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Academic freedom and progressive politics don't always mix well – but each needs the other to prosper. At UBC, John Ibbitson explores the clash of ideas between a diverse student body, free-speech advocates eager to offend, professors caught up in controversy and the influence of private money

The low afternoon sun floods into AMS Student Nest building at the University of British Columbia on Feb. 22, 2016. UBC and campuses across Canada face difficult jobs balancing the right to free speech versus the right to be protected.

Outside the student centre, the UBC Free Speech Club is holding a Blasphemathon, to protest Parliament's anti-Islamophobia Motion 103. At the top of his lungs, Louis Jung, a second-year visual-arts student, is urging passers-by to come over and draw the most offensive picture possible. In graphic, foul language, he suggests people might want to depict one religious figure, who shall remain nameless, sodomizing another. For the most offensive drawing: "Fifty-dollar cash prize!"

A young man pauses briefly to listen. Mr. Jung urges him to draw something. "I'm good without, thanks." The young man walks away.

Mr. Jung acknowledges that his group is doing this, in part, "because it's edgy and cool." But there's a more serious purpose. As Cooper Asp, a co-founder of the Free Speech Club explains: "The idea is to criticize all religions, be offensive as possible, as a way of demonstrating that the idea of blasphemy is ridiculous."

A few hundred metres away, Amel Aldehaib shakes her head when told about what her fellow students are up to. "Speech must be free but it must be challenged, and the other side must also be protected," the PhD student from Sudan responds. Toxic language can lead to toxic acts. Words can incite violence. "You cannot say it's not there. It's there."

Between Mr. Jung and Ms. Aldehaib, it seems clear where wisdom resides. But in the broader context, wisdom can be hard to find.

On university campuses across Canada, a cold war rages between two principles: the right to academic freedom of inquiry or, more broadly, to free speech, on the one hand; on the other, the right to be protected from harm, to feel safe. As with all powerful but potentially conflicting principles, the key to avoiding conflict lies in compromise, accommodation, goodwill. But goodwill can be increasingly hard to find, and universities seem to be always failing to get a handle on the latest controversy.

"Universities are very thoughtful, stable institutions, and the world is changing quickly, and it's hard for institutions like universities to keep up," says Angela Redish, provost of University of British Columbia. Free speech-versus-protection controversies are "one more expression of that."

The elevation of multiculturalism into a core Canadian value, combined with a high intake of foreign students from beyond the boundaries of Western Europe, have together enriched the diversity of the student mix. But they have also brought an ever-more expansive, border-pushing range of ideas onto campuses, and in the process, created the potential for conflict.

And not only the makeup of the student body has changed. Increased reliance on corporate funding means that private donors can exert major influence on public campuses. New strains of philosophy and ideology, meanwhile, have been challenging conventional forms of dispute resolution. And social media sprays itself over everything like lighter fluid, longing for a match.

Meanwhile, the construction cranes hover over the latest STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) towers, as the liberal arts struggle to convince a skeptical, consumerist society that they have anything meaningful to say.

What to do?

UBC President Santa J. Ono speaks outside a student residence under construction on Sept. 15, 2016. His predecessor, Arvind Gupta, allegedly faced conflicts with the administration before leaving the job in 2015.

UBC, one of Canada’s largest and most diverse universities, is hardly immune from controversy.

Shades of grey, elusive truths

Nary a university campus is free of controversies involving the right to free speech versus the right of the less powerful to be protected from verbal or social harm by those who wield more power (or who belong to social groups that do). In some cases, such as the Facebook page in which Dalhousie University dentistry students assessed the physical attributes of female students and made other rude comments, the offence was clear, and the debate mostly over punishment.

But most times, the shades are greyer, or the truth of the circumstances harder to suss out. In March, lawyer Danielle Robitaille, who was part of the team that secured an acquittal on assault charges for former radio host Jian Ghomeshi, cancelled a speech at Wilfrid Laurier University's campus in Brantford, Ont., after students complained that her presence would undermine efforts to protect students from sexual violence. Queen's University faced complaints of racism last November, after pictures emerged of an off-campus costume party in which white students dressed in the clothing of other cultures, such as Buddhist monks and Rastafarians. Last fall, Henry Parada stepped down as director of the School of Social Work at Toronto's Ryerson University after allegedly offending members of the Black Liberation Collective, who complained he walked out of a gathering while one of them was talking.

