By Laura Kane, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER: The chairman of the board of governors at the University of British Columbia has temporarily stepped down amid an escalating dispute over academic freedom and transparency.
The board of governors said it has accepted John Montalbano’s request to step aside during an investigation into whether he tried to silence a professor.
“Mr. Montalbano intends to fully participate in the process,” the board said in a statement late Tuesday. “(He) wants to ensure the integrity of the process is not hindered by his performing the duties of chair.”
Prof. Jennifer Berdahl wrote a blog post earlier this month about the sudden resignation of UBC president Arvind Gupta in which she speculated that he “lost the masculinity contest.”
Berdahl holds a gender and diversity professor position at the Sauder School of Business created through a $2-million donation from Montalbano, a Royal Bank of Canada executive.
In a follow-up post, she said Montalbano called her and accused her of embarrassing the board with her “incredibly hurtful” and “inaccurate” post and that he repeatedly mentioned RBC, which funds her outreach activities.
She said her superiors accused her of harming the school’s reputation and discouraged her from speaking further.
The post prompted UBC’s faculty association to call for an investigation. After Montalbano did several media interviews last week, the association said it had “lost confidence” in the possibility of an independent review and demanded his resignation.
Late Tuesday, the association and the board announced that they had agreed to a fact-finding process to be conducted by retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith.
Smith is to consider whether Montalbano, the board or the business school violated the collective agreement, policies on respectful environment or interfered with Berdahl’s academic freedom.
She is to begin her probe Sept. 1 and submit a report by Oct. 7. Montalbano will remain a board member and vice-chairwoman Alice Laberge will assume his duties during the process.
UBC spokeswoman Susan Danard said Wednesday that administrators and the faculty association had agreed not to comment further.
Berdahl also declined comment.
Montalbano said last week he didn’t threaten Berdahl’s funding or demand she retract her blog. He invited her to grieve the issue under the collective agreement.
The dispute has sparked a national debate on academic freedom, with the Canadian Association of University Teachers calling last week for Montalbano to step aside during a probe.
Executive director David Robinson said Wednesday that he welcomed the chairman’s decision, but that it should have come sooner.
Montalbano never should have telephoned Berdahl, he added.
“It would have been interpreted by any reasonable person to be intimidating,” said Robinson. “I think he exhibited some bad judgment ? even if he was not motivated by any malice.”
Robinson said university leaders have an “absolute obligation” to defend academic freedom.
He said UBC’s handling of Gupta’s departure points to a nationwide trend of university boards becoming more secretive.
The university said in an Aug. 7 release that Gupta wanted to return to his computer science career. It has refused to comment further.
By announcing the resignation on a Friday afternoon, the board likely hoped to deflect attention, Robinson said.
“But of course the university community wanted answers,” he said. “Students and faculty want to know why. And I think they should know why.”
© 2015 The Canadian Press