Monday, August 17, 2015

Why Worry About Online Media and Academic Freedom?

Um, because academic administrations have lousy instincts?  I have gotten involved in this whole online media intersecting with academic freedom mostly by accident--the ISA mess last year.  I am not an expert on academic freedom, nor am I an expert on the use of online media.  So, I could imagine a university representative being upset at me as an employee trashing their academic freedom/social media politicies and it not being entirely illegitimate (however, I would still do it and expect to be tolerated...).

On the other hand, observing a university that hired someone who specializes in the organizational dynamics of diversity and gender that then tried to silence that person who happened to comment on that university's organizational dynamics of diversity and gender does make me want to comment about academic freedom and be glad that I am involved in an organized effort (the ISA's Online Media Caucus) that aims to improve the climate for those who use online media.

The university is UBC, the blogger is Jennifer Berdahl, who is a full professor and Montablano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and University (I thought my old title at McGill was a mouthful).  She blogged about the firing/resignation/whatever of UBC President Arvind Gupta.  Her post was admittedly speculative, but applied her expertise on organization dynamics to the situation with some knowledge based on her interactions with the man.  Her analysis of "masculinity contest" might have offended some folks, but was not an insult hurled without thought but a concept from scholarship in this area that applied well.  Kind of like when I talk about NATO and apply it to other realms.

The bigwigs associated with the departure of Gupta were not pleased, including the guy whose name is attached to Berdahl's position--Montablano, the chair of the board of governors.  Um, oops.  He apparently called her and then put pressure on lower administrators to put pressure on her.  This was stupid because telling a blogger to shut up about, especially one who is applying their expertise painfully to the institution in which they reside, is likely to lead to yet more blogging.   So, Berdahl wrote this post that explains how UBC is attempting to create a chilling environment.

Should Berdahl have spoken up?  Hell yes.  Again, this stuff she wrote about is what she has been studying for quite some time.  It was what she was hired to do.  If it is inconvenient that she is using her expertise to make sense of (for herself and for others) her own institution, then suck it up.

The proper move by UBC would have been to take its lumps and move on.  Academic freedom means facilitating an environment for scholars to do their stuff, even it makes one uncomfy.  Trying to squelch the scholar is much like the cover up being worse than the crime--it only gets much attention, more spotlights and makes the university look defensive and inept.

Actually, the proper move by the university would have been to heed Berdahl and reflected on what caused the President to leave, which essentially cost the university hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

I am lucky in that no administrator has put pressure on me for what I say online.  Really.  I have given Carleton University little cause to do so since I have not had that many posts complaining about stuff (except their handling of the Political Management file as I moved here).  Indeed, my posts have tended to compliment the institution for handling difficult issues.  I probably gave McGill some cause along the way, but most of my ire there was focused on the province and not university administration.  Most of my complaints were somewhat veiled with references to inept Sergeant Schultz and various discussions about promotion standards (I might have gotten more outspoken after I left).

Anyhow, I often joke about how tenure and full prof-ness mean that I can do whatever I want.  Maybe not.  But I do think that we need to pay a great deal of attention to administrators who worry more about the noises profs make, especially when they use their hard-earned expertise to reveal some warts about the institution, than doing what is right.  The internet scares administrators because the messages cannot be contained, and stuff can go viral.  The best way to make sure stuff goes viral is to clamp down on the messengers.  The internet may still be new-ish to these administrators, but they need to catch up and catch up fast, because they do more damage to a university' reputation than the random or not so random blogger.

Update: More news has come out since I posted this on my blog. The UBC Board of Governors met secret to talk about this, including a public relations firm in the deliberations. This led to a statement that indicated that there would be an inquiry about the possible effort to silence Berdahl. The faculty association has indicated a lack of confidence in Montablano. News has come out that perhaps the President was pressured to resign because a bundle was spent on renovating his residence (mostly the spaces used for public events).


Anonymous said...

This raises an interesting side question. If you accept a named chair, especially one named after someone who is still alive, do you have an ethical obligation to refrain from making public comments that might embarrass the benefactor? Of course Montablano stepped over the line by contacting Berdahl directly, but I think the general question remains a valid one.

Steve Saideman said...

This is why I am glad my endowed chair is named after someone who is not alive.

I think the higher ethical priority is to be true to one's profession and oneself before one is true to one's sponsor. The days of Machiavelli sucking up to the Medici's (if I remember correctly) are long gone. If you endow a chair to get expertise on organizational dynamics especially regarding diversity, then you should expect some inconvenient, uncomfy opinions from those who fill that spot.

Perhaps if the Chair was for those who study obedience and acquiescence, he would have gotten a better result?