Academic Freedom

After a series of perplexing events at UBC involving the unexpected and immediate resignation of the University’s President, all eyes are on the outcome of an academic freedom matter that has since erupted between the Board of Governor’s Chair and a tenured Professor. The Professor, who wrote a blog post speculating on the resignation of the President as it related to her research, has come forward with allegations of interference from the Board Chair w.r.t. her right to academic freedom. While an investigation is currently underway, CAUT has called on the resignation of the Board Chair and has begun the arduous process of wading through the case. There are obviously more complicated series of events that contribute to this situation, and much of it will be revealed in time; however, now is as important a time as any, if not more so, to assert the principle of academic freedom in the Institution of Academe and to highlight its place at the University of Lethbridge.

Academic freedom is a defining value of universities and generally entails the right for faculty to teach, research, and publish without threat of reprisal or censorship. Academic freedom is not universally defined, nor does it easily dichotomize the world into black and white, right and wrong. Its invocation often requires a complex understanding of an isolated situation, the individuals involved, and the unique role of academics in an academic institution.

At the U of L, the definition of academic freedom was first introduced in the 2010 Faculty Handbook and today Article 11.01.1 states the following:

Academic freedom is generally understood as the right to teach, to engage in scholarly activity, and to perform service without interference and without jeopardizing employment. This freedom is central to the University’s mission and purpose and entails the right to participate in public life, to criticize university or other administrations, to champion unpopular positions, to engage in frank discussion of controversial matters, and to raise questions and challenges which may be viewed as counter to the beliefs of society.

There is an explicit duty to use one’s academic freedom in a manner that is in the honest and careful pursuit of knowledge and an inherent obligation to defend academic freedom every single time it is challenged (reference Articles 11.01.2; 11.01.5). This Association’s experiences with academic freedom matters are complicated and, in all honesty, painful and divided. Our experiences are perhaps some of the great defining moments in our collective history, and ones to hold in our hearts as we step tentatively, but collectively, toward better and stronger rights in our challenging sociopolitical landscape.

The investigation at UBC is but one small n in the growing anecdata of the attack on academic freedom that is happening across Canada and elsewhere. We must collectively safeguard this institutional pillar and the Faculty Association will uphold its obligation for vigilance. In the meantime, keep an eye on the developments of the case at UBC; the outcome may well have larger implications on the right to academic freedom than any of us can predict here and now.