Nassif Ghoussoub: Masculinity contests and UBC chair John Montalbano

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      In a full-court press carefully engineered yesterday by damage control experts at the PR firm Kirk & Co, the chair of the UBC board of governors, John Montalbano, used two lines of defense in his effort to justify his unwise intervention with Professor Jennifer Berdahl. He did so by arguing that he had started their conversation by giving her the option to stop if and when she felt uncomfortable or if she thought he was infringing on her academic freedom. The other aspects of the story (concerns by RBC and subsequent follow-ups by Sauder School folks) were carefully avoided. I will not elaborate on this aspect of the controversy, but I refer to this NY Times article to see what experts think about his approach.

      Montalbano’s second line of defense was to state that her theory on “masculinity contests” in PSE institutions does not apply to the UBC board because the latter is diverse, nor to the UBC administration because it is currently led by three women.

      Montalbano’s handlers were being successful in framing Berdahl’s theory in a context where it looked far-fetched, so as to lead the public to question the credibility of her scholarly work. They were managing to do so because, in my opinion, Professor Berdahl did not sufficiently elaborate on the ways, forms, and shapes under which “masculinity contests” are prevalent in post-secondary institutions in general and at UBC in particular. Here are some real-life examples.

      The first example that comes to mind is the story of Peter Kiernan, the hedge fund billionaire, self-styled intellectual, “radical moderate,” philanthropist, and former Goldman Sachs partner. Not unlike the Wisconsin dentist holding the head of Cecil the Lion, the trophy that confirmed his virility on Facebook until the rest of the world told him otherwise, Kiernan felt the urge to initiate a “masculinity contest,” win it and exhibit a trophy. It just happened to be the head of the president of the University of Virginia.

      No one knows whether he inadvertently (stupid “reply all” button!) or willingly (to show off) sent an email to a large group of Darden School supporters bragging that he had engineered the dismissal of the university president, Teresa Sullivan.

      Ironically, Kiernan assured his readers that Sullivan was a very nice person whom he respected, but that she had to go. In her initial letter to the university community, the chair of the board of trustees, Helen Dragas, declined to offer any reason for dismissing President Sullivan.

      Conspiracy theories quickly circulated to fill the vacuum. And they got worse after Kiernan’s letter unleashed an unfounded fear that an MBA “cabal” was in cahoots with Goldman Sachs to loot the university. The faculty at the University of Virginia spoke up, Sullivan was reinstated as president a couple of weeks later, and Kiernan resigned from the board in shame. He had eventually lost the masculinity contest he had initiated. For more on this fascinating story, see this.

      Closer to home, and as I had mentioned to the CBC, President Arvind 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.

      This looked to me highly unusual, and I saw two possible explanations for the chair’s action. Either he failed to comprehend the distinction between the role of the board (policy) and the one of the executive branch (management), or it was a typical manifestation of what we can now characterize as a “mini-masculinity contest.”

      Since last April, the UBC campus has been inundated with rumours of a “rebellion” by a group of deans against the president, triggered by the displacement of their preferred provost. If true, this is an arch-typical manifestation of a masculinity contest. The extent to which, the chair allowed it to happen, to fester, and to get credence, when he was supposed to chair the very committee (MRCC) that had pre-approved the personnel change, remains to be determined. But what is already clear is that, if the story and its impact are confirmed, this was a major masculinity contest that the deans involved have triggered and should ultimately be responsible for. Why major? Because, we may be witnessing live its cataclysmic effect on our institution.

      With this background, let’s now test Dr. Berdahl’s theory that President Arvind Gupta may “have lost the Masculinity Contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” Well, the distinctly suggestive image of 10 white males (the deans) irreverently challenging their non-white president about a choice of a key person on his executive that is clearly his to make, is surreal. That Jennifer Berdahl’s incredibly prescient scholarly work could anticipate such a situation is another success story for basic and applied research.

      We may need to wait for history books to tell us what was the last masculinity contest that finished off Arvind Gupta and led him to resign. Unfortunately for the winner(s), banal non-disclosure agreements may be preventing them from showing off their role in slaying such a prominent trophy.

      John Montalbano’s run-in with Dr. Jennifer Berdahl was not supposed to qualify as a masculinity contest. The obvious lopsidedness in the balance of power was supposed to make it a non-contest. But Jennifer Berdahl is a woman of high integrity and principles. So, she seems to have elected to make it a contest.

      One can say that Jennifer Berdahl is the ultimate product of white privilege. But she was also brought up in a venerable family of highly principled and accomplished U.S. academic leaders. Her father served as president of the University of Texas at Austin, as well as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. That she chose to tackle such difficult and controversial subjects is honourable and commendable.

      Universities create research chairs for the study of issues of diversity in leadership because they recognize that problems exist and that they owe it to society to look for the roots, identify the symptoms, and recommend solutions. UBC hired Professor Berdahl to do just that. It is unfortunate that she wasn’t told early enough that the chair of the board and the Sauder School did not want her to turn the lens inward.



