From the Boardroom: Academic freedom after anti-racist commitments at June 16 Board meeting

Academic freedom was the focus of June’s Board of Governors (BoG) meeting held virtually on Zoom.

President Santa Ono opened the meeting by acknowledging the racial profiling incident that occured on campus last week and called for an external investigation. He made a plethora of commitments to combat anti-Black racism, building on his previous commitments announced earlier in June.

Margaret Schabas, senior advisor to the provosts on academic freedom, gave a presentation to the Board that generated much discussion. Though the university’s academic freedom statement — last updated in 1976 — falls under Senate jurisdiction, BoG Chair Michael Korenberg said the Board would not let the matter go “unresolved.”

Schabas noted that the presentation was representative of her personal views, not necessarily those of the provosts. In summary, she concluded that due to the simple wording of the academic freedom statement, the university could not do a significant amount to stop “controversial speakers” from coming to campus until the statement was updated.

In her presentation, Schabas said that the “status quo” is to uphold freedom of expression.

“We have a problem that on the one hand, we want to uphold freedom of expression and the Canadian Charter of Rights, but we also need to respect the views and needs of all members of our community,” Schabas said.

“There’s no perfect balance as far as I can tell. It seems best to avoid censorship of any kind unless of course we would know, a priori, that someone would in fact break the law.”

According to Board members, the message of this presentation was very different from previous presentations to the Board on academic freedom.

Student representative Max Holmes and faculty representative Mark Mac Lean questioned calling these speakers “controversial,” saying that they should be referred to more explicitly: as “racist” and “transphobic.”

While Schabas said finding a path forward would be difficult, student rep Jeanie Malone said that UBC’s respectful environment statement is worth noting in protecting community members from hate speech. This is not only a workplace obligation to employees, Malone added, but a human rights obligation to all students, faculty and staff.

“I think it has huge optical impacts on the university itself,” she said.

In recommending the university seek external legal advice, Governor Alison Brewin said that academic freedom is important — but distinct — from freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is quite different and it is absolutely not an unfettered right in Canada,” Brewin said.