Kwantlen Shuts Down Controversial Research: School remains quiet after CAUT steps in on professors' behalf

September 2008

Violations of academic freedom have become something of a cliché. Everything that comes out of the mouth (or pen) of an academic, no matter what the venue, is presumed by some to be protected. Indeed, the concept might appear to a casual observer to be a meaningless convention designed to entrench the scholar as political activist. But, this is not so. Academic freedom provides a very narrow, yet useful function.

The only relevant factor when evaluating scholarly research is whether it contributes to a field in some way, whether it has scientific worth. Academic freedom is simply protection for scholars to do their jobs. It protects the advancement of academic and scientific knowledge, and not the expression of political ideas. The right to political expression is something all in a free society enjoy, and there is nothing special about the professoriate in this matter. Some may disagree, but that is a topic for another day.

Last week, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) announced that it would be investigating allegations that Kwantlen Polytechnic University violated academic freedom of the kind I am referring to. The charge seems justified, as Kwantlen’s behaviour is rather peculiar.

Despite the blessing of the school’s Research Ethics Board, the administration has prevented sociology professor Russel Odgen from pursuing a project whereby he would witness assisted suicides.

It is no doubt a controversial proposal, but nearly every social, political and cultural issue is a valid area of academic inquiry. To contribute to the understanding of human behaviour, sociologists and criminologists are increasingly observing illicit and illegal activity, such as the activities of biker gangs and prostitutes.

Three years ago, Odgen assured the ethics board that he would take appropriate precautions to ensure that research subjects would not be unduly influenced by his presence and that they would be respected. In addition to being approved by the ethics board, Kwantlen’s associate vice-president research also signed off on the project.

Still, the administration reversed its approval in December 2006. In response, the faculty association attempted to appeal the decision, and when that failed to resolve the matter, the CAUT became involved. Their report is expected in the fall.

When I contacted Kwantlen, I was told that the administration would not be taking questions on the issue. Media relations officer Peter Chevrier cited the CAUT investigation as reason for not commenting on the case — a position that makes absolutely no sense.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers is not launching a criminal investigation and has no power to enforce policy beyond making recommendations. There is nothing about a CAUT investigation that makes it necessary for Kwantlen to reserve comment, especially since CAUT executive director James Turk has been speaking freely on the issue.

Kwantlen did release a brief, cryptic statement in which they explained that they had consulted two criminal lawyers and cited potential “legal risks” as the reason for halting Ogden’s research. Although they do not go into any more detail than that, the university is presumably concerned that Ogden could be participating in illegal activity. Again a position that makes little sense.

According to John Lowman, a Simon Fraser University criminologist who is familiar with Ogden’s research and to whom Ogden directed media inquiries, the university did not seek a legal opinion until five months after removing approval for the project.

It is not entirely clear why the criminal lawyer Kwantlen consulted advised that there could be liability issues, especially since the university will not answer any questions. But it is not a crime to bear witness to illegal activity. According to Bernard Dickens, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in health law, unless one is “actively encouraging” illegal activity, the observer has committed no crime.

This would seem to be supported by the case of Sue Rodriguez, who underwent an assisted suicide in 1994. Rodriguez gained notoriety because she made a charter challenge to the Supreme Court for the legalization of assisted suicide but the court ruled against her. While the doctor who aided her in her death remains anonymous, former NDP MP Svend Robinson was present — yet the police opted not to open an investigation into the matter.

In any event, in order for an observer to escape culpability, no encouragement must be given for the act. Ogden demonstrated to the ethics board that he would take such precautions. In other words, the regulations approved by the ethics board would have ensured that Ogden did not commit a crime. Not to mention that Ogden has also sought a legal opinion that reinforces this point.

Ultimately, universities have the authority to stop research even if it has been approved by an ethics board. A legitimate reason might be that the research would tax the university’s resources beyond the institution’s means. However, this does not appear to be the case.

Unlike at most universities, Kwantlen’s faculty association does not have an academic freedom clause, which theoretically would mean that such matters should be discussed at the university’s Senate. Is the administration planning to amend and/or clarify their research policy? Would they discuss it with relevant university constituencies?

More to the point, does Kwantlen even care to be involved in social-science research?