Anti-abortion groups struggle to be granted status on campuses across the country. Conversely, at the University of Calgary, a court ruling now allows Campus Pro-Life to display graphic images of aborted fetuses in the hallways of university buildings, despite protests from both students and faculty. "It's something a lot of people aren't very happy about, but the university is powerless to control it," said Dean of Arts Richard Sigurdson.

As one of Canada's largest and most diverse universities, UBC is hardly immune from controversy. The most recent one concerned a speech by John Furlong, who as CEO of the Vancouver Olympics was credited with pulling off the most successful Games that Canada has yet hosted. In 2012, a newspaper alleged that Mr. Furlong abused Indigenous students when he was a teacher more than 40 years ago. Mr. Furlong vehemently denied the allegations, and won a defamation lawsuit related to the case.

John Furlong, shown in March, 2015, is the former CEO of the Vancouver Olympic committee. JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Last year, he was invited to speak at a UBC athletics fundraising event. When a student filed a complaint, saying that his presence belittled the alleged victims of his abuse – again, those allegations have never been proved – the university cancelled the invitation. But UBC President Santa Ono reinvited him. About a dozen protesters stood silently outside as Mr. Furlong delivered his speech this past February.

Typically, when such controversies arise, opinion writers protest the latest, spineless caving-in to political correctness, social warriors, snowflakes and other terms of derision.

But such dismissive rhetoric silences people, say students such as Dallas Hunt, a PhD candidate at UBC whose research focuses on Indigenous issues. He comes from the Wapisewsipi (Swan River) First Nation in Northern Alberta. Mr. Hunt sees academic freedom and freedom of speech as principles that are often put forward by the privileged to defend that privilege. "A lot of what I hear is predominantly white men in power who have an unwillingness or inability to grasp other ways of knowing or being," he explains.

He was among those who objected to allowing Mr. Furlong on campus. "I'm not sure if institutions, in this ill-defined pursuit of academic freedom, should be legitimizing these people when they come to campus, when what they say might have real material impacts on students and faculty who work here."

Although Mr. Hunt was interviewed before the Blasphemathon, it's easy to make the connection between his concerns and that event's invitation to sacrilege. Whatever the merits of arguing for the freedom to draw those cartoons, they also encourage hateful speech. And anyone who believes there is no connection between speech and action has never been the victim of that action.

Students from racial or sexual minorities and women students at risk of violence know all about the intersection of power, speech, race, sexuality and violence: emotional, physical, sexual. "A lot of people are doing this work in the university," says Mr. Hunt, "but they're doing it in the community as well, as they're seeing these violences and issues firsthand. And to simply ascribe them to some sort of hogwash that doesn't have any immediate impact on everyday life is reductive at best and harmful at worst."

The "hogwash" Mr. Hunt refers to consists of a set of cultural and philosophical approaches known as postmodernism, structuralism and poststructuralism that have been present – and sometimes dominant – on university campuses since the 1960s. Though they come in many different varieties, philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and their successors teach that language is slippery; that the reality it refers to may not exist; that perceived values and truths may be relative, not absolute; that social systems generally protect the power and privilege of certain elites – especially white, middle-class men – and exclude everyone else, everyone else being some combination (the preferred term is "intersection") of racial minorities, sexual minorities, women and all those outside the patriarchy.

Recognizing these imbalances, universities place a strong emphasis on protecting and promoting these marginalized communities within the liberal arts.

Accusations of hate speech

But not everyone is comfortable with the growing influence of these new "isms."

James Brander wonders, in fact, whether they're taking over. "They seem to dismiss ideas of there being a thing called truth," says the economist, who teaches at UBC's Sauder School of Business. "Honesty doesn't matter; it's all about influence and perception and interpretation. I've been surprised by the extent to which that point of view has … become influential within the liberal arts."

He believes it's time to call relativism relativism. "If what we are doing is compromising intellectual freedom because we want to put more weight on sensitivity, that's fine. That might be the right call," he declares. "But I think we should admit that's what we're doing, as opposed to claiming we're expanding both frontiers at the same time, which I don't think is true."

The clash of intellectual freedom and cultural sensitivity often becomes an issue when Frances Widdowson speaks in public, as she did Thursday at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, at Ryerson University. The political scientist, who teaches at Mount Royal University in Calgary, believes that many First Nations reserves marginalize and entrap those who live on them, and that many Indigenous cultural features are ill-suited to the realities of an advanced 21st-century economy such as Canada's.

