John Montalbano: Former UBC Chair’s Dilemma Intensified By Confidentiality Clause

September 2016

John Montalbano, former chair of UBC's board of governors, says he values volunteering and contributing. “But no one signs up to be shamed, discredited or see their families harmed by those who have nothing to lose.” The Italian-Canadian was raised in East Vancouver and attended John Oliver Secondary.

The chair of UBC’s board of governors told the reporter, on camera, he could not comment on the sudden resignation of president Arvind Gupta because of a two-way confidentiality agreement.

But the reporter kept pursuing Montalbano, declaring that “people” believed the board chair was “incompetent.” She told him: “It’s unacceptable that you don’t have something to say right now.”

One year after the August 7, 2015, resignation of Gupta, Montalbano’s memory still simmers over that parking lot confrontation. That’s in part because Montalbano’s nine-year-old son discovered the TV clip on the Internet.

“Being followed to the car was an out-of-body experience. I knew that each of the allegations made against me was unfounded,” says Montalbano, who later resigned as chair of the university’s board.

Hundreds more stories appeared citing Montalbano’s name. While some commentators supported Montalbano, most stories were based on criticism of him by the UBC Faculty Association and some professors.

The parking lot incident illustrated the ethical dilemma Montalbano found himself in. “Although I made it very clear to the reporter that I could not speak at that time because of the non-disclosures, she chose to ignore the statement and launched into her unfounded allegations on camera as she followed me to the car,” said Montalbano, who is vice chair of RBC Wealth Management and a frequent donor to programs to advance women in business.

“Her aggressive behaviour sacrificed facts for sensationalism, and this was not without consequence. My family, particularly my son, was severely traumatized by the actions of a reporter who should have had a better understanding of the complexities of the story she was covering.”

One year later, Montalbano has agreed to speak. He had declined interviews to allow for a smooth transition to a new board chair, Stuart Belkin, and new president, Santa Ono. Montalbano is pleased with the June appointment of Ono, calling him an “academic and moral leader worthy of the university.”

From East Vancouver

Raised in East Vancouver by Italian-Canadian parents — his father was a unionized worker at Britannia Mines, his mother a short-order cook at Hudson’s Bay— Montalbano, 51, attended John Oliver Secondary and has long been involved in public service. He continues to volunteer for major philanthropic organizations.

As chair of the board of governors at UBC, which has a budget of more than $2 billion, Montalbano received no pay.

He was willing “to take on hard work on behalf of students and professors. Vancouver lawyer Martin Sheard, who specializes in employer-employee relations, has empathy for the position Montalbano found himself in. Along with hundreds of resignations and terminations that occur annually among UBC’s more than 15,000 faculty and employees, Sheard said Gupta’s departure was covered by a relatively standard confidentiality agreement. “Reciprocal confidentiality agreements are intended to protect both parties,” the lawyer said. For the most part, Sheard believes arguments the UBC board should have been more transparent “rang hollow.”

The decision to accept Gupta’s resignation was supported by the board’s eight elected student, staff and faculty governors. UBC’s deans also approved it.

UBC Faculty Association president Mark MacLean, however, led a campaign to force Montalbano to step down.

“We believe it is … imperative to have the full story behind the resignation of Prof. Gupta as president of UBC,” MacLean said at the time. “Full disclosure is the only way to restore trust in the governance of the UBC.”

The faculty association also championed women’s studies professor Jennifer Berdahl, whose business chair was financed by a $2 million personal donation by Montalbano.

Berdahl wrote a blog post in which she speculated Gupta had lost a “masculinity contest” with UBC’s leaders.

Berdahl then received a phone call from Montalbano, whom she maintained told her she may be damaging the university’s reputation. An independent report by former judge Lynn Smith later found that, while Montalbano didn’t personally infringe Berdahl’s academic freedom, the university as a whole failed to actively defend it.

Berdahl could not be reached for comment.

MacLean said Friday “at this point we are not commenting on events surrounding the resignations of Dr. Gupta and Mr. Montalbano.”

Contradictions questioned

UBC business ethics professor James Tansey said Montalbano’s critics should have been aware neither side could comment on Gupta’s resignation. “There was not much basis for a fair debate.”

As a former elected official of UBC’s faculty association, Tansey says the association has become more “adversarial” in recent years. Tansey believes it acted in a “contradictory” manner when it came to the suspension last fall of former UBC creative writing department head Stephen Galloway.

In contrast to the way MacLean publicly denounced Montalbano and sought “complete transparency” about the resignation of Gupta, Tansey noted MacLean claimed Galloway had “a legal right to privacy” and should not be subjected to “unspecified allegations.” The Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has also asked MacLean why the faculty association “rushed to call” for Montalbano’s resignation before any allegations against the chair had been investigated.

Society head Mark Mercer, chair of the philosophy department at St. Mary’s University, has asked MacLean to explain which “protocols” were allegedly breached by Montalbano and the board. It has yet to receive a reply.

As for Montalbano, he believes freedom “comes with responsibilities …. It is an unfair playing field when those with privileges, such as academic freedom and tenure, take on a private citizen.”

Smith’s review, he said, concluded “I acted in good faith and was alive to the issue of academic freedom in my conversation.”

Does he have regrets?

“While the past year has been difficult for my family, I have never for a moment secondguessed or regretted any decision made by me or by the board,” he said.

“I also do not believe there is a governance crisis at UBC. Governance can and should be improved. That said, UBC ranks among the 50 best universities in the world and I believe one of the contributing factors to its strength is the relative independence of its board.” Montalbano has said non-disclosure agreements “should be the exception and not the rule” when it comes to senior public sector appointments.

“But non-disclosure clauses will continue to be the norm unless both parties agree on the transparency satisfying the public’s need to know.”

Montalbano said Gupta was “treated respectfully” during his tenure at and departure from UBC.

“We wanted him to succeed in the role, and we shared a similar view that the university must refocus its priorities towards research and teaching. Our conversations were candid, transparent and sometimes difficult,” he said.

In Canada during the past decade, 18 university presidents have either resigned or been terminated before the end of their contract, according to Julie Cafley, vice-president at the Public Policy Forum.

As part of his compensation, Gupta received his annual salary of more than $440,000. In addition to being guaranteed his ongoing computer science professorship at UBC, he now has a position at the University of Toronto.

One silver lining from the ordeal, Montalbano said, is that his two children have been part of family discussions about leadership.

“The kids saw first-hand that, at times, standing for what is right may require courage, conviction of one’s principles and a sacrifice of one’s self on behalf of the institution served, especially in public service.”

Montalbano says he’s “humbled” many social organizations have in the past year approached him to be on their boards. He now serves with the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation; Vancouver Public Library, as head of its capital campaign; and the Vancouver Police Foundation. He remains a trustee of the Killam Trusts in support of graduate studies, and on a committee for the Canada Council for the Arts.

“The events at UBC have not discouraged me from serving society. Business leaders have a duty to contribute to the communities that support them.”