Chair of board of trustees forced to resign after criticizing blogger

10/16/2015: No, of course I’m not talking about Chuck Lillis and his statement to Oregonian reporter Rich Read that he hoped the UO Senate could survive my election as president. Lillis will come around.

I’m talking about UBC board chair John Montalbano, who resigned today, 7 weeks after he called up UBC professor Jennifer Berdahl to complain about her blog post, which called his board’s decision to fire the UBC president racist and sexist. Berdahl’s chair was funded by a $2M donation from Montalbano.

The CBC has a report about the subsequent investigation and Montalbano’s resignation here, and Professor Berdahl is gleefully blogging about it here:

Two months ago I wrote about my experiences of reprimand at UBC after publishing a blog post that raised uncomfortable questions about organizational culture, diversity, and leadership. A fact-finding process was agreed to by the University of British Columbia’sFaculty Association and the UBC Administration into allegations of interference with my academic freedom. The findings of the third party investigator, the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C., led her to conclude that UBC failed in its obligation to support and protect my academic freedom.

The Smith Report notes that “The protections of academic freedom extend to the dissemination of scholarly research and opinion through these new electronic media” (p. 5) as well as to “commentary (whether positive or negative) by members of UBC on the extent to which the central functions of the University are being advanced or hindered by decisions or initiatives affecting the University” (p. 6). Some people did not understand that an academic blog, and comments about one’s university and its leadership, are protected by academic freedom. So is scholarly opinion and speculation; asking questions and proposing theories are crucial to the advancement of inquiry and knowledge.

Academic freedom is to a university what love is to a family….

8/26/2015: UBC Board’s John Montalbano defends self against blogger Berdahl

He comes off very well. I particularly liked the part where he explains that the UBC faculty *elects* several board members. Don’t tell that to UO Law Professor Susan Gary, who was first appointed on recommendation of UO Law Professor Margie Paris without faculty consultation, and then kept her position on the board last year without an election, despite UO Senate legislation to hold one for nominees.

8/20/2015: Polémique à UBC : 2 associations demandent la tête du président du CA

Yeah, my Québécois est un peau petite aussi, but I think I get the drift of the latest Canadian news report on the Berdahl/Montalbano controversy, here. “Bring us the head of John Montalbano.” For a criticism of Prof. Berdahl’s actions and those of the UBC faculty association, read her colleague Prof James Tansey in the Globe and Mail.

8/18/2015: UBC Prof Jennifer Berdahl is attacked using Bob Berdahl’s words

Daughters aren’t responsible for the sins of their fathers, but there’s an interesting twist in the latest academic freedom fight, involving Professor Jennifer Berdahl at UBC. Her father is former UC-Berkeley Chancellor, AAU President, and Interim UO President Bob Berdahl. He went after me many times for criticizing his decisions at UO. Here’s part of what Bob Berdahl wrote about me, in response to one blog post:

… one has to wonder, as other faculty have, whether his scholarship suffers from the same lack of objectivity and distortion of the facts as does his blog.

And here’s what UBC Professor Jennifer Berdahl reports that the Chair of the UBC board John Montalbano said to her, in response to a blog post in which she criticized his board over their mysterious sudden firing of the UBC president:

He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility.

How remarkably similar. Must take a lot of guts to use the passive voice to tell a professor that anonymous others are questioning their academic credibility, because you didn’t like what they wrote about you. The CBC has a good summary of what has happened at UBC so far here. The details on the blog posts involving Bob Berdahl at UO and Jennifer Berdahl at UBC are below.

In the post that set off Bob Berdahl, I linked to a series of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle about his scandalous sabbatical deal from UC-Berkeley, which I compared with the sabbatical UO gave former UO Provost Jim Bean:

8/2/2012: When UO hired Lariviere this blog started a policy of giving new UO Presidents a mostly free pass for their first year. That was before I found out about this $350K ($355K, see comments) Beanesque scam by Bob Berdahl, 6 months after I’d been assured that he was without a hint of scandal, and a fighter for transparency and shared governance. Right. …

Bob Berdahl’s response, which he posted himself in the comments, is here:

