Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 2 of a Series]

 

Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]

About two months after the previously cited articles on the issues involving John Montalbano and Jennifer Berdahl was published, the following open letter by Martha Piper, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia was also published in the Vancouver Sun. At a time when administrators have often actively sought to undermine academic freedom or have passively acquiesced to its erosion by political and corporate interests, this statement by a university president is remarkable for both its content and its singularity:

“There is a conversation unfolding–reasonably and urgently–about whether the University of British Columbia has been offering adequate support and protection to the privilege of academic freedom. I’m encouraged by that discussion: it’s an issue well worth our time, and one that I’m determined to see resolved in a decisive and transparent fashion.

“As a result of recent experience at UBC, we have committed to hiring a specialist who will proactively work with faculty, staff, and governors to ensure that academic freedom is safeguarded and preserved at UBC. In addition, we will develop educational programs to assist all members of the UBC community to recognize that this principle is so fundamental that it is not enough to tacitly endorse it; rather, all members of the university community have (in the resonant words of the Honourable Lynn Smith) ‘a positive obligation to support and protect’ the academic freedom of our colleagues.

“But in addition to my concern about whether the nature of academic freedom is fully understood by faculty, staff, administrators and governors at UBC, I also worry whether its importance is understood by society at large.

“Academic freedom is at the very heart of the university’s ability to do its job; it is written–I hope indelibly–into the social contract between Canadian society and our institutions of teaching, learning, and research. One of our most important functions, at UBC and at other post-secondary institutions, is to question–to interrogate the status quo, from the nature of our social and political assumptions to the details of our scientific understanding. It is part of a long academic tradition that every opinion–every imagined “fact”–must be open to rigorous analysis and tireless review. Only by such scrutiny do we come to a better understanding of what we know, and of what we may yet learn.

“This review is not always welcome. People frequently object when their articles of faith are questioned. But history has given us adequate experience of the dangers of allowing authority to rule over evidence. The objectivity of scientific research gave way to ideology and dogma in Nazi Germany, where service to the Fatherland required conformity of thought and obedience to baseless theories of racial superiority. The suppression of academic freedom was even more rigorous and systematic in Stalinist Russia, where research that did not promote state ideology was forbidden, and the researchers themselves often imprisoned.

“Such extreme examples may seem remote and unlikely to threaten our freedom-loving, democratic state.

“But we should never become complacent; the principle of academic freedom is a privilege bestowed on us by the struggle and sacrifice of earlier generations, and we must be alert to every possible threat.

“Yet even if defending academic freedom is right, it doesn’t always feel right. There was a famous case at UBC in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. At a time when people around the world were recoiling in horror and declaring, ‘We are all Americans,’ a UBC professor of Women’s Studies took the stage at a conference in Ottawa and decried that position. She said, ‘U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood’ and added that the talk of a counterattack on Afghanistan was nothing more than ‘bloodthirsty vengeance.’

“It’s difficult today to remember how harsh those words sounded, as U.S. crews scoured the rubble at Ground Zero, looking for bodies. But I certainly remember the outrage. My phone rang off the hook, with people of power and influence–even some UBC faculty–demanding that she be fired. We did two things. We got a legal opinion to ensure that what she had said was not captured within the description of hate speech, and then we invited everyone to do what civilized people do in a democracy: challenge the merits of her argument.

“That, of course, is the flip side of academic freedom. It is not–in the broadly understood context–“freedom of speech.” Academic freedom doesn’t mean that you get to say whatever you want, with impunity. You are expected to have evidence or scholarship to support your observations or point of view. You can’t make things up or fudge your data. If you do–and you get caught–THAT is a firing offence. And regardless of your own convictions, academic freedom applies equally to people who disagree with you. It is– at every stage–the basis for debate, not for censorship.

“It is the responsibility of every member of our university community, not just our academic leaders, to support and defend this basic value, a cornerstone of universities. If we falter, our collective creativity, our productivity, our democracy may be at risk–thereby endangering the structure and security of our society. Academic freedom is perhaps the most important weapon we have when it becomes necessary to speak truth to power” {Piper).

 

Piper, Martha. “A Right, a Privilege, a Necessity; Academic Freedom: To Question the Status Quo Is One of a University’s Most Important Functions.” Vancouver Sun 17 Oct. 2015: G, 5.

____________________

Martha Piper

Martha Piper

Jennifer Berdahl

Jennifer Berdahl

John Montalbano

John Montalbano

 

____________________

Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/global-survey-of-academic-freedom-issues-in-2015-post-1-of-a-series/.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 2 of a Series]

  1. Because it’s never happened before, I’ve never considered the idea of a university hiring a staffer who focuses on promoting academic freedom. Normally I don’t like the idea of staff doing the work of faculty, or the endlessly expanding administration, but it seems to me that this just might be a good idea.

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