The Latest Attack on Academic Freedom in Canada: McGill Turns Away from Controversy and Provocation

 

“While the Institute itself is non-partisan, MISC is no stranger to debate and controversy.”—https://mcgill.ca/misc/about

“It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion.”—McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier as quoted in The Globe and Mail

 

McGill University Principal Suzanne Fortier has spoken out in defense of her actions in accepting the resignation of Andrew Potter from his post as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). She emphasizes on the responsibility of the leaders of academic units to represent those units. In particular, she maintains that the Institute must be non-partisan. However, she finds that in writing the Maclean’s article as director of the Institute Potter violated non-partisanship and, thus, poorly represented the Institute. His op-ed was, she claims, provocative and would lead political leaders not to wish to come to Institute events. She also claims that the scholarship was shoddy and as Institute Director Potter had to avoid such shoddy work.

 

Here are some facts upon which we can agree. Potter wrote the Maclean’s essay while the Director of MISC.  He is also identified as the Director of MISC on the webpage of the article.  Let us suppose that this means he wrote is as the Director of the Institute.[1] Let’s also agree that the essay was shoddy—he had already apologized for it and retracted a portion of it before he resigned.[2]

 

Here is another fact: Potter wrote several other pieces for the popular press in which he criticized some political points of view and was identified as the Director of the Institute.[3] For example, in an essay he wrote in January in the Ottawa Citizen he  says things about Trump and Stephen Harper[4] that Harper’s supporters would surely find misleading (if unsurprising). He also likens the entire American political scene to “two troops of apes shrieking at one another across a great partisan divide.” Before Potter gets to American politics, he says something absurd about humanities disciplines and truth.[5]  The piece is a shoddy op-ed by any reasonable standard. There were no calls for Potter to resign after having written that essay, and he did not.

 

So, it took more than writing an op-ed exhibiting poor scholarship and taking a partisan stand for Potter to resign.  It took an essay with poor scholarship that took a partisan stand and that offended the powers that be in Quebec. Only after the appearance of such an op-ed did Fortier decide that Potter had misbehaved in office.

 

Here’s the problem: in so defending “non-partisanship” in light of the actual record of Potter’s popular writings as Director, Fortier is committed to this: the Institute Director may criticize some political viewpoints (for example, Harper and the whole of American politics) in op-eds while he may not so criticize other viewpoints. That is, in an effort to defend non-partisanship, Fortier has made the Institute partisan.  The whole point of academic freedom is to defend academics’ rights to criticize any and every point of view.  Only by insisting that all views may be criticized can the Institute make a credible case that it is non-partisan and has academic integrity.

 

Fortier has made an enormous misstep. The Institute now occupies a position in the political order and can no longer criticize positions in that order from anything other than a recognizably partisan point of view. The academic integrity of the Institute has been undermined.[6] There simply is no academic integrity available for any academic researcher (particularly those of us who wish to speak publicly about any aspect of the social or political order) unless we are granted unfettered academic freedom to criticize any position.

 

It is unclear that Fortier wants the Institute to have academic integrity. She seems to think it should be a place where the great and the good of Quebec  and Canada gather for a comfortable chat. This might well keep the funding gates open at McGill but at the cost of removing McGill from the critical role of a university in society.

 

[1] I don’t think that is an obvious conclusion, actually. I have been identified in various ways in essays I have written; not all of those ways specify the social role I was occupying in writing the essay.  But this is not my concern today.

[2] Just what the scholarly standards are for an op-ed in a popular newspaper are, even when those op-eds are written by academics is, of course, unclear.

[3] Several of these are linked to the MISC website.

[4] “Scientists have developed an annoying habit of pointing out the connection between the activities of a modern economy and the heating up of the planet, while social planners like to make use of stuff such as demographic data to suggest social policy. That’s why Donald Trump, like Stephen Harper before him, is muzzling the scientists and statisticians.”

[5] “For the better part of the past 30 years, the received view in most humanities departments has been that truth is at best the handmaiden of capitalism, at worst the whore of patriarchy. Either way, all a commitment to truth ever gave us was inequality, environmental destruction and the atomic bomb. To argue otherwise is to reveal yourself as a fascist or – perhaps worse – a liberal.”

[6] Moreover, as a matter of public discourse and as a practical matter at McGill, the directorship question is a red herring. This can be seen by the fact that Potter did not merely resign the directorship; he resigned from the Institute entirely.  The Institute has been insulated from his criticisms of Quebec society.

 

 

 


Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?

Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?

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.”

Continue reading “Stifling Academic Freedom: Who Knows?”