      Jacki Zehner

      Aug 20, 2015 at 8:04pm

      I have know John Montalbano for almost 30 years. I was his classmate at UBC and we have stayed friends. He is one of the finest human beings on the planet. I had a long career on Wall Street followed by over a decade of work as a philanthropist focussed on girls and women, and I have met few men that are true champions for diversity. John is one of them.

      Time to come down from your ivory tower, Nassif...

      Aug 20, 2015 at 9:12pm

      It's not like you don't have some good points Nassif but it's just that you're biased and don't present a balanced viewpoint.

      The truth is that UBC has been in turmoil for longer than Gupta's term. Gupta's hiring was an indicator of that turmoil. The board made a recruiting mistake (for which you were on the selection committee, Nassif).

      Although Gupta was a great orator but had no ability to translate a vision into an operational plan. In fact, he had no tangible administrative experience (being the CEO for an entity like Mitacs is nothing like running a far larger entity like a university) For those that witnessed how he worked, he became increasingly lost as he ventured further into the administrivia of a major research university. The Faculty Deans did revolt against Gupta - (the fact that those Dean's are all men have nothing to do with the revolt) - they revolted because Gupta was an incompetent administrator.

      Have a look at how he struggled when confronted by students earlier this year about tuition and housing costs: --- The video is indicative of a more pervasive issue. This wasn't a president who demonstrated that he had a handle on the operations of a university. He was struggling mightily.

      Another truth is how badly the BoG has handled Gupta's 'resignation'. But, the reality is that the BoG actually performance managed Gupta out the door. The put Gupta out of his misery. (Nassif: being an academic you are unlikely to know the meaning of performance management as it is a practice found in the real world where concepts like 'tenure', and having a 'job for life' are absurdities).

      Finally Nassif, in what other domain, other than academia, allow their employees (you) to spend a large portion of their working time crafting essays criticizing their employer and conjecturing on topics outside of their domain of expertise? You've said more than enough on this topic, it's time for you to get back to work and present the world your new discovery in mathematics.

      Ploat Fane

      Aug 20, 2015 at 11:03pm

      No more facts here than in Prof. Berdahl's blog. Unless NG has some new information to bring to the table directly sourced from AG or JM (i.e. not based on campus rumours) he is just as guilty of spinning as he says JM is.

      All of which leads to the question: why is he doing this? And for whom? If he has some direct knowledge of the situation that he is floating on behalf of AG he should tell us what it is. If not, time to move on.


      Aug 21, 2015 at 3:32am

      I'm glad they keep publishing your stuff, because it is important that people have conversation about the University, what it is, why it is, how it is, where it is (how much does it weigh?) and so on.

      I don't think it's all that controversial to say that hierarchy implies domination, and that is what Universities are, hierarchical institutions that rely on domination. And you can put whatever people you like into them, except for a small minority who refuse to test students, who refuse to play the grading game, everyone believes in domination. You're going to structure your course so that you can advance those you deem worthy of advancing and not the rest. That is a system of domination _no matter who it is advancing_. It may even be legitimate domination; after all, you are a custodian of mathematical knowledge; do you not have a duty to dominate and exclude those who think 2+2=5? They're wrong, and they don't belong in a University. I fail to see how it is better to dominate and exclude people who're bad at math than people who have certain colours or other characteristics.

      So, I think you've identified a real problem with the University, but I don't think you or Berdahl are very close to a solution. It's sort of like how lots of academic fields go---Aristotle got a lot of natural sciences off the ground by starting a conversation, but nowadays he isn't really read for his scientific contributions, if you follow. So I am very happy you are bringing about discussion of the University and how it dominates people; I just don't think you have identified the root cause. The root cause is systemic and has nothing at all to do with skin colour. I mean, come on, don't you believe that those with good math skills deserve to rule those with poor math skills? That is basically the whole premise of the University, in a nutshell, for those of you who wanted the Cole's Notes version.


      Aug 21, 2015 at 7:00am

      I've been following the ample dialogue spewing from Profs. Menzies, Ross and Ghoussoub since this thing broke out. All in reminds me how happy I am to be out of university and long established in the real world. They may label it scholarly......but it come off as a lot of tripe with a side of petty. One blog post is scholarly, then tweets from 'personal twitter', then the evidence is random journalism that barely fit the situation.
      I'll say this. I'm getting offended that all of this bickering and petty pontificating is getting labelled as a contest of "masculinity". It sounds more like a bunch of 'gender neutral' twits making mountains out of tidbits.
      What it ensures is that I will not be donating a dime to my alma mater anytime soon. Knowing that it can trickle to these twits is reason enough for me.

