Friday, October 27, 2017

Academic Freedom at UBC

UBC has been faced with serious issues of late regarding infringements of faculty academic freedom. The situation became so dire that a special senior advisor to the provost, Neil Guppy (Professor, Sociology) was appointed in 2016.

The events leading up to Dr. Guppy's appointment have been well documented elsewhere.  By way of summary they began with the infringement of the academic freedom of business faculty professor, Jennifer Berdahl, by members of the UBC administration and Board of Governors.  This led to an independent study by the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C. and the subsequent resignation of John Montalbano, the former Chair of the UBC Board of Governors.

Since appointment Dr Guppy has been making presentations on academic freedom.  Most recently he presented at the UBC Faculty Association Annual Fall Meeting.  Observations on the presentation have been posted by one faculty member in attendance.  Part of Dr. Guppy's presentation has included a background paper on the history of academic freedom issues at UBC.  The origin of the current language on academic freedom at UBC is dated, by Dr. Guppy, to a particular event in the late 1970s that involved the attempted disruption of an on campus speaking engagement.

In the briefing paper  Dr. Guppy focusses on the irony of the named speaker being called racist and fascist while he was in fact a law and order reformer. Dr. Guppy does not elaborate upon the matter but instead focusses on the fact a Senate committee was set up to make recommendations to the President. Left unsaid was the fallout whereby a member of the university community (Alan Soroka, a law librarian at the time) was first threatened with being fired and then faced a lesser form of discipline.

Rather than simply being an issue about the academic freedom of a politician from a regime
operating in a manner contrary to human rights provisions this moment in UBC's history also is about the rights of faculty and staff working at UBC to engage in acts of public protest and dissent.

UBC's initial response was to discipline Soroka and used the discourse of academic freedom to do that.  That is, President Kenny wrote a letter of discipline implying that Soroka's employment was in question.  Kenny's letter to Soroka followed the receipt of letters from the University Librarian and the Dean of Arts, both who argued that Soroka had violated Swartz's academic freedom. Neither academic administrator considered that there may be a counterbalancing issue of academic freedom. For the administration the issue of academic freedom went only one direction - the right of a formal speaker to speak. There was no consideration of the right of a dissenting voice to actively protest.

This is not simply an historical quibble. Across North American and Western European campuses we see a resurgence of these kinds of conflicts.  On campus groups invite speakers known for inflammatory rhetoric, questionable science, or just provocative enough to get a rise out of somebody. And somebody does get their back up. Protests are organized and a speaker here or there is disrupted.

The idea that all speech is equally valued and has a right to exist within a university is problematic at best.  That has never really been the case; it is unlikely that it ever will. Universities, according to the late Bill Reading (The University in Ruins) used be about managing national culture and through that mandate silenced dissenting faculty.  The modern university of excellence, says Readings, has shifted somewhat and has paid less attention to the content of faculty research but have paid attention to faculty criticisms of the administration.  Today's faculty member might not face sanction over published work, but they will be targeted for speaking out against the actions of their university administration or donors or business supporters. The fact is that the narrow domain of 'within the law' forms of Academic Freedom is that it allows problematic types of research while silencing political dissent critical of how the university operates.

Academic Freedom is in reality a small 'c' conservative policy. As it exists at UBC it is framed within the context of what is permissible under Canadian law.
"Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion." [emphasis added] 
It is driven by an ideology of liberal individualism that prioritizes (with modest limits) the right of an individual.   All of this makes the doctrine of academic freedom of limited utility for those who try to use it to critique dominant political systems, university administrators, or to advocate for progressive social change.  It also would not protect a member of the university community from engaging in civil disobedience or even in acts of protest. We need a more aggressive, progressive approach that safeguards university faculty who have the courage of their convictions to stand up to administrators who pander to corporate interests.

No comments:

Post a Comment