PR consultants, the “UBC side” and the rest of us

CBC Radio Early Edition host Rick Cluff introduced me at the beginning of the segment as someone who has been teaching at UBC for 38 years. Yet at the very end of my interview, he announced that “tomorrow, we will have someone representing the UBC side.” The UBC side was supposed to be John Montalbano, before the latter cancelled and was replaced by acting interim president Angela Redish. Many colleagues phoned me to mark their displeasure of this misstatement by Cluff. Right after the Twitter world reacted in the same way, a classy CBC Radio producer called me up to apologize. This incident was inadvertent. What follows was not.

Our colleague Jennifer Berdahl of the Sauder Business School reported that she felt threatened and compromised by a series of incidents. One of them involved the Chair of the UBC Board, who is a financial contributor to her academic position.

The university immediately mobilized its institutional powers to defend the thesis of the “UBC side,” which turned out to be John Montalbano. Our colleague has to wait for a full investigation before she knows whether her dean, her president, and her university will vouch for her scholarly integrity and her right for academic freedom.

A secret Board meeting was called for the available governors. No other faculty, staff, or student could attend. Judy Kirk could and did, because the damage control experts of her firm were assigned a mission on behalf of the “UBC side.” Subsequent events indicate that it was the image of the Chair of the Board that Kirk was hired to safeguard.

No university support was provided to Jennifer Berdahl. Yet, an official UBC statement defending John Montalbano was immediately released. Obviously considered the “UBC side” of the story, the release was posted on various UBC sites, including the official site of the incoming interim president Martha Piper. It was only removed 24 hours later after a number of faculty members wrote to show their displeasure regarding this obvious conflict of interest.

But the full court-press engineered by Kirk and co, and reportedly paid for by UBC, had already launched. Not in support of UBC administrators ready to defend academic values and the concerns of their colleagues. It was all for the Chair of the Board to defend his actions on the airwaves, way before any investigation is launched.

Then came a very disturbing report blog  by Gray-Grant Communications. (The blog has been taken down since but here is a copy  UBC and crisis communications | Gray-Grant Communications). It claims that “a high-paid consultant is finally at the helm of UBC,” and among the things their crisis communications team “is doing right” for the “UBC side” are the following actions:

  1. An article published by Sauder School professor James Tansey in the Globe and Mail, which essentially questions Jennifer Berdahl’s right to speak out on diversity in leadership: her own scholarly work. He grossly distorted the premise of her blog post and went on to praise the volunteering and selfless work of the Chair of the Board.
  1. The report gives credit to that same “high-paid PR consultant” for devising the fact-finding mission by BC Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith. “Squeaky clean,” Gray-Grant says about the idea of a fact-finding mission.
  1. Gray-Grant even implies that “someone loosened a few lips by allowing a handful of faculty and staff (many under the cloak of anonymity) to speak to the Globe and Mail, off the record, with reasons for the resignation/firing.” If true, how ethical is this if some of these lips are also preaching about the sanctity of non-disclosure agreements?

Most disturbing was yesterday’s op-ed by Indira Samarasekera, now back at UBC, on the front page of the Globe and Mail. In view of its content, let’s add this to the credit list from Gray-Grant Communications.

  1. Samarasekera disparaged President Gupta by invoking not so subtly the importance of formal university administrative experience as opposed to his track record on innovation and knowledge transfer. She disparaged him again when claiming that UBC’s silence over his “resignation” is so as not to “compromise his future opportunities.”

Unless she is privy to information unavailable to the rest of us, a more balanced argument would have added that the UBC silence could have also been there so as not to compromise John Montalbano’s future opportunities.

She could have been more candid about how the unconditional support she got from her Board Chairs and not just her administrative experience made all the difference during her tumultuous decade at the University of Alberta.

Samarasekera demeaned our colleague Jennifer Berdahl by cavalierly disregarding 20 years of our colleague’s scholarly work with an international working group on gender and racial diversity in the workforce.

By stating that “such commentary should never be levelled idly, speculatively and without evidence,” she was distorting the position of Berdahl and unethically intervening in an investigation that is currently in progress.

Samarasekera tried to minimize the voices of the 150+ UBC faculty members who are daring to speak up, by exaggerating the total number of UBC faculty, and ignoring the perturbed and concerned silent majority among them.

She disparaged the presidency by referring to tens of thousands of students, who care nothing about presidents …” Just like John Montalbano and Martha Piper before her, she seems to imply that presidents are as disposable as a Swiffer Duster. Does she think that students care more about who is the Chair of the Board?

And just like Montalbano, she tried to tell us that our magnificent UBC “won’t miss a beat.” How wrong he was then, and how wrong she is now.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Samarasekera supported a president against a Board Chair. At UBC, she elected to become a vocal supporter of the Board Chair against the president. But in both cases, she remains consistent in her disregard for the basic principles of academic freedom.

University of Manitoba’s Adele Perry summarized it best in her tweet yesterday: I felt embarrassed just reading this article.”


