Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 1 of a Series]

Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]

After Arvind Gupta suddenly resigned as the president of the University of British Columbia, Jennifer Berdahl, a faculty member at the university, wrote a blog post in which she discussed the possibility that the president’s sudden departure had been linked to an entrenched lack of diversity at the university. Although the blog post generated some controversy, it was quickly superseded by the charge that John Montalbano, the chair of the institution’s Board of Trustees, had impinged on Berdahl’s academic freedom when he questioned her about the post. What is especially interesting about this case is that Montalbano knew that was he was doing could be viewed as inappropriate and his attempt to make it clear that he was not trying to intimidate Berdahl only reinforced why the conversation was inappropriate Here is an account published in the Vancouver Sun:

“Montalbano said in an interview Tuesday that he made it clear to Berdahl, both before and during his conversation with her, that he didn’t want to interfere with her academic freedom and told her to stop the conversation if she felt he had done so.

“’My intention in contacting Prof. Berdahl, who has been a trusted colleague for two years and with whom I have regular contact, was to discuss her blog post and to further understand the professor’s concerns,’ Montalbano said in a statement. ‘I asked the professor if she would be comfortable with discussing the blog and, in particular, I asked if she thought the discussion would in any way compromise her academic freedom.’ Montalbano said he did not threaten her funding, and that he did not intend to impinge her academic freedom.

“But even raising the issues of academic freedom and Berdahl’s funding makes the call inappropriate, said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“’I think, in retrospect, Montalbano should have recognized that it is entirely inappropriate for a chair of the board to contact a professor about a posting on her blog,’ Robinson said. ‘Given the power relationship–this isn’t an equal relationship–he is the chair of the board over governors of the university and is also a major funder of the Sauder school. Any reasonable person I think would realize that there is a real potential conflict of interest here and a real power imbalance that would make it inappropriate’” (Sherlock).

In the headline to the article and in the article itself, the terms “academic freedom” and “academic privilege” seem to be used somewhat interchangeably.

____________________

In an opinion piece for the Prince George Citizen, Neil Godbout challenged Jennifer Berdahl’s claim that her opinions about the causes of Gupta’s resignation were protected by academic freedom:

“Academic freedom started as a noble goal to protect researchers from conducting and reporting controversial research and professors from teaching controversial topics. In other words, academic freedom was designed to be a shield that guarded against intervention and censorship from government, social agencies, higher education benefactors and even the administrators of the research institution itself.

“Over the past 25 years, however, academic freedom has moved beyond its original defensive purpose to a more offensive stance. Today, far too many professors believe they can say what they want, whenever they want, with no scholarly rigour behind their statements but then claim that their statement is protected by academic freedom.

“UBC business professor Jennifer Berdahl blogged that Arvind Gupta, the now-departed UBC president, was kicked out because he lost a ‘masculinity contest’ in the ‘frat-boy’ management environment at UBC. She offered no evidence to support her ‘personal observations and experiences’ and admitted to not knowing ‘the ins and outs of this unfortunate outcome.’ . . .

“Being a professional scholar isn’t a license to make unsubstantiated claims and call them a scholarly viewpoint. That’s just opinion, which is no better or worse than the viewpoints of the less educated masses. Professors rightly insist students know the difference between opinion and scientific findings but too many like Berdahl seem unable to apply that distinction to themselves.

“In UNBC’s mission statement, the university embraces academic freedom but as part of a shopping list of good things, which also include responsibility, integrity, respect for others and fairness. Academic freedom must include all of those things for it to wear that badge with honour. . . .” (Godbout).

Despite the defenses offered by Godbout and others, Montalbano resigned his position in October 2015 after a retired judge tasked with investigating the issues found that he had infringed on Berdahl’s academic freedom (Kane).

____________________

Godbout, Neil. “Academic Freedom Has Limits.” Prince George Citizen [British Columbia] 21 Aug. 2015: A, 4.

Kane, Laura. “UBC Chairman Resigns after Probe Finds ‘Errors of Judgment’; University Failed to Protect Professor’s Academic Freedom, Retired Judge Finds.” Times Colonist [Victoria, British Columbia] 16 Oct. 2015: A, 4.

Sherlock, Tracy. “School’s Chairman of the Board Says He Won’t Relinquish His Post; Montalbano Insists He Was Careful Not to Breach Academic Privilege.” Vancouver Sun 19 Aug. 2015: A, 8.

Arvind Gupta

Arvind Gupta

Jennifer Berdahl

Jennifer Berdahl

John Montalbano

John Montalbano

 

 

11 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 1 of a Series]

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