UBC is amending its academic freedom policy, and not everybody is happy with the changes

For the first time ever, UBC is revisiting its 45-year-old Academic Freedom Policy.

The proposed changes would define several terms used in the policy, including who is covered by it and what constitutes obstructing peaceful assembly. Students, staff and faculty are invited to weigh in on the changes in a consultation survey, UBC announced in a late September broadcast.

“Academic freedom is one of UBC’s five core values,” the broadcast read. “The university has an Academic Freedom Policy in place to ensure community members are granted certain rights and privileges essential to the fulfilment of teaching and the pursuit of knowledge.”

Academic freedom is heavily debated in post-secondary institutions across Canada, particularly around creating a safe space in the classroom. It is not the same as freedom of expression.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, a national organization representing academic professionals, describes academic freedom as the “right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination.”

In recent years, controversies regarding speakers on campuses and language and terminology used in classrooms have attracted significant national discussion. UBC has been no exception, with such incidents prompting “calls to consider whether the current policy continues to meet current needs and whether it aligns with the university’s values, including inclusivity and respect,” according to UBC’s consultation webpage.

UBC’s announcement also notes the policy currently “extends [academic freedom] not only to the regular members of the University, but to all who are invited to participate in its forum.”

“In the summer and fall of 2019, several speeches on the Vancouver campus by individuals who are not members of the UBC community raised concerns that the speakers are likely to convey messages that are not in keeping with the institution’s core value of respect towards different people, ideas and actions,” the page explains.

Speakers during that time period included the American political commentator Ben Shapiro and journalist Andy Ngo — although Ngo's talk was eventually cancelled.

The new draft policy states that “members” enjoy a right to academic freedom, defining members as “the chancellor, president, members of senate, faculty, teaching assistants and other instructional staff, students, researchers (e.g., postdoctoral research fellows, research associates, and clinical fellows), staff while engaged in scholarly and research activities for the University, and alumni and emeriti as it relates to scholarly work they conduct while actively engaged with the University before or after they graduate or retire.”

The draft policy has been approved by the Academic Policy Committees of both the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.

Dr. Kin Lo, chair of the Senate Academic Policy Committee, declined to comment on the amendments while the consultation period was ongoing.

Romina Hajizadeh, the co-chair of the Student Senate Caucus and student senator-at-large, told The Ubyssey that her caucus encouraged students to become aware of the amendments, particularly section 7 that refers to peaceful assembling and protesting.

The first sentence of section 7 states that, “Academic freedom manifests most strongly when peaceful assembly is given its fullest protection.”

In the draft, the phrase “peaceful assembly is given its fullest protection” is accompanied by a definition that says it is not acceptable for members from “actually preventing or materially interfering" others from attending a presentation.

Hajizadeh said the Student Senate Caucus would seek further clarification on what is meant by the term “materially interfering.”

Hajizadeh said academic freedom has a direct impact on students, especially given the role of student organizing on campus.

Dr. Jonathan Ichikawa, head of the department of philosophy, expressed his criticism of the policy via Twitter, saying the draft presented a “coherence issue” with the definitions, and raised more questions than answers.

Like Hajizadeh, Ichikawa also took issue with the draft’s prohibition of behaviour that prevents a presentation from being heard or attended.

Ichikawa said in an interview that he felt the draft lacked recognition of the point of academic freedom, and parts of it conflated academic freedom with freedom of expression.

“Unlike freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, [academic freedom] is tied very specifically to the special role that academics play in a university. And that's a role concerned with the public good to advance knowledge, which is the central point of the university. And which speakers we have at academic events is part of that process,” he said.

Ichikawa said that although a component of academic freedom, the issue of speakers being disrupted is “far from the main source of concern that [he] and many have about the actual threats to academic freedom that there are in the world.” He also shared his concern regarding the lack of clarity over whether this policy would override all others, as currently stated in section 2 of the draft, including ones regarding conflicts of interest, scholarly integrity and sexual harassment.

Ichikawa made a copy of his consultation submission publicly available, which closes with his view that the draft being shared is not the answer to recent academic freedom challenges.

“Academic freedom is an important issue,” he wrote, “and I do think we need further clarity. But in my opinion, this draft is not very close to providing that clarity, and I worry that in its present form it is likely to do more harm than good.”

The consultation survey is open until October 24.