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9 Responses to PR consultants, the “UBC side” and the rest of us

  1. This post illustrates the terrible challenge of communications. Sometimes single words can create an incorrect impression. For example, calling my blog post “a report” suggests that I spent many hours (likely hours for which I was paid), conducting a full fledged investigation.

    I did not.

    I wrote what we call in the media biz, an opinion piece. I was not paid for it. Nor was I instructed or asked by anyone to write it. It was no more informed that Jennifer Berdahl’s blog. Which I defend, by the way. I think she had every right to express her opinion.

    I also believe that UBC made a mistake in failing to communicate WHY it had terminated (or accepted the resignation) of Gupta. The whole thing is a giant hairball of a mess.

    So far the best guess I’ve seen for why this imbroglio occurred is Gary Mason’s piece in yesterday’s Globe & Mail.

    The most telling statement was this: UBC has a 2:1 staff-to-faculty ratio, while Toronto has a 1:2 ratio.

    • The statement on the faculty/staff disparity between institutions, with respect to Gary Mason who will have used statistics he found online, does not appear to be accurate. It is very dramatic and was bound to make an impression on its audience, but it must be verified. I would indeed be highly interested in an “apples to apples” comparison of faculty to staff ratio. Should we wish to engage in speculation on its importance as a factor in the Gupta matter, it should be subsequent to that.

      • Numbers? says:

        So what is the accurate number (when one compares apples to apples – i.e. active faculty to non-academic staff)?

      • Ghoussoub says:

        UT or not. It is these numbers that one needs to take into consideration:
        In 2009-10, total faculty at #UBC: 3,242, 5 yrs later 3270, up 0.9%.
        Admin in 2009-10: 2,903; 5 yrs later: 3,640 up 25%.

  2. James Tansey says:

    You’d do well to stick to the facts. My article on Dr. Berdahl in the Globe and Mail never questioned her right to speak. I pointed out that just because she is a Professor, doesn’t mean her blog has any academic authority. I pointed out that nobody had stopped her from speaking so it was unclear how her freedom had been constrained. I pointed out that by her own admission, she had no inside knowledge of the facts surrounding this resignation of Dr. Gupta so her piece was pure opinion and speculation. My main point was that her academic freedom has in no way been limited and also that her description of Dr. Gupta as a ‘small brown man’ was incredibly offensive. As a close friend and colleague of his, I am surprised you haven’t also taken offence.

    • UBC Prof says:

      The first rule of proper citation I was taught in high school was: when one puts text in quotes it better be a quote, otherwise it is a lie. Your text has ‘small brown man’ in quotes – a description which didn’t show up anywhere in Berdahl’s piece. What Berdahl wrote was “President Gupta was the first brown man to be UBC president. He isn’t tall or physically imposing. ” So, your “quote” IS a lie.

      Second, lets look at what she actualy did write. Why is stating a person’s skin color offensive? From recent news – is “Black lives matter” offensive? I hope not… – unless you believe acknowledging someone is not white is offensive. Do you?

      I also “admit” that I am not tall, nor physically imposing – and I don’t think stating that is offensive.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      My understanding is that the Sauder School hired Berdahl because she is a world authority on issues of leadership, gender and diversity. She has a long and distinguished research track record on that topic and like any scholar, she tries to check whether her models apply to particular situations. Would you have reacted in the same way if she had applied her research to a power struggle somewhere in Kansas? Doesn’t this illustrate the difference between the universality of scholarship as opposed to the occasional self-interested reaction of an outsider to it, like you and me?

      And unlike my own blog, Berdahl’s is clearly a major component of her scholarly research, and an important outlet for her outreach activities that I understand she was hired for.

      With your logic, quantum mechanics is “speculative” until God confirms its veracity, gender and race based institutional bias is speculative until human rights tribunals formally proves its existence. When and how does the theory of “impact investing with negative returns” get validated and stop being speculative?

      Neither you nor Montalbano formally “stopped her from speaking her mind,” but can we get you to admit that the situation is somehow somewhat ever slightly intimidating for the scholar involved?

      Why do you think that “being brown or/and short are insulting?” I –just like my close friend President Gupta (we are joined at the hip!)– happen to have both characteristics, and I wish on everyone to be as proud as we are, especially of our life achievements and service to UBC and Canada.

      You were totally out of line claiming that Jennifer’s post conjured the image of “tall, athletic white men bullying Dr. Gupta.” It didn’t.

      Last but not least, and back to the premise of my blog. Was Gray-Grant communications correct to credit the idea and the publication of your hit piece on Berdahl to a high-paid PR consultant?

      • James Tansey says:

        To answer your question directly, I have had no contact with Kirk and Co at any point. Nobody put me up to it; believe it or not, I just wrote the opinion piece myself and submitted it to the letter section of the Globe and Mail and to Frances Bula, with whom I have spoken in the past. I have never spoken with Daphne Gray-Grant either and now I am aware of the blog you mention, I will ask her to correct it. Any other questions? Would you like to answer my questions now?

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