Back-to-School Bingo: Higher Ed Media Coverage!

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UBC, WTF?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the recent events at UBC, it’s that silence can say more than words, whether you’re withholding information or telling someone else to keep quiet. That probably sounds obvious, but the university’s announcement of Arvind Gupta’s resignation—and its handling of the events that followed—reflect some problematic assumptions about who should be able to speak, when, and what should be said.

What was it that triggered UBC’s current public crisis? Gupta’s July 31 departure was announced publicly on August 7 in classic “Friday Afternoon News Dump” fashion: UBC published a news release, which was tweeted shortly after 4pm EDT. In a news release where roughly 50% of the text was devoted to celebratory prose about the incoming interim president (Dr. Martha Piper), UBC gave no explanation for Gupta’s resignation except that he had “decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community”.

Additionally, a Globe and Mail article was published around 5pm, containing interview quotes from UBC Board of Governors (BoG) Chair John Montalbano. Rather than clarifying the situation, this article only exacerbated the impression that the university hoped to bury the issue as quickly as possible. Gupta’s quoted comments—restricted by the NDAs that had been signed—were equally unhelpful, referring back to the university’s statement. Montalbano appears completely unfazed, stating “I don’t believe we will miss a beat”.

That article highlights what’s been so provocative about the UBC case, i.e. the “cone of silence” approach taken by the university’s administration, even as the BoG Chair seemed to have been saying quite a lot (more on this below). While there was a press release, it was immediately treated as an incomplete account because in the context of Gupta’s five-year term ending abruptly after only one year, the information UBC provided wasn’t “enough”. An (apparently) partial message suggests that there’s something to hide. This much should have been obvious at the outset, but UBC’s communication has remained unbendingly evasive; even their Twitter feed contained nothing helpful when I checked, beyond a single tweet with their press release on August 7.

Because of this suddenness and silence, public speculation began immediately. Why was Gupta resigning after only a year? Was it a health problem or some other personal issue? Was it a disagreement with the Board or opposition from senior administrators (the remaining ones, anyway)? The pressure of financial challenges? Gupta had no real experience in administration; was the position simply too much for him—or was he perhaps not living up to his promise? If it was the latter, one year seems like a pretty short trial period. If this was a “smouldering crisis”, it didn’t take long for the flames to be fanned—and it certainly wasn’t visible or predictable to everyone in the institution. UBC Faculty Association President Mark MacLean wrote in a public letter on August 10: “this news came as a complete surprise to me, and I have spent the weekend trying to make sense of it”.

UBC faculty members were among those who produced blog posts and columns offering their own interpretations of events (examples from the past few weeks include E. Wayne Ross, Nassif Ghoussoub, Stephen Petrina, Christopher Rea, James Tansey, and Charles Menzies). Which brings us to the second thread in this story. On August 9, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl—a full professor who holds the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity in the Sauder School of Business—published a blog post about Gupta’s resignation, in which she described her “personal observations and experiences” with him. She placed these observations squarely in the context of her research on diversity and workplace dynamics.

Of Gupta, Berdahl wrote that “he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence”; and that “UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president” (a position she wasn’t alone in holding). More controversially, she described the culture of leadership at UBC as a “masculinity contest” in which Gupta did not fit, and where his strengths were not sufficiently valued.

Berdahl’s post soon came to the attention of BoG Chair John Montalbano, who went so far as to express disapproval to her in a phone call the day after it was published. Montalbano, who is CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, also happens to be the donor whose funds support Berdahl’s professorship. According to Berdahl, he chastised her for bringing negative attention to the Sauder School and UBC, describing her words as “hurtful” and “unfair to the Board” and repeatedly mentioning both the RBC funding and related conversations that he was having with other administrators. This was followed by further communications from Berdahl’s Division Chair; the Associate Dean of Faculty; and perhaps most ironically, the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity. Their message was clear: the blog post had done “reputational damage” and was upsetting to a powerful donor who was also Chair of the Board.

Berdahl’s account of these experiences, which she posted on August 16, brought a whole new dimension to the UBC situation. What she described was an unequivocal breach of academic protocol, and it generated outrage far beyond UBC and beyond the group that had initially been concerned about Gupta’s resignation. It also changed the focus of the story and helped to further position Montalbano as the chief villain in it. Even those who were more sanguine about Gupta’s departure and/or had viewed Berdahl’s earlier post with skepticism, were happy to leap to her defence over an issue of academic freedom.