… Given Harbaugh’s McCarthyite tactics, I’m surprised he hasn’t also accused me of a PERS scam! And given Harbaugh’s preference for polemics over reporting and his carelessness with facts, one has to wonder, as other faculty have, whether his scholarship suffers from the same lack of objectivity and distortion of the facts as does his blog. [Emphasis added.] …

Berdahl shut up after several UO faculty came to my defense in the comments. For example:

I am a tenured faculty member at UO generally uninvolved in the issues discussed here. I am an occasional reader of this blog in an effort to keep an eye on what is going on our campus. I have never been tempted to post anything before and generally keep my nose in my research world. This time I can’t hold back, however. I get it that Berdahl has a beef with UOMatters and that there are times when UOMatters ‘reporting’ is ‘a trifle pink’. But for a former university president (interim, albeit) to lash out at a faculty member like this in an essentially public forum the day after ending his term strikes me as being highly inappropriate and damaging to the institution that the president has just left behind. Frankly, I am just shocked. …

But sorry, I’m talking about the wrong Berdahl.

Professor Jennifer Berdahl’s description of what has happened at UBC is on her blog, starting with this post about the UBC Board’s sudden firing of President Arvind Gupta:

Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?

As a conference of interdisciplinary scholars studying Work as a Masculinity Contest came to an end today, the resignation of Arvind Gupta as UBC’s president after a year in office was announced. I do not claim to know the ins and outs of this unfortunate outcome. UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president. But what I do have are my personal observations and experiences after my first year here as the inaugural Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity. I believe that part of this outcome is that Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.

President Gupta was the first brown man to be UBC president. He isn’t tall or physically imposing. He advocates for women and visible minorities in leadership – a stance that has been empirically demonstrated to hurt men at work. I had the pleasure of speaking with him on this topic to UBC alumni in Calgary and Toronto, and it was clear that he is convinced of the need to bring and keep all forms of talent into the Canadian workplace, no matter its size, style, or packaging.

I also had the pleasure of serving on an executive search committee he chaired. In leading that committee he sought and listened to everyone’s opinions, from students through deans. He expressed uncertainty when he was uncertain and he sought expertise from experts. He encouraged the less powerful to speak first and the more powerful to speak last. He did not share his own leanings and thoughts until it was time to make a decision, so as not to encourage others to “fall in line.” In other words, he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence.

When work is a masculinity contest, leadership does not earnestly seek expert input, express self-doubt, or empower low-status voices. Instead, those who rise to positions of leadership have won the contest of who can seem most certain and overrule or ignore divergent opinions. Risk-taking, harassment, and bullying are common. Against men this usually takes the form of “not man enough” harassment, with accusations of being a wimp, lacking a spine, and other attacks on their fortitude as “real men” (or leaders, which occurs for women as well). “Frat-boy” behavior sets the tone, like encouraging heavy drinking, bragging about financial, athletic, or other forms of prowess, and telling sexual jokes.

Like a lot of bias in organizations, much of this behavior is conducted without ill intention. Not all men engage in it, and some women do in order to fit in. But as research in social psychology and organizational behavior reveals, it does not lead to excellence in decision-making or performance. President Arvind Gupta was about excellence. I wish him the best in finding it in his next endeavors.

She describes what happened next in this post:

Academic Freedom and UBC

I was recruited to the University of British Columbia last year with amandate to help organizations advance gender and diversity in leadership. I interpreted this to also mean UBC, which is lacking in gender and diversity in its leadership. For example, at its Vancouver campus, 11 of the 12 deans are white and 10 are men.*

As someone who studies a controversial subject, it is inevitable that some of the things I have to say will upset some people, perhaps especially those who have risen to power in current systems. But as a faculty member I have always felt safe, and indeed obligated, to exercise my right to academic free speech.

A week ago today I received a phone call from the Chair of the UBC Board of Governors, John Montalbano, who also happens to be on the Faculty Advisory Board of the Sauder School of Business and the donor of the money for my Professorship within it. His purpose in calling was to tell me that my blog post from the day before was “incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.” He said I had made him “look like a hypocrite.” He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility. [Emphasis added.] He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my Dean about it. He also repeatedly brought up RBC, which funds my outreach activities, to say that people there were on “damage control” should the media pick up on this.

