Academic freedom has limits

The controversy at UBC over the abrupt departure this week of its president, in the first year of a five-year term, points to a pervasive culture that has taken over higher learning in Canada and is alive and well at UNBC.

The issue is academic freedom, a concept that university and college professors cling to as fiercely as gun advocates insist on their right to bear arms and as adamantly as journalists hold up the freedom of the press.

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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."

When challenged, Berdahl quickly retreated behind academic freedom and lashed out at UBC administration and board chair John Montalbano, who also happens to be personally funding Berdahl's studies on gender and diversity in leadership, for having the nerve to call her and express his contrary opinion.

"Even if the university's leadership doesn't recognize it, I have a right to academic freedom and expression, free of intimidation and harassment," she wrote on her blog. "I cannot be fired for exercising this right."

She also stated she "never felt more gagged or threatened after expressing scholarly viewpoints and analysis of current events."

She defeats her own argument with that one word.

"Scholarly" implies her viewpoints and analysis were based on legitimate scientific methodology and that her views come from research results that would meet the standards for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Being a professional scholar isn't a licence 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.

During the spring strike, some UNBC faculty insisted administration (and anyone else who disagreed with their labour demands) was infringing on their academic freedom. Yet their own collective agreement states "academic freedom does not confer legal immunity, nor

does it diminish the obligations of members to meet their duties and responsibilities. Members have a duty to exercise that freedom in a manner consistent with the academic obligations of teachers and scholars."

Those are some real-world limits to academic freedom. If Berdahl were a professor at UNBC, those lines could be used, certainly not to fire her but she would be worthy of discipline for abusing her academic freedom at the expense of the university.

A last critical point professors like Berdahl too often forget is that academic freedom has no extra importance outside post-secondary institutions.

In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically identifies the press and the media as being protected under the fundamental freedom of "thought, belief, opinion and expression."

There is no mention of academic freedom in the Charter or the American Constitution.

To put it bluntly, academic freedom is simply not considered as valuable as other freedoms, including freedom of the press, to be specifically protected under the law.

There's a humbling thought for professors who think academic freedom is a blank cheque to mouth off at will.

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