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Not every professor’s remark is ‘academic’

Dr. Arvind Gupta, the new and 13th President and Vice Chancellor of UBC, speaks to media during the announcement of his new position on the UBC grounds in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Academic freedom is best understood as the freedom of a professor to pursue intellectual inquiry and advance knowledge and scholarship.

Last year, the University of Saskatchewan tied itself in knots by dismissing Professor Robert Buckingham after he publicly dissented in his role as a university administrator. That was fair enough, but people on both sides mixed it up with his teaching role, and some wrongly invoked academic freedom.

A similar confusion followed Arvind Gupta's resignation as president of the University of British Columbia, for undisclosed reasons, in August.

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Jennifer Berdahl, a social psychologist at UBC, promptly wrote a blog post speculating that Dr. Gupta had "lost the masculinity contest" because he isn't "tall or physically imposing," and was "the first brown man" to be the university's president.

She went on to invoke other words and phrases such as "not man enough," "real men" and "frat-boy" – as if to suggest that those who had disagreed with Dr. Gupta in university politics think or speak in just such terms.

John Montalbano, the chair of UBC's board of governors, subsequently phoned Dr. Berdahl and expressed "his deep concern" about the blog. Dr. Berdahl "felt reprimanded, silenced and isolated" by the call, according to a former judge, Lynn Smith, who was appointed as an independent fact-finder. Ms. Smith concluded that UBC had failed to protect Dr. Berdahl's academic freedom.

Dr. Berdahl should be free to comment casually on university politics. It's far from clear, though, that her blog post was an exercise in academic freedom. Her post was one remark about one unexplained kerfuffle in a university's administration, not a piece of data in a social research program.

Nor is she a radical or controversial scholar at risk of being dismissed for expressing opinions. She is not a victim of a new McCarthyism. Mr. Montalbano may or may not have let off some needless steam on the phone, but Dr. Berdahl is not Galileo in front of the Inquisition.

These very different episodes of Robert Buckingham and Jennifer Berdahl suggest that Canadian universities should remind themselves about what academic freedom is all about.

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