What should a university do when the chair of its board of governors uses intimidation tactics in an attempt to bully and harass a faculty member who critically analyzes university decisions?

This is the question facing the University of British Columbia this week following Professor Jennifer Berdahl‘s revelations in a blog posted Sunday night.

Following the announcement of Arvind Gupta’s sudden and mysterious departure as president of UBC, Berdahl suggested that perhaps Gupta had “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

I was initially skeptical of Jennifer Berdahl’s speculation, but it seems that UBC board of governors chair John Montalbano is hell-bent on proving her right.

Berdahl’s blog describes attempts by Montalbano and the administration of the UBC Sauder School of Business — where Berdahl is (ironically) the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity — to intimidate and bully her over the issues she raised in her initial blog post.

According to Berdahl, Montalbano phoned her to say that her blog post

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. 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.

Then the Sauder School managers and bureaucrats started their harassment campaign.

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.

Berdahl was summoned to the Sauder dean’s office, but the meeting was canceled when she said she’d be there with representation.

This might seem small potatoes to folks outside academe, but assuming her account is accurate, this is a direct attack on academic freedom by the chair of the university board of governors.

Montalbano’s actions along with those of Sauder School managers at the very least creates a chilling climate for professors, staff, and students.

Berdahl’s description captures it perfectly when she writes:

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.

Not only has Montalbano engaged in a crass attempt to silence a university professor speaking out in her area of expertise, his actions are in violation of the UBC Board of Governors Policy 3 on Discrimination and Harassment, which states:

The University of British Columbia has responsibility for and is committed to providing its students, staff and faculty with an environment dedicated to excellence, equity and mutual respect; one that is free of Discrimination and Harassment; and one in which the ability to freely work, live, examine, question, teach, learn, comment and criticize is protected. Academic Freedom and freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression carries with it the expectation that all Members of the University Community will conduct themselves in a responsible manner so as not to cause, condone or participate in the Discrimination or Harassment of another person or group of persons.

UBC has gone to great lengths to publicize its respectful environment statement, which is based upon Policy 3 and the university has not hesitated to initiate investigations of faculty and staff and apply sanctions based upon these policies.

Given what we know about Montalbano and Sauder School managers’ actions in this case, there should at least be an immediate investigation. The responsible executive for Policy 3 is the Provost and Vice President, Academic, currently Angela Redish.

What should a university do when the chair of its board of governors uses intimidation tactics in an attempt to bully and harass a faculty member who critically analyzes university decisions? Well, if they are actually serious about creating a climate where academic freedom flourishes and bullying, harassment, and discrimination are discouraged then John Montalbano should choose to “return to his career in banking.”

Reprinted by permission. This is Part 2 of a post by E. Wayne Ross, Professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC and co-director of the Institute for Critical Education Studies. See Part 1 at ewayneross.net. Ross tweets @ewayneross