University of British Columbia chair resigns over academic freedom case

Independent investigation of university finds professor’s academic freedom was not protected after blog posts on gender balance in university’s leadership

October 19, 2015
University of British Columbia
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The chair of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) board of governors has resigned after the release of a report that found that the institution failed to protect and support the academic freedom of one of its professors.

The Honourable Lynn Smith QC carried out an independent investigation of the university after a personal blog post by Jennifer Berdahl, professor of leadership studies: gender and diversity at the Sauder School of Business.

The post questioned whether UBC president Arvind Gupta resigned after a year in office because he “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men”.

She then wrote another blog post claiming that she had been reprimanded for criticising UBC’s lack of gender balance and diversity in its leadership.

The “Smith report” concluded that while no individuals at the institution infringed any of the university’s policies on their own, the combined acts of John Montalbano, chair of the board of governors, individuals in the Sauder School of Business and others meant that UBC failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr Berdahl’s academic freedom.

Mr Montalbano announced that he would step down from the UBC board of governors both as a member and as its chair, with immediate effect.

In a statement, UBC said that it would hire a specialist who will work with staff and governors to ensure that academic freedom is safeguarded at the institution; create an education programme for all new staff members regarding how to fulfil their obligation to protect academic freedom; and develop an online tool to allow people to access information on what academic freedom is and how to manage issues in this area.

The university added that it will develop a module on academic freedom as part of the orientation process for all new governors and senators.

Interim president Martha Piper said: “UBC’s positive obligation to support and protect academic freedom is not well understood by our university community.

“In essence, this positive obligation means that it is not enough to tacitly endorse academic freedom, but rather, we must pro-actively express our commitment and intention to support and protect academic freedom.”

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