      Paul Geyer

      Aug 21, 2015 at 9:20am

      You are completely off base. Rather than continuing to guess why not ask your friend, Dr. Gupta, why he left?? Yes, I said your friend, because that is what he is, isn't he?? I presume that there is no conflict of interest in you commenting on the situation as his Friend?? He will probably say that he can't say anything because of a nondisclosure agreement in place. Just about every time I have seen these agreements in place, they are put in place by the person leaving the organization. Ask him if this is the case? If it is, he has the right to remove it... Or maybe he doesn't want to remove it because of what might become public?

      UBC Alum

      Aug 21, 2015 at 9:57am

      If what PG says above is true, your credibility in commenting on this is mud! Or maybe you will claim Academic Freedom!

      Not a Canadian NeoCon bot

      Aug 21, 2015 at 9:59am

      UBC is a public institution the majority of it is funded by all of us across Canada.

      The Board has muzzled the now former President who is a tenured Prof as well.

      The Board has gone out of it's way to bury this only to have it as front page news.

      You have no right as a Board and/or Banker Chairman to try to keep the lid on this for ANY reason again this is a Public institution not RBC Corporate Offices.

      Everyone in the public has the absolute right to know the clear unambiguous non PR line on what happened and why this President or any UBC President quits or is fired.

      Commenter's on Dr. Gupta's Administrative abilities or short comings.

      @Time to come down from your ivory tower, Nassif...

      You acknowledge the baseline that UBC was in turmoil way before Gupta got there.

      Yet you only blame Gupta, it's all Gupta's fault ignoring anything else Critical thinking much?

      UBC is -$400 in Debt over the last decade run by this Board, former Presidents Chaired by a Banker.

      This leads to cut backs except for senior Administrators that rack up $123,000 in Airfares alone.

      The cut backs mandated by the Board overseen by this Chairman of the Board were cutting back on Staff middle management etc raising Fee's (not Gupta's fault).

      People that were upset who could not see beyond their nose blamed Gupta as President.

      The Deans revolted because they felt entitled to their bloated payrolls when cut back they revolt again that's from the Board not Gupta.

      Like you are doing.

      You claim that Gupta was a incompetent administrator ignoring the chaos & cutbacks put on him by the Board.

      A University President is not a one man operating Administrator any problems were there well before Gupta got there any escalation was because of the Board thrusting a mandate on him.

      There are career Administrators that have been there for years if not decades not Gupta.

      Micro-managing Boar and Chair a convenient scape goat is Gupta let him take the blame deflect attention from the serious gross mismanagement and debt burden accumulated on the Board and Chairs watch.

      Leaving no option but severe cut backs except of course at the senior old boys and girls club administration.

      I would say this had little to do with Gupta's abilities as an Administrator more to do with the inherited mess and the subsequent straight jacket put on him by the Board and micro managing Banker Chair.

      Just Wondering

      Aug 21, 2015 at 11:48am

      I agree with NG that it is important to take conflicts of interest seriously.

      NG was a close personal friend of Prof. Gupta's when he sat on the selection committee that chose a "non traditional" candidate to be president. Did NG recuse himself during that discussion and the voting for NG? If his answer is no, then his claims about JM and conflict of interest are perhaps called into question. If his answer is that it was an in camera discussion and he can't reveal his actions then his demands for complete disclosure of why Prof. Gupta resigned are similarly called into question.

      NG knows why Prof. Gupta resigned, we all know why he resigned, the board's initial statement was about as clear as it could be about that. As president, Gupta had admirable goals, but his leadership on those goals wasn't working out well. The selection committee's gamble didn't work out.

      Perhaps NG doth protest too much. Perhaps instead of criticizing, now would be a good time for NG and other members of the selection committee to apologize for what they have done to the university, and done to Arvind.


      Aug 21, 2015 at 1:01pm

      I'm a bit troubled by all of this.

      Rich, privileged people playing the oppression olympics is neither credible nor edifying.

      I'm also annoyed by how academics from all disciplines now seem to think nothing of tossing around racism and sexism cards to try and remove people and reverse decisions they don't like. What's wrong with an honest argument grounded in facts?

      If I were their students, I'd be wondering how these personal politics might play into their teaching.

      Berdahl seems to think nothing of shooting inflammatory innuendo from the lip, castigating people for the sex and gender with no real evidence on a blog. A blog. How is that 'academic work' worthy of the name? Does 'academic freedom' now cover ill thought out blog posts now?

      And what are we to make of her then running to tell the media that she is having her academic freedom threatened when she was questioned about what she wrote? Does she not expect to be questioned for her public opinions by the people she is taking about? Did she really expect Montalbano to simply accept a slur on his name?

      And does Berdahl see her white male students through the same lens--as potential bullies to brown female students? How does she grade such students? Does she penalize them to 'even things up'? If she has no problems with white men, then why on earth did she bring sex/race into this debate to begin with?

      Then, the UBC FA falls over itself to get on the Montalbano bandwagon. My guess is McLean will live to regret that one.

      All in all, it seems to me that Montalbano's reputation has been damaged by innuendo; he may well have a case if he decides to pursue it.