Advancing academic freedom

Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and learn unhindered.

UBC's Academic Calendar contains the current Senate-approved (1976) Statement on Academic Freedom, outlining the positive obligations on the university, and all its members, to promote and protect this central freedom of the academy.

Prof. Margaret Schabas is the Senior Advisor to the Provost on Academic Freedom (appointed Jan. 1, 2020). Prof. Schabas works to advance the centrality of academic freedom to our various missions, and develops educational materials for the university community in the support and protection of academic freedom.

Dr. Neil Guppy held the role of Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom from 2016-2019.

A brief history of academic freedom at UBC, authored by Dr. Guppy, can be found here, while an excerpt of the Honourable Lynn Smith’s 2015 report on academic freedom can be found here. To learn more about freedom of expression, which is closely linked to academic freedom, visit our Freedom of Expression page.  

FAQs about academic freedom

*Please note that these questions and answers were developed in 2016 by the Provost and Vice-President, Academic pro-tem and the Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom.

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How does UBC define academic freedom?

Academic freedom consists of “the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to [members of the University] as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, [and] to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion” (UBC Senate Statement, 1976).

To whom does academic freedom apply?

Academic freedom applies to “the regular members of the University” as well as “to all who are invited to participate in its forum” (UBC Senate Statement, 1976).

Who protects academic freedom?

Major justifications for academic freedom come in two forms. First, the pursuit of truth is understood to be a self-evident value of the highest order, because its discovery illuminates what has previously been mysterious or unknown.  Second, the pure and unfettered pursuit of ideas has led to greater and greater enhancements in human wellbeing (e.g., life expectancy).

Does academic freedom apply only to individuals?

Many experts on academic freedom feel it applies both to individuals at the university and to the university itself. As an institution, academic freedom implies that the decisions about who to hire, what to teach, what research infrastructure to create, and so forth are best made by academics shielded from external forces, be they commercial, cultural, political, or religious.

Are there limits on individual academic freedom?

Yes, speech and actions must be lawful. Also, the word academic modifies freedom in such a way that the freedom should be understood as being subject to the broad dictates of disciplinary colleagues. Professional standards of a profession or discipline apply. Finally, depending upon one's level of responsibility in the organization, academic freedom may be more limited. Senior administrators are held to a different standard than are junior faculty or students, especially when it comes to criticism of the university.

Does individual academic freedom pertain to university administrators?

Faculty occupying administrative roles are expected to be more judicious in criticizing university policies and practices – time and place are important.  Likewise Heads of Units are expected to uphold policy and practice, although like other senior administrators they are encouraged to participate fully and actively in the design of policy and procedures.

What about institutional responsibility?

UBC, and all of its members, must “support, safeguard and preserve” academic freedom. This means, from an institutional perspective, that UBC as an organization has a “positive obligation” to provide the working conditions for all of its members to pursue effectively learning, research, service, and teaching.  Universities are charter institutions with a distinctive mandate, a mandate unlike any other organization. That mandate principally involves the methodical discovery and dissemination of truth and understanding about matters that are serious and important. Given this mandate, the university is expected to put in place structures, procedures, and practices that promote independent thinking and that safeguard the institution and its members from external political, religious, or commercial interference.

What about academic responsibility?

Academic freedom implies academic responsibility. With the freedom to pursue any and all ideas comes the responsibility to do so honestly, accountably, openly, and fairly. UBC policies on Scholarly Integrity, Harassment and Discrimination, Fundraising and Acceptance of Donations, and Conflict of Interest and Commitment, and others, including the UBC statement on Respectful Environment, can condition academic freedom. Scholars are expected, for example, to know and follow the prevailing scholarly practices within their field of specialization (Policy 85). Likewise they are expected to act in ways that do not “undermine public confidence and trust” in the university (Policy 97).

What is the difference between freedom of expression and academic freedom?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media….”. It includes the right to speak and the right to hear. Expression is inclusive of oral and written communication, art, video, and so forth. In Canada expression is minimally restricted by the Federal Criminal Code, some Provincial Human Rights codes, and other laws which impose limits on hate speech, libel, and regulation of signage for example. Academic freedom is more complicated. As noted for an earlier FAQ (above), the word ‘academic’ modifies freedom. The following example helps to clarify: In universities the theory of evolution is taught, whilst creationism is not. This is because the academic community agrees that evolution best explains human development. Creationism does not. The latter is not taught as part of human biology because it does not meet scientific standards of evidence. Discussions of creationism are welcome as freedom of expression, just not as part of the academic biology curriculum. Expression within academic disciplines is limited by agreed upon community standards – it must be responsible, scholarly expression that meets obligations of rigour and peer review. In this way, physicists don’t teach psychoanalysis and psychologists don’t teach string theory. Also academic freedom extends well beyond expression, to include activities like selecting research topics, assembling research teams, and deciding on hiring / promotion.

Where does UBC policy on Academic Freedom reside?

The UBC Senate approved a statement on academic freedom in 1976 (see Senate Minutes, December, 1976). This statement was subsequently incorporated into the UBC Collective Agreement between the University and the Faculty Association (2004). In the Collective Agreement, a short preamble was also added.

Policy SC6: Scholarly Integrity; from that policy

2. Responsibilities 2.1. UBC Persons are responsible for familiarizing themselves with the scholarly standards and practices that are generally accepted within the relevant scholarly field and following them honestly, accountably, openly and fairly.

Policy SC3: Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment; from that policy

[acting] in support of the University’s integrity and fundamental mission and avoiding circumstances that may undermine public confidence and trust

Policy FM6: Fundraising and Acceptance of Donations; from that policy

2.2 UBC values and will protect its integrity, autonomy and academic freedom, and will not accept donations when a condition of such acceptance would compromise these fundamental principles.



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