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British Columbia Controversy over resignation of UBC president sparks clash of words

Board chair John Montalbano, left, looks on as Dr. Arvind Gupta is congratulated by his colleagues on his new position on the UBC grounds in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The two camps in the University of British Columbia's growing controversy over the abrupt resignation of its president after only a year in office are now taking their campaigns to networks of graduates, donors and others.

A related issue prompted John Montalbano, chair of UBC's board of governors, to step aside from his post voluntarily Tuesday night while a fact-finder looks into whether he and others impinged on the academic freedom of a business professor who wrote a critical blog post on the resignation of president Arvind Gupta.

On Wednesday morning, UBC chancellor Lindsay Gordon took to the alumni network to write a message to graduates explaining the latest events. The alumni e-mail system is typically used for announcements about awards, upcoming talks by distinguished speakers, or travel and social events for the university's thousands of graduates, who often end up becoming donors.

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But also Wednesday, Nassif Ghoussoub, a UBC math professor and champion of the recently resigned president, noted he plans to publish an open letter asking B.C. Premier Christy Clark to replace Mr. Montalbano and launch an investigation into the reasons for Dr. Gupta's mysterious departure. A similar letter is circulating among alumni and donors, he said. Dr. Ghoussoub's open letter argues that "the reputational damage [the crisis] is creating for UBC is immense and we see no sign of a solution on the horizon."

The events come after nearly three weeks of debate and speculation about why Dr. Gupta abruptly resigned on July 31. The news of that resignation, made public Aug. 7, has prompted complaints from some faculty that he wasn't properly supported by the UBC board of governors, and from many others about the lack of information on such a significant event for the university.

Mr. Montalbano became the focus of the controversy after he telephoned professor Jennifer Berdahl directly to talk about a blog post in which she suggested Dr. Gupta lost the "masculinity contest" at UBC. The chair, who is on Dr. Berdahl's advisory committee and the funder of her professorship, asked her if she was comfortable with the call and said he would end it if she felt her academic freedom was being breached.

Although he says Dr. Berdahl told him she was willing to continue the conversation, she later wrote another blog post saying that his phone call, as well as other conversations with administrators in the Sauder School of Business where she teaches, made her feel that enormous institutional pressure was being put on her to stop talking publicly.

Former UBC law faculty dean and retired B.C. Supreme Court justice Lynn Smith has now been appointed to act as a fact-finder into the complaints about the breach of academic freedom.

The board of governors' statement said Mr. Montalbano had asked for the vice-chair, Alice Laberge, to assume his duties "during the duration of the fact-finding process" because he "wants to ensure the integrity of the process is not hindered by his performing the duties of chair."

Ms. Smith will provide an internal report to the two parties on Oct. 7, but only an executive summary will go to the public Oct. 15.

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"We require the co-operation of the parties to have an effective fact-finding process," said a UBC representative. "They need to be provided with a 'safe' space within which to participate or else the integrity of the fact-finding process will be compromised."

Both UBC and the faculty association are declining media interviews on the investigation since they both agreed to the process.

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