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UBC Chair should step down during academic freedom investigation

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 University President, Arvind Gupta.

Her posting discussed whether President 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 yesterday, Mr. 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.

Media Contact

Angela Regnier, Communications Officer, Canadian Association of University Teachers; 613-726-5186 (o); 613-601-6304 (cell).