Higher Education Strategy Associates

Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

UBC’s  Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.  Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something.  Finished?  Ok, on we go.

The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon?  Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom.  Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s.  It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer.   The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts.  Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour.  That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.

So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept.  In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing.  She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism.  Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure.  Under anyone else’s?  Not so clear.

(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”.  One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)

Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident.  Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did.  His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure.  But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote?  That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.  

Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded.  I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story.  She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members.  If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part.  But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”

To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified.  The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review.  It wasn’t scholarly.  It wasn’t made in a classroom setting.  She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done.  But protected under academic freedom?  CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.

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8 Responses to Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

  1. Colin says:

    Having now read both articles, I have to doubt most of it. The first article was, as you rightly pointed out, an exercise in stretched reasoning and conjecture. It seemed to have been influenced by a) her bias generally speaking and b) her bias at the time, having come from that conference. And the second article should be taken with a hefty dose of salt, as should any where a self-perceived victim casts events in a light favourable to themselves.

    But the main problem I think is a divide in what constitutes the “work” professors do nowadays, particularly in those fields, and what is more commonly accepted. Social Justice Warrior academics have seemingly taken up the view that anything they do, even personally, is inherently related to professional work. When one’s field is so heavily social, I can see why they would see any social interaction through the lens of their field of study. I think the wider CAUT definition you cite above was likely expanded implicitly to protect those types of so-called expression that are so common with those types of study.

    However, accepting that amounts to near-chaos. If everything is academically protected and work-related, how can anything be personal and non-work related? Moreover, how do we reconcile the apparent willingness these days to silence objectionable material, no matter how tangential, if we don’t accept the premise that unscientific statements made without any academic merit can and should be discouraged? Which is what it seems this was; personal conjecture issued on a personal blog. This whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, but it’s what these types of field rely on – causing a furor so as to build a narrative around it about grand causes wider than the scenario at hand.

  2. My UBC says:

    You make several good points, but I think stop you analysis a bit short. I agree that the first post by Berdahl provided factual evidence for only part of her arguments. She used solid facts – her personal experience – to argue that Gupta was an inclusive, tolerant leader – the type that truly promotes diversity. Her experience agrees with mine and that of my colleagues.

    Where she went out on a limb was to claim that these exact characteristics hurt him with the upper administration in UBC, “the masculinity contest” crowd. Whether she had no facts here or was reluctant to share those due to privacy/retribution concerns, I don’t know.

    However. ironically the upper management reaction to her blog posts perfectly fits the “masculinity contest” argument. First there was an inappropriate, weekend, call to a professor from a chair of the board upset over a mildly controversial blog post. Then the same person upping the pressure by contacting her dean’s office and bringing the UBC chain of command to pressure her. This escalated to the immature farce of the “disappearing, secret BOG meeting” http://ubcinsiders.ca/2015/08/notes-on-a-farce/#more-10528. including the diversion tactics used to “smuggle” Montalbano and others away from the media. Such actions are exactly what one would expect in interactions of immature teenage boy (“my dick is bigger than yours”), not in a professional university setting. Sadly, they perfectly fit a “masculinity contest” culture, thus while Berdahl had not in the first place provided facts to support her hypothesis, the UBC administration obliged her, providing these facts for all to see.

    These are sad times for our university.

  3. Big ONRE Uni says:

    The first blog was ‘a pretty awful piece’ of writing…Really, Alex? Anecdotal and biased, sure. (I blog/read blogs about as frequently as I get a colonoscopy, but I think that’s what people sound like in most blogs). Inappropriate given her position at UBC? I would say so. Gag worthy? No way.

    I also think that if we are going to expand academic freedom to cover everything we say, anywhere, it would be nice to see even just a handful of intellectual risk takers in the Academy-

    Oh, and welcome back. 🙂

  4. Neal Yonson says:

    Alex, Neither the AAUP, CAUT, or other definitions of Academic Freedom seem particularly germane to this discussion when UBC has its own definition (which can be found here: http://www.calendar.ubc.ca/Vancouver/index.cfm?tree=3,33,86,0)

    I’m hard pressed to identify a line of argument for why Berdahl’s blog posts, regardless of the quality of the prose or argument, would not fall within that definition. Would be interested to hear any other opinions on why it would be excluded. Without pretending to speak for her at all, questioning whether implicit bias played any role in Gupta’s ultimate lack of success at UBC seems like it would indeed be considered a fruitful avenue of inquiry in light of recent events that had occurred, especially for an academic whose area of study focuses on topics like organizational diversity and power structures.

    You can dismiss her post as shoddy work – being completely unfounded based on her own admission that she doesn’t know the details. You can disagree with her implications. You can think it was unfair to board members or the institution. Those are all very valid reasons for you or anyone else to personally not find her work credible or compelling. But none of those appear to be valid reasons for considering the act of raising and discussing rhetorical questions of this sort to be outside of UBC’s definition of Academic Freedom.

  5. Reid Robinson says:

    In all the commotion involving the Chair of the Board of Governors and Jennifer Berdahl I am reminded of the comment made by Colin Lucas , a former Vice- Chancellor of Oxford University, and Geoffrey Boulton in a paper they wrote In 2008 for the League of European Research Universities entitled ” What Are Universities For”. In the section entitled university governance they state:

    “Political boldness is also required. The freedom to inquire, to debate, to criticize and to speak truth to power, whether it be the power of government, of those that fund the university, or those who manage it, is central to the vitality of the university and its utility to society. It is crucial that rectors and university governing boards understand this essential source of institutional strength, that they are steadfast in its support, strong in its defence and are not seduced by the fallacy of managerial primacy: that things that make management difficult necessarily need to be removed or reformed. An easily governed university is no university at all.”

  6. My UBC says:

    And now we have concrete examples of the “masculinity contest” from Nassif Ghasub http://nghoussoub.com/2015/08/20/the-cataclysmic-effect-of-masculinity-contests-on-the-ivory-tower/

    “President Gupta asked me last January to draw on my 6-year experience as a UBC Governor, and tell him whether it was normal that the Chair suddenly orders the President (his subordinate), to prepare the CVs of all the staff in his office because he was coming to check them next morning at dawn.”

    A President of a University preparing staff CV’s as less than 24 hour notice for the Chair? Why? This sounds like a classical show of who is the boss to me. And yes, I doubt JM would indulge in such a show with another “white male” (but that may be me).

  7. UBC alumnus and academic says:

    Professor Berdahl has embraced social media as part of her role as conscious and critic of society. She’s not writing for a journal; ostensibly her audience is largely academic–but it’s a less formal venue than traditional publishing. It’s also an excellent platform for developing ideas and arguments…and for getting feedback on an iterative basis. Based on what she wrote and where she published it, no it’s not “awful” at all. Your critique of it, isn’t either…just weak.

    If you ware going to focus on the granular here, you are–willfully or ignorantly–missing the larger issue. Researchers already have to navigate competing, sometimes pernicious interests to do their work. When your research programme challenges hierarchical norms and critiques the highly influential (as does Berdahl in her work in commerce/business/leadership) this is particularly true. Research-intensive universities can only differentiate themselves from the rest of higher education if they create a space where critical, challenging, and sometimes controversial scholarship is nurtured.

    The Chair of the UBC Board of Governors perhaps disagrees with this–and also perhaps thought he could assert this to “his” funded professor. He was wrong; in doing so he demonstrates he’s unfit for the board.

    Those of us who give to UBC might want to communicate this to our alma mater, after all…it’s ours.

  8. Pingback: UBC, WTF? | Whiteboard Workout

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