The ABCs of UBC’s Academic Freedom Fiasco

A blog by a tenured professor has the university in lockdown, but it’s all an unfortunate misunderstanding.

October 16, 2015

By James Tansey

With the news today that a UBC executive has resigned over the recent controversy surrounded academic freedom of speech, we asked Professor James Tansey of the Sauder School of Business —what’s really going on?

Sayre’s law states: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.” Since Dr. Arvind Gupta stepped down from the position of president at UBC two months ago, the ongoing and very public debate about his departure and whether a faculty member’s academic freedom was threatened must be puzzling to the rest of the world.

The faculty member citing breach of academic freedom? Dr. Jennifer Berdahl, the Sauder School of Business’s Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies for gender and diversity. The creation of this faculty position was a very important commitment by the school. After Gupta resigned, Berdahl speculated on her blog about a conspiracy of white men to exclude minorities and women from senior roles at the university. Her blog post argues that Gupta may have lost the masculinity contest among senior leaders at UBC. By her own admission, this observation is not based on any of the data that would normally underpin an academic study.

The board chair, who also made the donation that funded Berdahl’s position, called her to discuss the issue. She was asked to meet with the department head and with the dean’s office. In a second blog post, Berdahl wrote about these meetings, arguing that she was being intimidated and that her academic freedom was being threatened. The faculty association weighed in to defend her. The conflict sloshed into the public domain and has since absorbed hundreds of column inches. UBC has now appointed a retired Supreme Court judge to undertake an independent review of the whole affair.

To understand why this hallowed concept of academic freedom is important, you also have to understand two other aspects of the university system: tenure and the culture of informed skepticism. Tenure is something that professors have to earn on merit by getting a PhD, competing in a crowded market for a faculty position, and then enduring an extended hazing ritual for  the better part of a decade, culminating in a review of all their academic publications, their teaching, and their commitment to service. Publications are reviewed by multiple colleagues, who evaluate the pieces and do anything they can to poke holes in them.

It is not an easy path. Tenure is a lonely and competitive mountain to climb. Researchers are protected by the norms of academic freedom throughout the process, but tenure underwrites that with a permanent position.

The culture of informed skepticism recognizes that knowledge and ideas thrive and evolve in an environment of debate. No assumptions can be taken for granted, everything can be questioned, and any proof can be challenged by new theories and data. It is this culture that makes universities such vibrant centres of innovation and engines of change.

So where does this leave academic freedom? Firstly, the offending blog is not an academic product. Berdahl begins by admitting she has no inside knowledge of what occurred. The writing has not been through peer review and is really just an opinion piece. When I say that the other key element of university culture is informed skepticism, that means you are supposed to have both theory and evidence to support your arguments.

Secondly, the biggest consequence of Berdahl’s blog was that a number of people in the university criticized her. She has the protection of tenure, and that means that she can’t and shouldn’t be fired and she can’t and shouldn’t be forced to remove the blog.

But the spectacle resulting from these blogs damages the credibility of the university with the public, with donors, and with politicians.

Those are much higher stakes.

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