Her talk this week centred on the residential-school system, which she believes honestly sought to equip Indigenous youth with the tools needed to live within an industrializing Canada. Though Prof. Widdowson acknowledges the abuse that occurred in the schools, and that the necessary resources were often not provided, she rejects the accusation that the system was culturally genocidal.

People listened politely, she reports, and the extra security on hand was not needed. But at previous events, Prof. Widdowson has been harangued, shouted down, even accused of hate speech. Although Mount Royal has stoutly protected her freedom of inquiry, she says the Canadian Political Science Association no longer schedules her to sit on relevant panels, for fear of aggravating other panelists and audience members.

Prof. Widdowson delivered her paper as part of a panel whose topics were unrelated to her own, even though there were several panels at the Congress on Indigenous issues and residential schools. "They're trying to prevent different viewpoints from being expressed in the same venue," Prof. Widdowson believes, "which I find is very disturbing for an academic body."

She regrets that she is unable to engage in scholarly debate with those who hold opposing views. "I might be able to learn," she says, "in a conversation with my adversaries." But, she adds, "the people who think the residential schools were cultural genocide don't want to sit at the same table as someone who is making the kind of arguments I am." That, she adds, "is a real pity, because I think that's how we could move forward somewhat and try to figure out where the truth lies."

A student uses a laptop computer in the Sauder building on the UBC campus on Aug. 20, 2015. The Sauder School became a hotbed of controversy that year over academic freedom.

The controversy began after Jennifer Berdahl, who studies gender and diversity issues in business environments, wrote a blog post speculating about the reasons for Arvind Gupta’s exit as UBC president.

Mr. Gupta, shown here in January, 2016, had ‘lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men,’ Prof. Berdahl wrote. That got her a rebuke from John Montalbano, who was chair of the Board of Governors and the patron who funded her professorship.

Mr. Montalbano stepped down from the UBC board after an assessment by a retired B.C. Supreme Court justice found the university hadn’t done enough to protect Prof. Berdahl’s academic freedom at the business school. She is currently on a leave of absence.

Money and, sometimes, strings

The conflicting principles of championing academic freedom and protecting vulnerable communities have one thing in common: Both are susceptible to the influence of private money. In the 1960s and seventies, federal and provincial governments funded 90 per cent of the costs of postsecondary education; today that figure sits at around 50 per cent. Universities have responded by hiking tuition fees and beating the bushes for corporate and philanthropic donations. These acts of generosity are supposed to arrive with no strings attached. Such is rarely the case.

Jennifer Berdahl, who studies gender and diversity issues in business environments, arrived at UBC in 2014 as the first Montalbano Professor in Leadership Studies at the Sauder School. At first, things went well. But then, Arvind Gupta resigned as UBC president. (Although no reason was given, the Globe and other media uncovered alleged conflicts between Mr. Gupta and the university's administration and board of governors.) Prof. Berdahl speculated in a blog post that Mr. Gupta, who is Indo-Canadian, had "lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men."

Within hours, she recalls, "all hell broke loose." John Montalbano, who was chair of the Board of Governors as well as the patron who funded her professorship, called her about the blog post. Members of the administration raised concerns about the impact of the blog post on fundraising. Though she fought back, the confrontations sometimes left her in tears. "It was," she says, "a toxic environment for me."

Lynn Smith, a retired B.C. Supreme Court justice, was brought in to assess the situation. She concluded that the university had not sufficiently supported Prof. Berdahl's right to academic freedom. Mr. Montalbano stepped down from the board. Prof. Berdahl, who is no longer Montalbano Professor, is on a two-year leave of absence.

Prof. Berdahl is adamant that academic freedom should be protected regardless of venue, and that donors should not have any influence over who gets hired, what gets taught, or who can say what. For her, the principle should be: "You give the money and you walk away." But "today, people want to meddle."

Andrew Potter resigned his position as the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada amid controversy over an article he wrote about Quebec society. HOSSEIN TAHERI

The torch of social media

Accelerating and complicating everything is the fell power of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, which can turn controversies that need to be managed into crises that need to be contained within a matter of hours.

