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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2015

University Inc. compromises academic freedom

Sauder School of Business professor Jennifer Berdahl alleged the chair of UBC's board of governors & administrators at the school interfered in her academic freedom after she raised issues about leadership  & the university's corporate culture in a blog post.
Sauder School of Business professor Jennifer Berdahl alleged the chair of UBC's board of governors & administrators at the school interfered in her academic freedom after she raised issues about leadership & the university's corporate culture in a blog post.
Secret agreements, generous payoffs, mysterious resignations, gag orders and cover-ups.

These are some of the allegations facing Canada’s universities and colleges in the wake of a series of scandals that critics say highlight the way institutions are being run like private corporations.

“Right across the country, we’re seeing more secrecy in how our institutions are run and boards that are more reflective of corporate Canada than the community they are supposed to serve,” says CAUT president Robin Vose.

Vose notes that before 1996, corporate presence on university and college governing boards was limited. But after Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government cut deeply into social and health transfers to the provinces, public operating grants to universities and colleges declined.

Government funding made up 80 per cent of total university operating revenues in 1990. But by 2012, public funding had fallen to less than 55 per cent, paving the way for increased reliance on private funds to fill the shortfall.

As corporate encroachment proliferated in the 1990s, individuals from the private sector were recruited for governing bodies, research projects and the senior echelons of post-secondary institutions.

“While business leaders brought promises for financial opportunities with their partnerships, they also brought private sector values that clash with principles of democratic governance and academic freedom,” Vose said. “And it’s now playing out in some high-profile controversies.”

The University of Saskatchewan made international headlines last year when tenured professor Robert Buckingham was fired as dean of the School of Public Health for speaking out about the university’s restructuring plan. After a public uproar, he was reinstated while the university president was unceremoniously shown the exit.

More recently, the sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta as president of the University of British Columbia set off a chain of events that raised questions about governance and academic freedom.

Jennifer Berdahl, the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies in Gender and Diversity at the Sauder School of Business, said she was contacted by John Montalbano, the chair of UBC’s board of governors, after writing a blog article about Gupta’s unexplained departure.

Her posting speculated Gupta’s resignation may have been because he “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

Montalbano called her saying the blog post harmed the reputation of the board, raised questions about her academic credibility, and jeopardized her funding from the Royal Bank of Canada. Montalbano is vice-chairman of RBC Wealth Management. In 2013 he established the professorship held by Berdahl.

Berdahl, who has spent her academic career in business schools, was hired as the inaugural Montalbano Professor in 2014.

Berdahl refused to retract her blog post, and says she was discouraged from commenting further on the issue.

“The questions I raised about organizational culture, diversity, and leadership were directly related to my field of study and to my mandate to help organizations advance gender and diversity in leadership, yet I had never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent,” Berdahl said.

“I was told to avoid talking to the media in the week following my blog post. I was also instructed to avoid engaging on the topic during the fact-finding process agreed to by the UBC Faculty Association and the administration into allegations of interference with my academic freedom, so I was left mute while others at the university wrote op-eds that criticized me and my work.”

During that time, “the university’s advice for me to remain silent while others were allowed to speak further infringed my academic freedom,” Berdahl added.

The fact-finding report released in October concluded “UBC failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom.”

The report also found Montalbano’s call to Berdahl was “unpre­cedented and unwise” and that he and others in the university administration should have exercised better judgement by acting “in a manner more consistent with UBC’s obligation to protect academic freedom.”

In response, Montalbano has resigned from the board and CAUT is calling for UBC to formally apologize to Berdahl.

Vose notes that the Saskatchewan and UBC cases underline that while it may be common practice in the private sector for employees to align behind the decisions of the leadership, it contradicts the principles of collegial governance and academic freedom in post-secon­dary institutions.

“It’s not enough for institutions to pay lip service to these principles, they must play out in the day-to-day functions and operations,” he said.