Unclear on the Concept: the UBC Board of Governors, by Elizabeth Hodgson

The UBC Board of Governors has spoken out in the last 24 hours on its two related controversies which have made the national news. As a UBC faculty member, I am deeply distressed by the UBC Board’s apparent choices in these situations. As an academic who specializes in analyzing texts, I find the communiqués from the Board in the last day even more frustratingly wide of the mark.

First, the acting and interim presidents’ open letter on the allegations by Professor Jennifer Berdahl. The presidents’ letter affirms the centrality of academic freedom to the university, for which I congratulate them. The communiqué in fact quotes directly from UBC’s official calendar statement on academic freedom. The letter goes on, however, to elide some crucial parts of that statement. Here’s the original sentence from the calendar: “Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.” The phrase in italics is cut in the Piper/Redish letter.

Worse still, the letter ADDS a sentence which does not exist in our UBC statement of academic freedom. The presidential letter suggests that academic freedom is “balanced” against a test of (among other things) the “objectivity” of the speech in question. UBC’s official statement rightly does not limit academic freedom to “objective” opinion “unfettered by…political considerations.” Why are there suddenly new arbitrary limits to our academic freedom implied here? And why are “academics” singled out as the ones whose speech must be tested, when the calendar statement protects all participants in the university community? What is the agenda of the letter-writers here?

Second, Board Chair John Montalbano’s written statement on Professor Berdahl’s concerns. Mr. Montalbano’s account of his phone-call with Professor Berdahl, even if completely true, misses the more profound point that he should never been calling her to “discuss” her blog’s effects on the reputation of the institution.  He has an extra responsibility as the Board Chair to scrupulously avoid any actions which might appear to be exerting inappropriate or undue influence on the faculty under his employ.  Mr. Montalbano’s statement also refuses to explain how other administrators were also apparently pressuring Professor Berdahl. Mr. Montalbano’s statement is in these respects hardly reassuring.

Mr. Montalbano’s declaration that he was explicitly supported by the Board when they met yesterday also troubles me. It seems to me to either render suspect the Board’s promise to investigate justly, or it suggests a pro-forma solidarity.  Either way, I struggle here to trust the Board’s stated commitments.

Lastly, on the few Board statements to date on Dr. Gupta’s departure. I do accept that not every element of every personnel decision can be publicly transparent. Nevertheless, the Board should, even if only to improve their recruiting efforts, be interrogating their own clearly faulty hiring and leadership-integration processes. They could at a bare minimum have described how they will do that serious spring-cleaning. Otherwise, their combined silence and apparently defensive hostility to faculty and student inquiry speaks volumes. The Ubyssey account about this Monday’s Board meeting make for chilling reading.

I am not (yet) a full professor at UBC, but if we all have to wait until we are full professors to speak out, we have already surrendered much of our right and responsibility to speak truth to the culture. I have chosen to trust here that my institution can and will respect my academic freedom. And I hope that UBC can learn from this painful process to be a healthier, freer, and more constructive contributor to the province and the world.

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