Academic Freedom and UBC

I was recruited to the University of British Columbia last year with a mandate to help organizations advance gender and diversity in leadership. I interpreted this to also mean UBC, which is lacking in gender and diversity in its leadership. For example, at its Vancouver campus, 11 of the 12 deans are white and 10 are men.

As someone who studies a controversial subject, it is inevitable that some of the things I have to say will upset some people, perhaps especially those who have risen to power in current systems. But as a faculty member I have always felt safe, and indeed obligated, to exercise my right to academic free speech.

A week ago today I received a phone call from the Chair of the UBC Board of Governors, John Montalbano, who also happens to be on the Faculty Advisory Board of the Sauder School of Business and the donor of the money for my Professorship within it. His purpose in calling was to tell me that my blog post from the day before was “incredibly hurtful, inaccurate, and greatly unfair to the Board” and “greatly and grossly embarrassing to the Board.” He said I had made him “look like a hypocrite.” He said my post would cause others to question my academic credibility. He repeatedly mentioned having conversations with my Dean about it. He also repeatedly brought up RBC, which funds my outreach activities, to say that people there were on “damage control” should the media pick up on this.

I explained that it was never my intent to embarrass him, that I thought it was okay for us to have different perspectives, and acknowledged that the answer to the question posed on my blog, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?,” might be no. I was writing from my own personal observations of President Gupta as a leader and the culture of masculinity contest, a topic I study with others, that I witnessed at UBC.

That afternoon, I was called by my Division Chair to tell me that our Associate Dean of Faculty urgently wished to speak with me. She said Mr. Montalbano would be calling and that the dean’s office had received communications from a variety of people concerned about my blog post. She advised me to call Sauder’s Associate Director of Communications & Media Relations to get advice about how to handle media inquiries. I emailed my Associate Dean of Faculty with my phone number and said I was available to speak. He emailed back that my Division Chair had filled me in.

That evening, at a reception Sauder held for PhD alumni, students, faculty, and colleagues from around the world and in town for the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, I was pulled aside by our newly-appointed Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity during a conversation I was enjoying with colleagues. She brought me inside, signaled my Division Chair, and they showed me to the back of the room. They proceeded to tell me that my blog post had done serious reputational damage to Sauder and to UBC, and that I had deeply upset one of the most powerful donors to the School who also happened to be the Chair of the Board of Governors. They said they had heard he was even moreupset after talking to me on the phone that day.
I explained that I did not see how I had hurt the reputation of Sauder or UBC. What was hurting the reputation of our institution, in my opinion, was the fact that a president had departed just a year into his term, without explanation. When I asked why the Associate Dean of Faculty or Dean kept sending my division chair to relay messages rather than speaking to me directly, she replied, “BECAUSE I AM YOUR CHAIR.”

I was instructed to call Sauder’s Associate Director of Communications & Media Relations to get advice on how to handle likely media inquiries in the morning, and to “minimize” my engagement and the impact of my blog post. At this point I realized that the purpose of this conversation was not just to scold me, but to discourage me from speaking further.

I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.

The next morning I received a request to meet alone with my Dean. The meeting was rescheduled to include the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity who had scolded me at the reception. When I informed my Dean that I would be bringing representation, he cancelled the meeting.

As someone whose first faculty appointment was where the free speech movement began – the University of California, Berkeley – I am simply stunned by this behavior on the part of the leadership at this university. I have never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events.  

I am a full professor. Even if the university’s leadership doesn’t recognize it, I have a right to academic freedom and expression, free of intimidation and harassment. I cannot be fired for exercising this right.

When I imagine being an assistant professor at this university, or anyone without the protection of tenure, this experience becomes unspeakable. I would be terrified, not angry. I would have retracted my post, or not have written it at all. I would avoid studying and speaking on controversial topics.

*The original version of this post stated that all 11 of the deans are white and 10 of them are men. I corrected this to specify that this applies to the Vancouver campus, and to include the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies and the fact that Rickey Yada has replaced Murray Isman as the Dean of Land and Food Systems (Ismas is still listed on the UBC list of deans).

A CBC radio interview I did on the day after this was posted is at 52:00 here.