I explained that it was never my intent to embarrass him, that I thought it was okay for us to have different perspectives, and acknowledged that the answer to the question posed on my blog, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?,” might be no. I was writing from my own personal observations of President Gupta as a leader and the culture of masculinity contest, a topic I study with others, that I witnessed at UBC.

That afternoon, I was called by my Division Chair to tell me that our Associate Dean of Faculty urgently wished to speak with me. She said Mr. Montalbano would be calling and that the dean’s office had received communications from a variety of people concerned about my blog post. She advised me to call Sauder’s Associate Director of Communications & Media Relations to get advice about how to handle media inquiries. I emailed my Associate Dean of Faculty with my phone number and said I was available to speak. He emailed back that my Division Chair had filled me in.

That evening, at a reception Sauder held for PhD alumni, students, faculty, and colleagues from around the world and in town for the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, I was pulled aside by our newly-appointed Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity during a conversation I was enjoying with colleagues. She brought me inside, signaled my Division Chair, and they showed me to the back of the room. They proceeded to tell me that my blog post had done serious reputational damage to Sauder and to UBC, and that I had deeply upset one of the most powerful donors to the School who also happened to be the Chair of the Board of Governors. They said they had heard he was even more upset after talking to me on the phone that day.

I explained that I did not see how I had hurt the reputation of Sauder or UBC. What was hurting the reputation of our institution, in my opinion, was the fact that a president had departed just a year into his term, without explanation. When I asked why the Associate Dean of Faculty or Dean kept sending my division chair to relay messages rather than speaking to me directly, she replied, “BECAUSE I AM YOUR CHAIR.”

I was instructed to call Sauder’s Associate Director of Communications & Media Relations to get advice on how to handle likely media inquiries in the morning, and to “minimize” my engagement and the impact of my blog post. At this point I realized that the purpose of this conversation was not just to scold me, but to discourage me from speaking further.

I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.

The next morning I received a request to meet alone with my Dean. The meeting was rescheduled to include the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity who had scolded me at the reception. When I informed my Dean that I would be bringing representation, he cancelled the meeting.

As someone whose first faculty appointment was where the free speech movement began – the University of California, Berkeley – I am simply stunned by this behavior on the part of the leadership at this university. I have never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events.

I am a full professor. Even if the university’s leadership doesn’t recognize it, I have a right to academic freedom and expression, free of intimidation and harassment. I cannot be fired for exercising this right.

When I imagine being an assistant professor at this university, or anyone without the protection of tenure, this experience becomes unspeakable. I would be terrified, not angry. I would have retracted my post, or not have written it at all. I would avoid studying and speaking on controversial topics.

Imagine a university of scholars so silenced, and the implications for the world we live in.

As it happens, it’s not very hard for me and a lot of other UO faculty who’ve held on through some dark years here at UO to imagine that.

Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Chair of board of trustees forced to resign after criticizing blogger

  1. Robert Berdahl says:

    You’re wrong, Bill. Jennifer and I are both cut from the same cloth. We both dislike bullies, whether they come in the form of board chairs who abuse their position and power or in the form of bloggers who abuse the facts and the truth.

    • Zaq says:

      Criticising public officials is akin to bullying?

      This must be a troll — there’s no way an educated person can believe that a blogger and a university board are comparable along the “position and power” dimensions.

    • uomatters says:

      Bob, was it bullying for me to post the secret memo you commissioned from Randy Geller on how to dissolve the UO Senate?

      • Anonymous coward says:

        The irony is that the faculty might never have gone union, if not for Bob Berdahl’s attempts to weaken the Senate’s role in shared governance. It was a very close petition drive.

        • Dog says:

          Disagree, – I think the Union was an inevitable result of Bean’s 2009 decision to significantly increase the number of undergrads without any commensurate increase in TTF lines.

        • uomatters says:

          Actually, the irony is that Bob Berdahl never would have been appointed UO interim president if it weren’t for me getting a copy of Jim Bean’s “visit old friends” sabbatical proposal from Dave Hubin’s public records office – the quickest response he’s ever made – and then posting the details just before Pernsteiner’s board had to decide between Bean and Berdahl.

          • unknown says:

            Do you have proof of the former board reading this blog? Or is this just conjecture cloaked as fact?

