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Jennifer Berdahl complained about her academic freedom in the wake of a blog post on the departure of the school’s former president. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Jennifer Berdahl complained about her academic freedom in the wake of a blog post on the departure of the school’s former president. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

UBC professor resigns from search committee for new president Add to ...

A University of British Columbia professor who found herself in a debate over academic freedom after writing a blog post about the departure of former president Arvind Gupta has resigned from the committee tasked with finding his replacement.

Jennifer Berdahl, an expert on female leadership and diversity in business, weighed in on the university’s handling of Mr. Gupta’s resignation last fall, speculating that he may have been the victim of discrimination.

She then received a telephone call about the post from the chair of the school’s board, prompting her to allege her academic freedom had been infringed upon.

Prof. Berdahl was subsequently appointed to the 21-person committee searching for a new president – a position she left this week, citing a lack of confidence in the process.

“Some people have likened it to: if a car is broken, you can’t just find a really good new driver,” Prof. Berdahl said in an interview Tuesday, referring to the school’s current administration. “That’s not going to solve the problem.”

Prof. Berdahl, who was one of three faculty representatives on the committee, said the group failed to meaningfully consider the voice of faculty members. She also said she was disappointed the committee consulted current interim president Martha Piper and former president Stephen Toope, yet did not engage with Dr. Gupta.

“[Dr.] Gupta expressed a willingness when he spoke with the media,” she said.

Dr. Gupta abruptly resigned last August, just a year into his term. The school has never fully explained why he left.

In January, the university mistakenly released confidential correspondence and documents relating to the resignation. That prompted Dr. Gupta to speak publicly for the first time, arguing that his decision to step down was precipitated by meetings with a small group of board of governors members. Some of the people involved are on the search committee.

Phillip Steenkamp, the school’s vice-president of communications, couldn’t say why Dr. Gupta was not consulted during the ongoing search, which he described as “the most open and consultative process I’ve seen.”

“They did talk to two presidents, who between them have close to 18 years of experience and worked very effectively with the board and with the governance structures,” he said.

The vacancy on the committee left by Prof. Berdahl’s resignation will be filled by the end of the month, he added. A new president is expected to be announced by the end of June.

Prof. Berdahl’s resignation comes at a time of increasing distrust between the university’s administration and its faculty association. The association recently said almost 20 per cent of its 3,500 full- and part-time professors responded to an internal survey saying they had no confidence in the board.

Next Tuesday, the association is holding a special meeting for faculty to vote on a vote of non-confidence in the board.

Prof. Berdahl’s initial blog post suggested the former president had lost a “masculinity contest” with the university's leadership.

Soon after the post, Prof. Berdahl reported that Mr. Montalbano, who funded a teaching position bearing his name that Prof. Berdahl now holds, phoned her to tell her she had damaged the reputation of the university. Prof. Berdahl said the call felt like “institutional pressure to be silent.”

An independent report released last October found that while Mr. Montalbano didn’t personally infringe upon Prof. Berdahl’s academic freedom, the university failed to protect and support her academic freedom.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said professor Jennifer Berdahl's blog post about Arvind Gupta's resignation argued he lost a "masculinity contest" with the UBC board chair, John Montalbano. In fact, the post referred only to "the leadership at UBC." This version has been corrected.

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