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.

Action Research on the Masculinity Contest

Sauder School of Business
Mascot, Wally the Bull

Since asking whether Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest at UBC, many have weighed in to consider whether such a contest occurred in Gupta’s case. No one has rejected the idea that such contests occur in leadership, however, and much of the fallout from this post has revealed how they do at UBC.

In my post I gave general examples of masculinity contests and organizational cultures that support them, and I vaguely referred to “UBC leadership,” in order to avoid airing specific dirty laundry I’d witnessed in my first year at UBC. But others, some unwittingly, have rushed to provide examples and identify leadership. From a personal standpoint this has sometimes been troubling; from a research standpoint it has been fascinating. My post and its fallout have amounted to a form of action research, shedding light on how the masculinity contest plays out in others’ minds. Like a Rorschach test, reactions to the post were more diagnostic of its interpreters and their experiences than of the post itself.

I now know that some people saw themselves, and their colleagues, in my post, even if I did not have them in mind when I wrote it. For my colleague James Tansey, the post conjured the image of “tall, athletic white men bullying Dr. Gupta,” which my post did not describe. Tansey wrote, “the part of this story that really bothers me and has received the least attention is that, in her blog, Dr. Berdahl refers to the departing president as a ‘brown man’ who ‘isn’t tall or physically imposing’,” revealing that he considers being brown or short, and mentioning these characteristics, to be insulting. For UBC math professor Nassif Ghoussoub, the post summoned the image of trophy kills, from the head of a lion to university presidents. Others have written or spoken to me directly about masculinity contests in their places of work, and both “losers” and “winners” of these contests acknowledge their existence and the advantage they give to “masculinity” over merit.

The masculinity contest analysis of why so few women and minorities make it to positions of leadership has struck a deep and polarizing nerve, suggesting an uncomfortable but seldom spoken truth about the path to leadership in universities and beyond. Some seem unable to interpret this analysis as anything than blaming the so-called “winners” of the contest – primarily white men – for the lack of gender and diversity in organizations. They would miss the point that it is the contest itself that is the problem, and the harm that it does to everyone and the organizations in which these contests take place, including to those who find themselves masking up and competing to “win.” For those interested in scholarly work on this topic, please see some of the publications by members of the research group below.


Further Reading

Berdahl, J. L. (2007). Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy. Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 641-658.

Berdahl, J. L. & Moon, S. (2013). Workplace mistreatment of middle class workers based on sex, parenthood, and caregiving. Journal of Social Issues, 69, 341-366.

Kimmel, M. S. (2013). Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. Nation Books.

Reid, E. (2015). Embracing, passing, revealing, and the ideal worker image: How people navigate expected and experienced professional identities. Organization Science, 997-1017.

Schmader, T., Hall, W., & Croft, A. (in press). Stereotype threat in intergroup relations. In J. Simpson & J. Dovidio (Eds.) APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. Washington, D.C., APA.

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.