Why I Lack Confidence in UBC’s Board of Governors: Its Disrespect for Faculty

Why I Lack Confidence in UBC’s Board of Governors: Its Disrespect for Faculty

By Jennifer Berdahl, Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Sauder School of Business

There are many statements by faculty explaining why they lack confidence in the University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors. Our BoG is dominated by political appointees who represent a narrow band of British Columbians: wealthy business people who donate to the Liberal Party. Some of these appointees appear to break tax and FIPPA laws. Our BoG has little faculty voice: compare the 3 on our Board (15%) to the 12 on UofT’s (25%). Our BoG is unique among its peers in not belonging to the Association of Governing Boards,* which provides guidelines for best practices in selecting and training board members, managing conflicts of interest, and conducting business in a transparent and accountable way. These structural weaknesses of our Board undermine good governance at UBC.

But for me, it boils down to this: over the last eight months, our BoG has openly disregarded, disrespected, and disenfranchised the faculty of UBC. And it continues to do so now.

  • It did so when it ousted our president without due process, performance review, input from faculty, or explanation.
  • It did so by issuing “full confidence” in the Board Chair “and his leadership” after he participated in violating a faculty member’s academic freedom (mine).
  • It has done so by ignoring faculty input and voice into the current presidential search process.
  • It does so when it attempts to silence, intimidate, or belittle faculty who speak out about governance issues:
    • “It’s just a small group of mathematicians” when clearly it’s not.
    • “It’s just friends of Arvind” when faculty who didn’t even know him or like him as a leader are angered by BoG actions.
    • “It’s just 10% of the faculty” when it was 72.5% indicating no confidence in the presidential search committee of an unprecedented 31% who voted among those eligible.
    • “It’s just the disgruntled busybodies who don’t do research” when among the more than 500 who signed a petition for a vote of no confidence in the BoG are Distinguished University Scholars, members of the Order of Canada, Canada Research Chairs, and numerous Killam Prize winners. This rhetoric serves a view of faculty as factory workers: We shouldn’t worry our little heads about how the university is run, but should get back to publishing (who cares what as long as it helps the rankings!) and filling classroom seats to crank up tuition revenue and degrees conferred.
  • It does so when it claims that faculty are the ones hurting UBC by pointing out problems with governance. In other words, the harm is in pointing out the problems, not in creating them.
  • It does this by referring to the faculty as merely one of many “stakeholders” at the university, ignoring the fact that the faculty is the most important and longest serving of the university’s “stakeholders,” far more critical than the BoG itself, for the faculty alone is responsible for the university’s research and teaching that define its reputation.
  • It does so by refusing to respond to faculty concerns and requests for discussions about governance for months, and then giving faculty five minutes (!) to speak at a Board meeting at the end of the academic year in April. I guess it hopes we will go away when summer arrives and shut up once a new president is announced.

I have personally witnessed the disdain held toward most faculty at our institution from BoG members, including some we elected to the Board. Disparaging the faculty seems to pay here. We are the enemy.

This is not how a world-class university treats its faculty. Nor is it how a world-class faculty allows itself to be treated. A great university knows that its faculty is the university and its source of excellence, not a bothersome voice that needs to be shushed. Respect for faculty and their engagement in governance is in the best interests of UBC.

It is time for change. We can do better. I lack confidence in this BoG. I hope a vote of no confidence on the part of our faculty will catalyze the change required to improve the way this university is governed and that steps can be taken before a new president arrives. For a successful future, our university needs a president who can work productively with a faculty that has the respect of the BoG and the administration, something clearly lacking today.

~

*At the time of this writing (March 23, 2016) UBC was not listed as a member of the Association of Governing Boards. On April 4, 2016 the UBC Board of Governors’ Committee on Governance announced that UBC had joined the AGB, and UBC appeared on the AGB website as a member.

BoG No-Confidence Motion

BoG No-Confidence Motion

Yesterday there was a special meeting of the UBC faculty association, organized in response to this petition to the FA executive. The result of that meeting is that, beginning today, there will be an online vote on the following motion:

Be it resolved that the Faculty Association of the University of British Columbia has no confidence in the University of British Columbia Board of Governors.

The motion was presented by myself—Jonathan Ichikawa, Associate Professor, Philosophy—and seconded by Juliet O’Brien, 12-Month Lecturer, French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies.

Faculty members, watch your email for a message from the FA instructing you on how to vote.

Juliet and I each spoke for a few minutes in favour of the motion; our draft/notes materials follow. Continue reading “BoG No-Confidence Motion”

An Inquiry into Inquiries

The University of British Columbia has suffered an unpleasant string of crises since the sudden resignation of Arvind Gupta as President in August 2015. The furore occasioned by his unexplained departure was rapidly followed by allegations that the Chair of the Board of Governors had interfered with a faculty member’s academic freedom and by the resignation of that Chair of the Board. More recently the University has seen a documentary on national television alleging that University neglected to take seriously complaints of sexual assault; the bringing of a 10-million dollar lawsuit by the federal government for the misappropriation of funds by an Associate Dean in the faculty of Dentistry; and the public suspension of a prominent author and public figure from a university position on the grounds of serious but unspecified allegations.

