What is Academic Freedom and Why Don’t People Get It?

You all know the allegations by now. The chair of UBC’s Board of Governors, John Montalbano, places an angry phone call to Jennifer Berdahl for her blog post suggesting recently-resigned UBC president Arvind Gupta lost a ‘masculinity contest.’  Then, Berdahl’s higher ups subject her to a series of intimidating emails, phone calls, and conversations. If Berdahl’s account of the story is to be believed, Montalbano (whose donation is funding Berdahl’s position) was particularly upset at Berdahl because she made his employer, RBC, look bad. According to Berdahl, the Associate Director of Communications asked her to “minimize” her blog:

At this point I realized that the purpose of this conversation was not just to scold me, but to discourage me from speaking further. I have never in my life felt more institutional pressure to be silent.

Not surprisingly, basically everyone on this campus seems to be calling for a full and fair investigation (the student society, the board itself). The faculty association has gone one step further to demand Montalbano’s resignation, citing the RBC conflict of interest.

Individual professors seem pretty upset too. Take education professor Wayne Ross, who has already written 7 critical blog posts about the Gupta fiasco, including one where he clearly articulated why this threatens UBC’s official academic freedom, and its workplace discrimination and harassment policies:

Actions that have the effect of intimidating or harassing (whether intended or not) undermine the ability of people to “freely work, live, examine, question, teach, learn, comment and criticize.”

From where I sit, none of this outrage is surprising. Academic freedom is bedrock here at UBC, and any threat “cannot be tolerated.” But open the newspaper, and things seem very different.

First, there’s the Vancouver Sun’s Pete McMartin. In a truly outstanding demonstration of his ignorance for the basic concept of academic freedom, he justifies Montablano’s alleged tirade.

since that’s what happens in the real world when you incur the ire of those in the offices above you, not to mention a patron. Even with the freedom I enjoy at The Sun, I have never been exempt from that delightful experience, having been dressed down several times by editors, in the newsroom, in front of staff, to get the hell out of their sight and get back to work. And I bet, dear reader, you’ve never been exempt from that particular joy, either. It’s called “work.”

As I said in my comment on the article: can we please stop comparing academics to “people in the real world” with “bosses” who push back if you criticize them? For most people in “the real world,” (minus well-educated upper-middle class newspaper columnists) “the real world” is a place of oppression and exploitation — it stifles creative expression, freedom, inquiry, and individual flourishing. Having a soulless corporate employer and a shitty boss may be the norm, but it’s not the ideal to which we should measure all things–especially professors. It took centuries of struggle, investment, and inquiry to come up with this idea of a special carve out we call academic freedom, and the academy more broadly. The way Pete’s boss treats him has no relationship to this special carve out. 

Then there’s James Tansey, a UBC Sauder professor in his own right, writing in the Globe and Mail. I guess Pete is a little bit out of his element, so I will forgive him. But I can’t forgive James. He attacks Berdahl’s analysis, and then ends in a weird (unsubstantiated) salutation to Gupta:

Whatever lies behind the reasons for his departure, the one thing I can say is that Dr. Gupta is a bright, energetic, strong-minded and entrepreneurial leader and I would expect he is offended by Dr. Berdahl’s reinvention of his personality in her blog.

At the very least, she owes him an apology.

The trap that both these article fall into is assuming that the content of Berdahl’s analysis has anything to do with with her basic right to express that content. By couching their defence of John-John’s actions in an attack of Berdahl’s content, they confuse the issue. The fundamental issue is: did his actions impinge on Berdahl’s academic freedom? The content is secondary–clearly, the content did not inspire outrage until the alleged intimidation. Frankly, I think Berdahl’s analysis is far off the mark. Tansey has hundreds of words that suggest the same thing. But what about the academic freedom question? In his 691-word article, here’s everything he has to say about that:

But I have seen no real signs of the censorship she is claiming in response to her subsequent blog, and she can’t and won’t be fired. It’s a real stretch to claim academic freedom has been violated and, as a fellow faculty member, it’s embarrassing to see the concept used as a trump card and spill out into the news in this way.

Tansey blithely makes no mention of every major allegation in Berdahl’s article, including the suggestion that Sauder donors are upset (i.e. and therefore might pull funds). But more importantly, he suggests that nothing less than full-blown censorship or firing would be an impingement on academic freedom. Is that right?

In Sweezy v. New Hampshire — a case about a professor being grilled by the state of New Hampshire about the content of their lecture (but, not muzzled or fired) — the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling that the state had acted legitimately. Notice, this is grilling–not firing. Granted, this was not a university administer doing the grilling. But, in a passage about the role of the university, the judge agrees with a South African judge who decides that it is:
the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation.
Then there’s a Canadian case, Pridgen v. University of Calgary (2012), which recognizes academic freedom as both “protecting the individual academic professional,” or “more broadly to promote discussion in the university community as a whole.”

In a good overview, Western Law professor Michael Lynk, shows that Canadian academic freedom is largely protected through university/faculty labour contracts. Like the judge in the case above, UBC’s faculty contract expands academic freedom beyond the employment stability of the professor and even protects visitors of the university. You can’t terminate the contract of a visitor, obviously. Therefore, employment status is not the only measure of academic freedom. Further, the contract calls on all members of the university to “share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom.” This wide-reaching, non-specific responsibility reads much like “atmosphere” as quoted in the US case.

Clearly, if the head of the board engaged in such conduct, he threatened the “atmosphere” necessary for true academic freedom–even if not the employment status.