The chair of the board of governors at the University of British Columbia said he had no intention of trying to intimidate a professor publicly critical about the surprise resignation of the school's president, as controversy deepens a divide among faculty and UBC administration.
Jennifer Berdahl holds the professorship specializing in leadership for women and diversity that is funded and named after John Montalbano, who is also UBC's chair of the board of governors. Dr. Berdahl, in a blog post this week, said she had felt "institutional pressure to be silent" after a telephone call from Mr. Montalbano.
But in an interview and a published statement, the chair said that was not his intention. He said he felt he could call Dr. Berdahl to talk about the blog post because of their long "trust relationship" established in the two years she had worked with him on leadership issues.
Mr. Montalbano said in the statement that before he began his conversation, he asked her if she felt comfortable having a conversation with him and added he did not want to infringe on her academic freedom.
"The most important point in the conversation was my acknowledgment or my concern for academic freedom. I sought her permission prior to going into the conversation with her blog whether we could have the conversation, whether at any time if she felt compromised, she could stop the conversation. In no way did I want her to feel compromised," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
After Arvind Gupta resigned as president earlier this month, Dr. Berdahl wrote a blog post saying he may have left because he lost the "masculinity battle" at UBC. She wrote another post on Sunday claiming that Mr. Montalbano had called her saying that earlier post post had damaged the reputation of the university.
Dr. Berdahl said people at the Sauder School of Business where she teaches, including administrators, also later communicated concern about what she had written.
Mr. Montalbano, in the interview with The Globe that accompanied the public statement released Tuesday, was asked if there was anything in Dr. Berdahl's account of the conversation that was factually untrue.
He did not disagree with any of her statements, but responded that the main thing that was inaccurate was that she didn't talk about the care he had tried to take to avoid making her feel pressured.
Mr. Montalbano said that he asked Dr. Berdahl to confirm her understanding at the close of the conversation that he was not asking her to take down her blog post or suggesting she might lose her funding.
"She specifically asked if her funding was at risk and I said absolutely not."
UBC has been in turmoil since Dr. Gupta resigned, just a year into what was supposed to be a five-year term. There hasn't been a clear explanation offered for what went wrong, leaving the field open for observers on all sides to weigh in with their speculations.
A few professors have blamed the board and, specifically, Mr. Montalbano for the mess, saying that his corporate ideas don't mesh with the university mission.
The university has said it will investigate claims made by Dr. Berdahl. However, it is still unclear what that process will be.
Dr. Berdahl has not filed official grievances related to breach of academic freedom related to either Mr. Montalbano or to the administrators at the Sauder School to whom she referred in her blog post, said Angela Redish, the school's interim provost.
There is an informal review under way to review the allegations about the Sauder school staff, using the university's established procedures agreed on by the faculty association and UBC administration. However, university officials say neither the faculty association nor Dr. Berdahl have requested any process with respect to the board chair.
But Mark MacLean, the president of UBC's faculty association, said the group has been in discussions with the university about whether the grievance procedure covers the chair of the board because he is not a university employee.
Those discussions have been continuing over the past week. He also agreed that an informal process had begun into Dr. Berdahl's claims.
Dr. Berdahl did not respond to calls on Tuesday asking for a response to Mr. Montalbano's statement.
With a report from Simona Chiose