berdahl blogged that he may have "lost the masculinity contest" at UBC.

Berdahl — whose gender and diversity professorship was created through a donation from Montalbano — alleged in a follow-up post that the chairman had called her and threatened her funding, and her dean's office had pressured her to stop commenting on the topic.

jennifer berdahl arvind gupta Jennifer Berdahl, left, blogged about the sudden departure of former UBC president Arvind Gupta, right.

Smith outlined a series of failures, including that academic leaders were not brought in to help Montalbano and the chancellor field a "flood of inquiries" about Gupta. As a result, no one advised the chairman not to call Berdahl.

Montalbano was mindful of the need to protect Berdahl's academic freedom and did not intend to interfere with it, Smith wrote. But he should have reflected on whether to make the "unprecedented and unwise" call, she added.

The business school dean was away when the post was published, but his office was aware that Montalbano was offended by it and conveyed a message to Berdahl about Sauder's reputation and fundraising prospects.

"Dr. Berdahl reasonably felt reprimanded, silenced and isolated," Smith wrote. "The events had a significant negative impact on her."

Montalbano said he felt "gratified" by the report but had turned down an offer to return to the board of governors, from which he stepped aside during the probe. Alice Laberge will stay on as acting chairwoman until a replacement is found.

"My presence might serve as a distraction from the important work facing UBC in the months ahead," Montalbano said in a statement.

Berdahl reacted to the report on her blog, where she wrote that she's disappointed the university lost sight of the importance of academic freedom, but is heartened by faculty and students' support.

"I am hopeful that UBC can learn from this and strengthen its commitment to, and safeguards for, academic free speech for all of its members."

'It was a question of what we did not do'

UBC interim president Martha Piper said the university did not violate Berdahl's academic freedom, but did fail in its obligation to proactively support it.

"She was not censored. She was not asked to remove her blog. Her job was not threatened, and her funding was not removed," she said. "Rather, it was a question of what we did not do. We did not proactively support her right to say what she said."

She announced the university would take steps to educate staff about academic freedom, including hiring a specialist, creating an education program and developing an online tool.

Gupta recently accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Toronto. Piper refused to answer questions about his departure, citing privacy legislation.

She also refused to name the 17 people interviewed by Smith, as her terms of reference ensured confidentiality. Piper brushed off questions about any disciplinary action, saying the university would consider it "carefully."

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