Berdahl vs. Potter: The Tale of Two “Globe and Mail” Editorials

Oct. 22, 2015, Globe and Mail Editorial re: Jennifer Berdahl: “It’s far from clear, though, that her blog post was an exercise in academic freedom. Her post was one remark about one unexplained kerfuffle in a university’s administration, not a piece of data in a social research program.”

Mar. 23, 2017, Globe and Mail Editorial re: Andrew Potter: “The right of university professors to speak their minds without fear of sanction is critical in a free society. It matters not a whit that the online Maclean’s column that got Mr. Potter in trouble was poorly thought out.”

There are many similarities between the case of Jennifer Berdahl at UBC, and the Andrew Potter affair at McGill. Both faculty members made statements that caused displeasure to the powers in their respective universities and provinces. Both had their rights to academic freedom usurped and challenged. Both paid a heavy price for exercising this right. Much remains to be uncovered, but there is one glaring difference between the two cases. The establishment, at least outside Quebec, rallied around Andrew Potter, defending his right to academic freedom, and publicly chastising Suzanne Fortier, the Principal of McGill. Jennifer Berdahl didn’t have that luxury. No pundit/public figure questioned the role and attitude of Martha Piper, then acting president of UBC, of John Montalbano, then Chair of the Board, and of Lindsay Gordon, who is astonishingly still vying for a reappointment as Chancellor. What gives?

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Potter, a former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen, was already known as an outspoken political/government critic. But this time, he had gone “too far”. His rant in MacLean’s was deemed as blemishing the very image of Quebec society. That the article was shoddy journalism is not in dispute. But his resignation soon after from his position as Director of the Institute for the Study of Canada raised concerns. Whether he was made to resign by the Principal of McGill, herself under pressure by an unhappy Quebec political class, is the subject of much speculation. But Fortier was not even subtle or nuanced about her views on academic freedom: “Senior administrators have an obligation to ensure that administrative responsibilities are discharged effectively to the highest institutional standards.”

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The groundswell of support for Potter’s academic freedom came from unexpected quarters. It is not surprising that the Directors of 11 institutes at McGill sent a letter to Principal Fortier questioning her understanding of academic freedom. What was unexpected is the loud support by pundits and editorials, who had thought otherwise in another better documented and more blatant attack on academic freedom.

Jennifer Berdahl was the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies at UBC, directing the Initiative on Gender and Diversity in Leadership. Having just heard of the “resignation” of President Arvind Gupta, she wrote a blog post in which, she praised the qualities of the departing president based on several professional experiences she had while working with him. She also used her research and expertise to conjecture: Gupta may “have lost the Masculinity Contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.”

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The Chair of the Board of UBC at that time, John Montalbano, who also happened to be a donor to Berdahl’s Chair, felt free to contact her to express his disapproval. He also conveyed the displeasure of his employer, the Royal Bank of Canada, which funded her outreach efforts on the very same issues she was discussing in her post. This displeasure was later echoed by the Sauder School’s Division Chair; the Associate Dean of Faculty; and ironically, the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity. Not unlike Fortier’s implicit and explicit statements about the actions of Potter, Jennifer Berdahl was chastised and accused of bringing negative attention and “reputational damage” to the Sauder School and UBC, by upsetting a powerful donor who was also Chair of the Board.

But the analogy between the two cases stops here.

Berdahl fought back. Potter didn’t, at least not yet. Both cases got their share of media coverage, though for different reasons. In her case, editors and pundits questioned both her premise and her right to publish her work. They opened their pages to direct and indirect attacks on her (for example from her colleague James Tansey) while denying her defenders any opportunity to reply. This is especially galling because Potter’s rant about the Quebec Society was random and unjustified whereas Berdahl’s comments on President Gupta’s departure were nothing but direct corollaries of her own research, which were eventually corroborated by subsequent leaks and disclosures.

Unlike Potter, whose acts were questioned by Fortier because –and according to her– only because of his status as director, Berdahl was not an administrator. And while much is still to be disclosed about the role of the McGill administration in the Potter case, a fact-finding investigation conducted by retired BC supreme court judge, Lynn Smith, did confirm that UBC had failed to support and protect Berdahl as her academic freedom was being violated.

The full Smith report was not published, hence many details about the actions of the UBC Chair, Chancellor, interim president, and the Sauder Dean’s office remain under wrap. But subsequent inadvertent leaks by UBC corroborate facts, on which Berdahl was publicly attacked by the Globe and others. Her educated guess about a “masculinity contest” turned out to be spot on, as information came out about how the ouster of Gupta was methodically engineered by John Montalbano. That so many on “the other side” of the cultural/racial divide were offended by the incredibly condescending memos to an accomplished university president by two members of the “banking elite,” also reveal how right Berdahl was regarding the insidious effect of the lack of diversity in leadership at UBC and elsewhere.

The independent investigation of Judge Smith had confirmed that Berdahl was not supported by UBC and that she had been quite harmed in the process. Yet, she never received a public apology from the interim president or even acknowledgement or personal apologies from those who participated in violating her academic freedom. Even worse, she is being treated as a persona non-grata, in ways that some university administrators excel at.

Both Berdahl and Potter have paid dearly, for exercising their academic freedom. Potter “resigned” his dream job, and the incident may have jeopardized the renewal of his limited term contract at McGill. Similarly, Jennifer Berdahl “resigned” the Montalbano Professorship, and is currently on a two-year leave from the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

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