The Smith Report

Two months ago I wrote about my experiences of reprimand at UBC after publishing a blog post that raised uncomfortable questions about organizational culture, diversity, and leadership. A fact-finding process was agreed to by the University of British Columbia’s Faculty Association and the UBC Administration into allegations of interference with my academic freedom. The findings of the third party investigator, the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C., led her to conclude that UBC failed in its obligation to support and protect my academic freedom.

The Smith Report notes that “The protections of academic freedom extend to the dissemination of scholarly research and opinion through these new electronic media” (p. 5) as well as to “commentary (whether positive or negative) by members of UBC on the extent to which the central functions of the University are being advanced or hindered by decisions or initiatives affecting the University” (p. 6). Some people did not understand that an academic blog, and comments about one’s university and its leadership, are protected by academic freedom. So is scholarly opinion and speculation; asking questions and proposing theories are crucial to the advancement of inquiry and knowledge.

Academic freedom is to a university what love is to a family. It is not simply one of many priorities a university must remember to keep in its sights, it is the university’s fundamental and most sacred priority. For its members to grow and thrive, for it to be functional and productive, and for it to have a positive impact on the world and future generations, a university’s members must be able to operate in an environment of free inquiry and respectful debate. Unless people are willing to challenge and disrupt the status quo, there will not be breakthrough research, or advancement of the frontiers of knowledge, or real progress in addressing societal problems such as the lack of diversity and equity in organizations. These conversations are especially important in universities, whose role it is to educate and prepare the country’s future leaders and contribute to the public discourse on issues that matter.

I am disappointed that the university leaders involved in my case lost sight of this, and prioritized the feelings and concerns of a powerful donor over the well-being and rights of a faculty member. I am heartened, however, by the numerous students and faculty I heard from across campus, at other universities, and from members of the public who readily understood the concept and importance of academic freedom and reached out to support me. I am also grateful for the tireless support of the University’s Faculty Association and for the University Administration’s commitment to collaborating with the FA to productively investigate this problem. I am hopeful that UBC can learn from this and strengthen its commitment to, and safeguards for, academic free speech for all of its members. This will only improve UBC’s excellence as a university.

Just over a year ago I arrived at UBC with a mandate to lead the Gender and Diversity in Leadership Initiative at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. I look forward to continuing to pursue my mandate of advancing equity and diversity in leadership through research, education, and engaging the broader community in a discussion around diversity in leadership.

11 thoughts on “The Smith Report

  1. I believe Smith was right to evolve the definition of academic freedom to involve the following…

    "commentary (whether positive or negative) by members of UBC on the extent to which the central functions of the University are being advanced or hindered by decisions or initiatives affecting the University"

    However,…you weren't leaving your blog post at just criticisms of the Boards decisions (whether they are advancing of hindering the central functions of the University), you outright attacked the Board by insinuating they were sexist and racist via the following…

    "I believe that part of this outcome is that Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men."

    Granted, you did not come right out and say the exact words…but you do not need to when people can understand your meanings. This was a clear attempt to smear the Board and as an 'academic' such tactics should be beneath you…unfortunately, it is clear that it is not.

  2. Having read the original blog post (recently) and followed this story over the past several months, it is clear that you were merely speculating about a possible reason for My. Gupta's resignation, and commenting on the dynamics of diversity in leadership as a whole. It appears clear to me that said leadership was concerned about being accused of sexism and racism rather than trying to restrict academic freedom. While I can't presume to know what you know about the situation, I did notice that in the blog post, you failed to support your speculations with anything specific about the UBC leadership (because Mr. Gupta's leadership style would be seen as weakness in some institutions doesn't mean it was at UBC). Along that line of thinking I do have a few questions about your interpretation of academic freedom in general.

    At what point (whether in academia or otherwise) does public speculation or commentary become akin to an accusation/allegation? Should allegations/accusations require less rigorous evidence in academia (compared to a news article for example)? If public accusations proven to be unfounded can be subject to defamation, should accusations be held to the same standard?

    Please keep in mind, I am not making judgement on the situation, your actions, or the outcome. I am merely pursuing a philosophical line of thinking.

  3. You did great service to minority men and women. As Smith said, 'you research in an area where controversial comments and questioning are common.' Yes, it is hard to prove the practices that you tried to highlight but that is the reality and the problem. The people who got rid of Gupta are masters of university politics. They carry shiny bill boards to portray them as gods/queens of equity/racial tolerance but behind the scene they play dirty games. There are other examples of brown men sidelined in the recent past. Frankly, what you said was said by a brown person, this would not have gone so far and would be dismissed by the establishment as nonsense. Your research confirms that fact as well.

    Look at the response to Smith's report. The typical corporate response probably crafted by a communication consultant. We will appoint an 'administrator' to develop and manage academic freedom – problem solved!!! In other words, an administrator will be there to 'silence' faculty through a pair of golden scissors!! It is not a place of mind but a place out of control!!

  4. You have been vindicated by Smith but the Acting leaders and the 'power club' are so blind, deaf and dumb that they act as if their hands are fully clean (read the op ed in Vancouver Sun; we shall hire another administrator to manage academic freedom)!! So the finger is pointed at the bricks and mortar of UBC, the institution (by the way tax payers are spending millions to make these sustainable while students are using outdated labs and class sizes are increasing!!) not those who led the power struggle against Gupta. May I say a typical UN style report where crimes are acknowledged but the perpetrators are spared.

    The place has become so politicized, head swollen, short-sighted and incompetent. That is what rebelled against Gupta and pushed him out. The response to Smith's report clearly shows that only faces have changed since Gupta's departure. A house clearly broken and fractured inside but nicely painted outside. It is time that people who really form the foundation of UBC, faculty and students, lead a 'Trek 2100' to salvage this sinking ship.

  5. It seems to me that, like most human-involved situations, this is an interesting multi-dimensional puzzle, the centerpieces of which are Dr. Berdahl's hypothesis-explanation shared in her original blog and the issue of academic freedom for faculty at Canadian universities. Inherent in all of this too, of course, are the issues of power and authority. Each one of us humans has power – power to express ourselves, power to act ( commission or omission ), etc.. What makes these events more interesting is that it involves participants with appointed ( and anointed ? ) powers as well. The Honourable Lynn Smith's recent report ( bringing this matter to a smooth, seemingly-coordinated landing ), deals deftly with the issue of how individual participants used/abused their powers. I think we all realize that one of the featured failings many of share as humans beings is the depth of self-knowledge and self-understanding. In studies of "free" will, it has been estimated that as much as 90% of our actions are not "free" at all but rather the unconscious result of our embedded genetics, accumulated experiences, learning, etc. – ie., the "who" we are. The lesson I learn from observing this situation at UBC is that some of us need to spend a little more time looking in the mirror taking the time to study our 90% and trying to honestly answer that simple question: Who am I, really ?

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