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.