Statement on Academic Freedom

January 2002

I would like to say a few words about the importance of academic freedom. As you are probably aware, the University last week was the focus of national attention because of comments made by a UBC professor at a conference in Ottawa.

Academic freedom simply refers to the protection of professors and their institutions from political interference. It asserts that in the university, unconventional ideas and controversial opinions deserve special protection.

At various times in the 20th century, that kind of protection has proved to be essential. As noted in Saturday's Globe and Mail, whenever there has been a national crisis, academic freedom and free speech have been threatened. During the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, which was endorsed by a large segment of the population, pressure was put on universities to fire faculty for membership in Communist organizations. The principle of academic freedom legitimated universities that resisted such pressures.

Having said this, I would emphasize that academic freedom must be accompanied by academic responsibility; that is, the individual must act responsibly, base statements and opinions on fact and evidence, and use acceptable scholarly methods in the pursuit of truth. The question then is: who should determine whether an individual's expressions of opinion meet the test of fact and evidence? Who should decide whether the individual has been academically responsible?

This determination has always been the responsibility of other respected scholars in the field, i.e. peers, who scrutinize and evaluate each other's work. Peer review is the best system we know of to ensure that a scholar's work is evaluated by the dispassionate judgement and knowledge of experts, rather than by the court of public opinion or political policy.

In all this it must be emphasized that the University as an institution holds no "views." I have often been asked what is the "University's" view on a variety of controversial issues -- abortion, for example, or Aboriginal land claims, or provincial tax policy. What needs to be understood is that there is no such thing as a "University" view on such issues; rather, the University is a community of scholars with a wide range of views and opinions. Accordingly, the view of one scholar cannot and does not represent the view of the University. The institution's role is to provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas, so that through critical analysis and discussion we may move closer to an understanding of our problems, and--we hope--to the discovery of solutions.