How three professors navigate academic freedom in the classroom

In recent years, the concept of academic freedom has mostly emerged in regard to controversial speakers at UBC. Defenders of Ben Shapiro, Andy Ngo and more have used this concept to defend why they these speakers should be able to come and speak on campus.

But in the classroom, the concept and careful implementation of academic freedom can help to navigate sensitive discussions.

The Senate’s Policy on Academic Freedom defines academic freedom to for faculty and students as the right 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.”

But how do professors navigate this in the classroom when certain kinds of speech may negatively harm some members of the student population?

The professor’s role in the classroom

Dr. Afsoun Afsahi from the department of political science defined academic freedom in the classroom as “the allowing of open, diverse and representative dialogue between students to the point that it doesn't become detrimental to the learning of other students in the classroom.”

In the public sphere, Afsahi said that people can exchange ideas just for the sake of it. On the contrary, the classroom is a space for productive discussions that ultimately benefit the learning of the student.

The role of the professor, to her, is to pay particular attention to the aim of one’s speech in a classroom. “I am in a position where I am responsible for the quality of teaching that students are receiving,” she said, adding that this requires her to ensure that no students feel excluded or inferior.

Dr. Darko Odic in the department of psychology shared similar sentiments regarding classroom discussion.

“My students have pushed back on various things I’ve said over the years — I’ve been encouraged to read more about the biology of sex, about implicit biases that marginalized communities face, about Eurocentric biases in psychology theories, and much more. These invitations, when I was finally brave enough to accept them, led to me becoming a better, more informed, and more nuanced scholar,” wrote Odic, in an email statement to The Ubyssey.

He said the question of academic freedom in the classroom is not about whether difficult topics should be brought up, but rather how they should be brought up. As an instructor, Odic sees his role as offering a helping hand for the student to analyze and correct their own biases.

Odic said he aims to invite students to the conversation, using his position of expertise and power to moderate the discussion and ensure that every student’s opinion is treated equally.

The line between unpopular and offensive

But Afsahi said she makes it clear to her students that she does not tolerate racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist or anti-Indigenous language of any sort. The purpose and intention of her class discussions are to allow for an environment where students can share their views in a respectful manner that progresses learning.

“There's a line between allowing students to share their opinions which might be unpopular, versus allowing students to share opinions that are fully offensive,” Afsahi added.

Dr. Jie Cheng at the Peter A. Allard School of Law has taught in universities around the world, specializing in Chinese law and government. She explained that academic freedom can provide channels for controversial debate and discussion among students.

“It’s a choice between violence and persuasion,” she said of censorship and a lack of academic freedom at Chinese universities.

Despite UBC's different context, there’s still a need for open debate, according to all three professors. The responsibility of UBC faculty to navigate these conversations without harming marginalized communities in the face of maintaining academic freedom is a difficult and evolving task.

“The most important and influential discussions I have ever had with students have been those where we all went behind the veil of hierarchy [and] saw each other as people,” said Professor Odic.

“I’d like to see a classroom discussion become a lot less about ‘me’ and a lot more about ‘all of us.’”