Thursday, October 15, 2015

Semi-Victory for Academic Freedom and Online Media

Today, the Hon. Lynn Smith issued her report on the UBC academic freedom controversy that I discussed here.  Jennifer Berdahl issued her response at her blog.

The key pieces of the report are:

  • "UBC failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom. The Collective Agreement Preamble creates a positive obligation to support and protect academic freedom. Through the combined acts and omissions of Mr. Montalbano, the named individuals in the Sauder School, and others, UBC as an institution failed to meet that obligation with respect to Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom."
  • Nobody infringed .... 
Which, together, is pretty damned confusing.

The next key piece is this:

The Collective Agreement identifies two “essential functions” of the University to which academic freedom is essential: the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and the dissemination of knowledge and understanding. The means by which scholarly understanding is disseminated have evolved, and electronic publication is now common, including through vehicles such as blogs. The protections of academic freedom extend to the dissemination of scholarly research and opinion through these new electronic media.
Woot!  Despite the muddling of responsibility for who caused this ruckus (not Berdahl!)

Although the UBC Collective Agreement definition of academic freedom does not refer to commentary on university governance, in my opinion such commentary falls within its ambit.
Thus, online media, such as blogging and twitter are within the realm of academic freedom and thus to be protected AND discussing/criticizing one's institution's governance is fair game--tis part of the stuff covered by academic freedom.

So, a major decision in clarifying what academic freedom means in the 21st century.  This is very important, given recent controversies.  Will it serve as a precedent? Not really since it is not a court decision.  But it might serve notice to administrators that they have to get used to the new reality and realize, as always, the attempt to cover up ends up producing far more damage than that which they are seeking to cover up.  In other words, let the profs rant--they are often ignored ... unless someone tries to silence them.

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