It took only a few hours for Twitter to turn Andrew Potter's musings on a Montreal snowstorm and anomie within Quebec society from a column in Maclean's magazine to a firestorm that had the Premier of Quebec condemning his thesis. Not that many hours after that, the McGill University professor was on Facebook apologizing for and disowning his remarks. Not that many hours after that, word arrived that he was no longer director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, though he continues to be a professor. Mere minutes after that, the Twittersphere turned its collective outrage away from Prof. Potter and toward McGill, for violating his academic freedom.

In a gentler age, Maclean's would have been subjected to a barrage of letters to the editor complaining about the column, and Mr. Potter would still be the director of MISC.

Anthony Paré, head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC's Faculty of Education, invokes the story of Mary Bryson, a professor at UBC who debated Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor who has spent the past year denouncing human-rights legislation that protects gender expression, which he believes could potentially infringe on his freedom of expression. (My colleague Simona Chiose looked at Prof. Peterson's story in a recent Globe and Mail story.

As a result of that debate, Prof. Bryson was subjected to a highly unflattering column in the National Post. Far worse, she was vilified and denounced on social media "to the point where she began to fear for her safety," Prof. Paré relates. Prof. Bryson declined to be interviewed for this piece, saying she did not wish to be subjected to a repeat of the previous experience.

Social media allow isolated individuals to connect with others of like mind, allow communities to support and protect each other and to influence public discourse far more easily than in the disconnected past. "But they can also pose a threat to academics speaking out on controversial topics," Prof. Paré believes. "Those threats come from quite different sources than in the past." And they arrive on your smartphone.

A student walks past the UBC Chemistry Building. At UBC, investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is flourishing while the liberal arts struggle to convince a skeptical society of their value.

On UBC’s campus, Neil Guppy, Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom, welcomes the cultural ferment in progress: ‘Over my time at University of British Columbia, students have become smarter, they’ve become more vociferous, they’ve become better and better as time has gone on.’

'We want people to object'

Newspaper readers by definition understand that democracy cannot survive the loss of free expression and free inquiry, which may be why so many columns and editorials attack so-called political correctness and identity politics. But university professors are not nearly as vulnerable as they and their friends fear.

Academics may believe that their freedom is under threat, but they remain vastly more free than any other group in society – able, for example, to publicly criticize their employer with impunity (though Prof. Berdahl would take issue with the word impunity). Yes, they are sometimes subject to savage attack on social media; anyone in the public square is equally vulnerable. We live in these times.

Yes, an increased reliance on private donations makes the university more vulnerable to pressure and influence from corporations and individuals. But universities are equally compliant to direction from governments, which increasingly see postsecondary institutions primarily as engines of economic growth, and fund them accordingly.

The university's mission of protection is ancient and honourable and vital. The sit-ins and demonstrations that roiled campuses in the 1960s advanced the cause of women and defended racial and sexual tolerance. That women and racial and sexual minorities still need protection half a century later speaks to the depth of the discrimination and persecution they face.

One reason that Parliament will soon pass a bill protecting the human rights of people who are transgender is that universities allowed academics and students to explore the boundaries of gender and sexuality. The day universities cease to be a place of refuge is the day they will lose their soul.

If the children of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and other -ists and post-ists err, it is in failing to understand that their own world view, born as it is of ideological certainty, is incomplete. It may provide a map of reality for them; it does not for many others. This can make their views and actions harder to comprehend.

Defending the value of a liberal-arts education is challenge enough in the algorithm-obsessed world in which we live. Proclaiming universities to be cesspools of rape culture, transphobia and white privilege only makes the liberal arts a harder sell.

That said, Neil Guppy thinks we worry too much. The veteran sociologist taught his first course at UBC in 1979. Last year he took on an additional role as Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom. He sees his job as troubleshooter, advising the administration on how to handle emerging controversies before they get out of hand.

But he welcomes the foment on campus. "Over my time at University of British Columbia, students have become smarter, they've become more vociferous, they've become better and better as time has gone on," he believes. "They are pulled in many, many more directions now than they were 20, 30 years ago."

So let the poststructuralists question everything, he says. "There is more debate and discussion." And let the students confront the powers that be. "We want people to protest; we want people to object." And let those in power be careful what they say. "I personally think that political correctness is a good thing, is a progressive thing, and I'm very much in favour of trying to speak politically correctly."

Freedom and protection both survive through compromise, a principle despised by so many, who seek to wreck it. And yet this ground must be held. However much freedom and protection conflict, neither can survive without the other. Without either, both are lost.

John Ibbitson is writer at large for The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @JohnIbbitson