Blogging, Academia, and Diversity

When Jennifer Berdahl was appointed to a faculty position in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sauder School of Business, a UBC press release quoted her as saying that she intended to “create change by having a dialogue directly with people in organizations”. But during this past week, a dialogue between Berdahl and UBC has turned into a situation that has gotten a lot of attention.

I want to look at this situation not only because of how badly UBC is handling it, but also because it illustrates how addressing an organization’s diversity issues in an meaningful way requires much more than just public statements.

Here is the background to the situation. Earlier this month, UBC’s president, Arvind Gupta, resigned after completing only one year of a five-year term.The official announcement of the resignation had very little information about the reasons for Gupta’s departure  – which caused much speculation about what had happened, and generated demands for the UBC administration and board of governors to give a fuller explanation. No further information on Gupta’s resignation has been provided.

Berdahl wrote a post on her personal blog, chronicling her own positive experiences working with Gupta, and questioning whether Gupta “lost the masculinity contest” – a reference to a theoretical model describing a particular type of workplace culture. In a “masculinity contest” culture, those perceived to have the most male-identified characteristics and behaviour are those who become leaders and acquire power.

The day after that blog post was published, according to Berdahl’s subsequent post, she received a phone call from John Montalbano, the chair of the UBC board of governors – who also happens to be the donor of the funds that support Berdahl’s UBC job. Berdahl says Montalbano told her that her post was “inaccurate” and “hurtful”. She responded that the post was speculative and that it was based on what she had seen while at UBC.

Then, at a UBC-sponsored reception at the Academy of Management conference, the Sauder School’s associate dean of equity and diversity, along with Berdahl’s division chair, “pulled [Berdahl] aside…during a conversation [she] was enjoying with colleagues” to tell her that the blog post had damaged UBC’s reputation and angered the board chair – and instructed her to “minimize” her engagement. In Berdahl’s words, “I realized that the purpose of this conversation was not just to scold me, but to discourage me from speaking further. I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.”

After Berdahl blogged about these events, UBC’s acting president announced that the university intends to investigate her claims of intimidation.

Like Berdahl, I am an academic who works in a business school – and, like Berdahl, I am also a blogger. So UBC’s actions in this situation are deeply distressing to me. The “about” page of Berdahl’s blog lists her job title, but the blog is clearly a personal blog, with no direct connection to UBC. The blog is titled “Jennifer Berdahl’s Blog”; she has been writing it since 2012, before she joined UBC; and it is hosted on Blogspot, not on a UBC site. (And, when Berdahl was hired, UBC happily publicized her blog and directed traffic to it; see the screenshot below.)  And, as Berdahl points out, as a UBC faculty member she has a right to academic freedom – which, by UBC’s own definition, includes the right “to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion”. So it is difficult to understand why UBC apparently thinks it should be able to control what appears on Berdahl’s blog.

The mention of Jennifer Berdahl's blog in the press release announcing her UBC appointment. (credit: sauder.ubc.ca)

The mention of Jennifer Berdahl’s blog in the press release announcing her UBC appointment. (credit: sauder.ubc.ca)

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the absurdity of an “associate dean of equity and diversity” allegedly discouraging a professor of “leadership studies: women and diversity” from publicly discussing a diversity-related issue. And if UBC’s administration felt that Berdahl had to be admonished, it was extremely disrespectful to Berdahl for that admonishment to occur during a social event being attended by her academic peers and colleagues.

The events that Berdahl describes are not a complete surprise. From what I have been told, UBC as an academic employer is a place where “getting along means going along”. Rightly or wrongly, UBC’s academic culture is perceived as having very strong norms that subtly and not so subtly suggest such things as the “right” topics for faculty members to research, or the “right” activities for them to undertake, if they want to be rewarded. To be fair, UBC is likely not that different from many post-secondary institutions in having such strong cultural norms. But, speaking generally, while such norms can encourage hard work and productivity, they can also encourage the exclusion or marginalization of those perceived as resisting those norms.

However, the conflict between Berdahl and UBC also has another dimension. The conflict demonstrates that organizations who claim to value diversity need to do more than talk about it. The year before Berdahl was hired, the Sauder School of Business experienced a major controversy when a group of its new students chanted racially and sexually offensive cheers during frosh week. UBC responded to the controversy by creating a task force to examine equity and diversity at the university, and the business school implemented a number of initiatives to improve its own diversity and equality. Indeed, Berdahl’s hiring, according to this story, “was accompanied” by a financial commitment to increase the number of women students in Sauder’s MBA programs.

But, again speaking generally, a diverse organization isn’t created only by the organization making public statements about how important diversity is. A true commitment to diversity involves much more than recruiting more members of underrepresented demographic groups, or sponsoring yet another seminar on “why isn’t there more diversity in leadership”, or writing yet another report. Achieving meaningful diversity in an organization often means identifying and confronting the organization’s barriers to diversity, and taking substantive action to remove those barriers.

Berdahl’s blog post has identified a potential barrier to diversity at UBC – the apparent dominance of a particular style of leadership, associated with a gender stereotype, and the exclusion of those who aren’t perceived as fitting that style. UBC plans to address Berdahl’s claims of intimidation, but it also needs to address the issues that she has raised around an allegedly dysfunctional and discriminatory organizational culture. If UBC wants to prove that it is truly “committed to providing a respectful environment, where diversity is valued”, it should acknowledge and address all of the issues that Berdahl has raised, instead of attempting to silence her.

4 comments

  1. I think that one other factor is at play. Berdahl is in the business school – that is the perceived center of support of corporatist. She is also the star of the business school, funded by a self-appointed gender white knight. If someone like myself in the faculty of arts said the same thing (several of us in fact did) no one would notice. In fact, no one did notice any of us outside of the business school.

    This raises an interesting aspect of what I call (after Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins) the University of Excellence: for the most part what we say is irrelevant. All that counts is that we say something, it is published somewhere, and we get research dollars to fund it. Thus take a look through all of the “critical studies” publications emanating from the faculty of arts, it’s almost a litany of nasty churlish criticisms (in peer reviewed venues) of the corporate neo-liberal university etc. I count my own work amongst this crowd. The point is we are ignored.

    Berdahl, who cuts against the grain, can’t be ignored. It’s likely why the fact finding mission will most likely end up criticizing her and exonerating Montalbano (though he will likely get a backroom scolding but we will never now for sure). The threat that Berdahl presents is directly as a result of her structural location in the heart of a business school. Ideally those who put here there would like to hear about how to get more women like Indira S or Martha P into power, not to hear about speculations on real local power issues in which plays of masculinity (irrespective of whether player is male or feral) loom large. [As an aside, the much touted female leadership at UBC doesn’t prove women are equal in the power structure or that masculinity doesn’t matter, in fact it’s rather a Margaret Thatcher style of masculinity that is being played out here, not a third (or even second) wave feminism].

    UBC is by and large a place where one can pretty much research on what ever one wants. However, issues that cut close to the real power at UBC and that come from within the favoured fellows category will get slapped down hard.

  2. Thank you for this essay. Seems to be, could prove to be, a seminal case as it unfolds. Dr. Berdahl is probably up for the process. Speaking truth to power: in another institution, a similar matter–local leaders trying to get through to their bosses in Rome about sexual problems (See current NCR Online).

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