by Caroline Jenkins (Philosophy) and Jonathan Ichikawa (Philosophy)

Like many of our colleagues at UBC, we’re concerned about academic freedom. UBC’s governance crisis has contributed to a culture of fear. This week, Philip Steenkamp, UBC’s Vice President of External Affairs, asserted that we’re wrong to be concerned. “Categorically,” he told the CBC, “there is no such culture”.

We’ll take Steenkamp at face value—he genuinely believes there’s no culture of fear at UBC. But how would a Vice President of External Affairs know whether faculty members feel stifled? If they did, they wouldn’t speak up—so UBC’s higher-ups wouldn’t hear much about it spontaneously.

As is well-known to theorists of knowledge, one’s position in a power structure can affect one’s ability to know what’s going on. Just think of the sexist office culture of the 1960s. That sexism, undeniable in retrospect, was obscure to the men in charge. Don Draper couldn’t see what was obvious to Peggy Olson. This kind of ignorance is often recalcitrant: the privileged are motivated not to see certain things. As philosopher Charles Mills put it: “imagine an ignorance that fights back.”

Ignorance fights back when privilege or power makes you feel like you know all there is to know, emboldening you to behave as if adequately informed. Since powerful people are also less likely to be challenged on this behaviour, the problem perpetuates itself.

Philip Steenkamp says there’s no culture of fear at UBC, but he doesn’t know. How would he? He isn’t privy to the conversations where faculty members share their fears about speaking up. He’s hardly the person to whom they’d turn to express concerns about professional retribution.

The two of us feel able to write this op-ed because we are tenured and have a community of like-minded colleagues supporting us. But we’ve spoken with many faculty members who wanted to sign a petition calling for a motion of no confidence in UBC’s governance, yet felt compelled to sign anonymously or were too afraid to sign at all. They cited specific professional concerns—contract renewals, promotions, tenure, grants. This would be inexplicable in a culture of open discussion and academic freedom, where criticism was known to be respected and welcomed. Academic freedom must include free discussion of the operation of our own academic institution.

The existence of anonymous signatories to the petition was no secret, but it may have escaped Steenkamp’s notice. (If so, perhaps he ought to have done more research before declaring all for the best in the best of all possible academic climates.) Steenkamp presumably does know of the Lynn Smith Report, which found that UBC recently failed to protect faculty academic freedom. But humans are also quite good at overlooking inconvenient evidence: we have a psychological tendency to discount or ignore anything that goes against our preconceptions.

Asserting that there categorically is no climate of fear at UBC is not just an expression of ignorance; it is also harmful. This is how the phenomenon known as “moral licensing” works: labelling ourselves as “good” (objective, unbiased, non-sexist, non-racist, etc.) can actually make us feel licensed to behave less well. We feel virtuous for self-identifying as anti-racist; no need to follow up with actual behaviour. Saying: “categorically, there is no culture of fear” is rather like saying: “categorically, I am not a racist”. By congratulating ourselves on our objectivity, we license ourselves to make more biased decisions. By congratulating itself on its fear-free climate, UBC licenses itself to continue stifling dissent.

A university has a positive responsibility to create a culture of academic freedom; asserting that there is one doesn’t suffice. Worse, stating that there categorically is no problem signals both that no improvements need to be made, and that further discussion of this problem is liable to be regarded as “troublemaking.”

This stance of denial harms our already damaged academic culture. And it diminishes the credibility of UBC’s current leadership, who sound increasingly out of touch with the reality that we can see from here. As in many bad situations, recovery requires first acknowledging the problem.