          • uomatters says:

            To unknown –

            The OUS Board secretary was Chuck Triplett (Now UO AVP for Collaboration – Gottfredson hired him without a search) and he told me this several times. And Pernsteiner sent his Chief of Staff, Bridget Burns, to try to make nice with me and get me to tone down what I posted on UO Matters.

            You might also be interested in my notes from Pernsteiner and Triplett’s meeting with the Senate Executive Committee, here:

  2. free pass says:

    I like the “free” pass Bill gives for the first year, which implies a directed goal of bullying in later years. We should give Bill a free pass in his first year as Senate Pres, oh, wait, he only gets one year…

  3. Concerned duck says:

    It seems like the UBC board needs to be reined in by the BC legislature. Hopefully UO doesn’t fall into the same privatization trap in the future. Caping the amount of millionaires on the BOT might help.

  4. Robert Berdahl says:

    Some Facts:
    1. I never “commissioned” or asked for a memo from Randy Geller about dissolving the Senate. I neither sought it nor acted on it.
    2. My record in support of the principle of shared governance is clear and unambiguous. I did nothing to try to weaken the Senate during my brief tenure. I believe Robert Kyr will concur with my support for shared governance.
    3.The one thing I did, which caused Bill Harbaugh to begin his blog assaults, was to follow through on Lariviere’s plan to change the rule on public record requests in order to avoid Harbaugh’s gaming the system to avoid his paying for his multiple requests, while costing the university tens of thousands of dollars.
    4. The unionizing effort was well underway before I arrived on the scene in January 2012. I said nothing and did nothing to encourage or discourage it.
    5. The only reason I bothered to read this stupid blog is because it came to my attention that it mentioned my daughter, of whom I am inordinately proud.

    • uomatters says:

      Yes, she’s got a very interesting research agenda. And it looks like her blogging is going to make a real difference at UBC and beyond. So maybe better to say “appropriately proud”.

      • Concerned duck says:

        Although I strongly believe in academic freedom and the right of faculty to criticize university leadership. I find that the younger Berdahl’s postings present very little evidence. The facts on the other hand don’t lie.

        UBC was for years led by a women president, and has scores of women/minorities in senior faculty and leadership roles. It is located in one of the most diverse cities in North America and has a diverse student body.

        I think Gupta was fired for a different reason. Berdahl’s posts are very unfortunate and were a careless mistake in my opinion. She should apologize.

        • Dog says:

          and what would that different reason be?

          • Concerned duck says:

            I’m not going to pretend I know. I’m just pretty sure it has nothing to do with racism/masculinity.

            Timeline UBC crisis:

          • just different says:

            Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. But none of that mitigates the nastiness of using your position to attack someone’s professionalism and competence when you’re displeased with them for some other reason.

            This is a stock bullying tactic in academia which is routinely used against people who are causing trouble. It is especially sickening because it twists the fundamental academic tenet of meritocracy into crass political favoritism. Good for her–and for UO Matters–for calling it out.

          • Concerned duck says:

            just different,

            Wait, I thought you were talking about the inflammatory language the younger Berdahl used in her analysis. Never mind.

  5. Andy Stahl says:

    I wish that it were true that “I cannot be fired for exercising this [speech] right.” You can. And, you will, if you persist in offending the 0.01% who truly run the institution for which you work. That being said, being fired is not the worst possible outcome. There are other jobs, other universities even. At the end of the day, be true to yourself. Just don’t be naive in thinking that there’s anything free about academic freedom.

    • just different says:

      Yes. Anyone who gets their academic freedom hackles up about being conscious of microaggressions toward students really needs to see the forest for the trees.

  6. Perpetual Malcontent says:

    This probably would not be a story if UO Matters was not so fixated on past perceived injustices. This simply occurred because of a match of the Berdahl name of this UBC professor with a former UO President and Dean. I actually think that Professor Jennifer Berdahl is being courageous with her stance on this UBC firing, and she is to to be commended. However, this current issue has nothing to do with past grievances between Bill Harbaugh and Bob Berdahl. Let’s move on!
    To me, the difference between the blogs of Jennifer Berdahl and Bill Harbaugh is that she “chooses her fights,” and comments on really significant developments, and not on EVERY SINGLE THING that the UO Administration does wrong or he thinks is wrong.