UBC’s Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation. Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something. Finished? Ok, on we go.
The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon? Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom. Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s. It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer. The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts. Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour. That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.
So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept. In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing. She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism. Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure. Under anyone else’s? Not so clear.
(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”. One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)
Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident. Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did. His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure. But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote? That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.
Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded. I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story. She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members. If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part. But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”
To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified. The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review. It wasn’t scholarly. It wasn’t made in a classroom setting. She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done. But protected under academic freedom? CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.