Berdahl’s experience has raised again a key issue with regards to the definition of academic freedom: should professors’ commentary be limited to their “area of expertise” or to what is required for teaching and research, or should it be applicable to more general matters of university governance? Even for those who think that comment should be limited to a faculty member’s research area, Berdahl’s position is unique this regard; her research is in fact about organizational dynamics. Surely then she is qualified to speak critically about the dynamics in her own institution, based on what she’s observed first-hand? The post states fairly clearly that Berdahl is speaking from her own experience and framing this through the theoretical lens that she uses in her work. This approach was of course criticised for a variety of reasons, but being critical of what someone said is not the same as telling them to stop saying it.

I wasn’t hugely surprised at the points Berdahl was making, because the gender issue here isn’t a new one. It’s a point I’ve seen raised, usually off-the-record (and not by women), during the course of my dissertation research. It’s something that Julie Cafley of Canada’s Public Policy Forum, who wrote a dissertation on Canadian universities’ presidential departures, is also pointing out as significant. Another factor to keep in mind are the gender dynamics of public expertise, which favour a particular performance of masculinity (one that intersects with perceptions relating to race). So is there not a connection between these issues and the points raised in Berdahl’s blog post on this topic? Why were so many people—university faculty included—so quick to dismiss the legitimacy and relevance of what she said, along with her right to say it?

For some people, the problem was the quality of the writing and the analysis in the post; it wasn’t written either with the rigour of an academic article, or the clarity of a post intended for a broad audience. Others disagreed with the conclusions indicated therein, which were interpreted as accusations of racism and sexism. But if the question here is whether the post was covered by UBC’s existing policies on academic freedom, to me it looks like the answer is “yes”.

That’s why, whatever Berdahl’s analysis pointed to, in his reaction to it Montalbano stepped over a line that would have been clear to anyone familiar with academic work and the policies that govern it. The outcome was that after denying the allegations, Montalbano still faced public pressure to step down as BoG Chair—which he did, on August 25. Former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith will “undertake [a] fact-finding process” on the incident, to culminate in a report by October 7. Meanwhile, UBC has provided no further information about Gupta’s resignation, which clearly hasn’t stopped major media outlets from publishing further commentary.

I can see at least two stories being told here: one of them is about accountability, and the other is about academic freedom. They’re both stories about the ethics of (crisis) communication—on the one hand, a major, sudden change occurred and not enough information was provided. On the other hand, when a faculty member wrote a public interpretation of that change, she was shushed by the BoG Chair and others.

Accountability is significantly about communicating with those who have an interest in the outcome of a situation. Even when there’s information that for legal reasons can’t be disclosed, there are ways of handling it appropriately. The rampant speculation (and subsequent calls for transparency) should have been entirely predictable given that UBC is one of the country’s top universities, that there was widespread publicity about Gupta’s appointment (and presidential searches cost money), and that the resignation happened after just 13 months. Those gaps left between expectations and actual communication were filled in with assumptions generated by context: that something very bad must have happened, since no-one could talk about it. Would things have turned out differently had the university taken a different path at the outset, or are the rules governing such situations inherently troubling for public academic institutions?

Academic freedom, too, is a communication issue as well as one of intellectual integrity; there’s a reason it’s so often conflated with “freedom of speech”. It’s what professors are saying—what they’re communicating and to whom—that’s often framed as a (political) problem, as was the case with Jennifer Berdahl’s blog posts. This reaction to her words only confirmed the initial impression that something worth hiding must have happened, since a faculty member was being pressured to tone it down.

What will happen next at UBC? In an August 9 post at Inside Higher Ed, Kris Olds wrote that “a crisis is a wonderful teaching and learning moment. Use it, and be prepared to see it used, for this is what a university is all about”. Only time will tell whether the lessons from this crisis will be put to good use. UBC will need to tend to reputational damage, but even more so, the damage done to internal trust within the university. One sign of how the university plans to proceed is provided in Martha Piper’s op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. Piper’s piece, whether you agree with her perspective or not, is probably better written than anything else produced by UBC representatives during the past month; but it’s clear that the university is trying to maintain the same upbeat tone that failed so badly at the outset. If (as some have argued) there’s a deeper, ongoing problem with the culture of governance at UBC, it’s going to take not only time but also some honesty to address it appropriately.

Bibliography: Research on Contract Faculty

In light of the recent strikes at York University and University of Toronto, linked below is a list of some of the sources I’ve tracked down relating to PhD ‘demand’, the academic job market, contract faculty, and labour unions. The focus is on Canada – and it’s by no means exhaustive – but there are some references here from other countries as well. I’ve also tried to include a range of perspectives on the issues. Here’s the link:
Sources on contract faculty and academic unions in Canada.