Each of these individually would be embarrassing enough; taken together, they paint a disturbing picture of administrative malaise. The University has consistently taken the position that the UBC “brand” is strong enough to wear these shocks, but there’s no question in my mind that the University’s reputation has suffered, at least amongst the academic community: people are asking what on earth is going on at UBC, and what the institution proposes to do about its failures as it moves forward.

The sad fact is that we don’t really know what is going on at UBC. Accurate information about Guptagate is hard to come by, and we don’t know all that much about the other scandals either. What we do know, however, is that the university has launched a number of high-profile inquiries in recent months, and these inquiries form the core of the university’s response to the problems that beset it.

So what is an inquiry? More to the point, what is an inquiry not?

An inquiry, in the sense it’s being used at UBC, is an administrative process. The persons involved sit down with a qualified individual (the investigator) and tell their versions of the story; the investigator interviews them and any relevant witnesses, and eventually comes to some set of conclusions which are set down in a report. The scope of the report and the scope of the conclusions are limited by the mandate given to the investigator at the outset.

Inquiries of this kind happen all the time in the workplace. Typically, they are low-key affairs, conducted by the HR Department, perhaps with the participation of a trade union or any other organization that may be involved. The fact of the investigation is not made public, and neither is any report, in accordance with standard labour practices.

The recent inquiries at UBC are of a slightly different flavour. The issues at hand are high-profile and of great interest to the university community. Suitably high-profile outside investigators have been hired to conduct the processes: the Honourable Lynn Smith, who was charged with investigating a complaint of violation of academic freedom, is a former Judge at the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and Paula Butler, who is currently investigating the handling of complaints of sexual assault, is a well-known labour and employment lawyer. The terms of reference of each of these inquiries include the issue of a public summary of the findings and some level of public engagement with the results, since the issues under investigation have serious implications for the future operations and policies of the university.

These sorts of inquiries are not judicial processes in the way that a court case or even an arbitration might be. Generally speaking, the mandate of the investigator is confidential, the participants are not under oath, there may not be any lawyers present, and there is no opportunity for any cross-examination of the witnesses. And if that weren’t enough, the mandate may not include the power to impose sanctions, and it’s not at all clear from the outside what sort of investigation was actually done. The actual report is a non-binding document that belongs to the participants; the only thing the public gets is a summary of the findings, if such a thing was included in the terms (which is the exception rather than the rule).

The point here is that the summary that makes up the only public record of such an investigation is a pretty weak instrument for any kind of public engagement or public policy. It is a purely administrative document, not a judicial decision, and as far as shedding light on the case at hand goes, it may be neither effective nor satisfying. Implementing the findings of such a report are up to the parties, and what happens in practice is anybody’s guess, since the issue of remedy and redress for the facts determined by the investigation is often hived off to a separate and less public process.

The public summary of Lynn Smith’s report on the allegations of violation of academic freedom is a case in point. Justice Smith made the Delphic pronouncement that while no single individual was guilty of violating academic freedom, the collective actions and inactions of a group of persons did have exactly this result, and she points out 3 specific points of failure, without supplying detail. The unfortunate fact is that, no matter how thorough her investigation might have been, the public doesn’t have the context in which to interpret her summary. The university’s response has been predictable – appoint a new adminstrator, and develop new administrative processes.

The public version of the Butler investigation of the complaints of sexual assault is yet to be revealed. Ms. Butler’s mandate does not seem to be public, and it’s hard to predict what her findings will be. My fear is that restorative justice for the complainants will be eclipsed by generalities about administrative process: new policies, new positions, new procedures, but little to transform the underlying culture that that led to the complaints in the first place. It is a sad fact that inquiries are creatures of administrative practice, designed for resolving administrative problems in the workplace, rather than instruments for the delivery of justice.

The good news is that the complainants in the sexual assaults have recourse to other avenues to seek justice. At least one complainant has announced the intention of a complaint before the Human Rights Tribunal, which is an entirely different beast: it’s a public affair, with testimony delivered under oath, and in front of a body with the power to order specific compensation and remedies. As such, it’s a much more powerful (and empowering) venue, and one that is responsive to the needs of the complainant as well as to those of the institution.

To me this is the crux of the issue. UBC is a massive and complex institution, but, more than that, it is a large and complex community of people. We play host to fifty thousand students, to any number of faculty and staff, and increasingly, to people who simply live in the residential buildings that have sprung up across campus. However, it is governed by statutes and process that are cobbled together from the Universities act, administrative law and — increasingly — corporate practice. HR practices such as inquiries are designed to address workplace issues, not core policy and justice questions such as sexual violence, or freedom of expression in a community that’s equivalent to a small municipality.