Provost's Lecture Series on Academic Freedom: Autumn 2021

The Provost's Lecture Series on Academic Freedom in Autumn 2021 invited three speakers to the UBC Vancouver campus to discuss academic freedom, and to share their unique viewpoints on academic freedom.

This series was sponsored by Professor Andrew Szeri, Provost and Vice-President, Academic. Professor Margaret Schabas, Senior Advisor to the Provost, Academic Freedom, was the organizer and the moderator of these events.

September 23, 2021: Academic Freedom and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:Should Universities be “Charter-Free Zones”?

Presented by The Honourable Lynn Smith, O.C. Q.C.

Lecture synopsis: Canadians often assume that the Charter universally protects rights like freedom of expression and assembly and are surprised to learn that the Charter does not apply everywhere or at all times. Notably, the Supreme Court of Canada held in 1990 that the Charter does not apply to public universities.

The exclusion of universities from Charter application has been questioned by a number of academic writers, who ask why universities should be “Charter-free zones”. They argue that, at a minimum, the freedom of expression guarantees should apply on campus since universities are meant to be locations for the unfettered exploration of ideas. They claim that the Charter's freedom of expression rights harmonize with and support the value of academic freedom. Some lower courts have agreed.

The Supreme Court of Canada has made clear that it will revisit and sometimes reverse its own early Charter decisions – as it did with respect to Criminal Code restrictions on sex work and assisted death and with respect to trade union rights under the freedom of association guarantee.

What if the law changes and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies directly to universities? Would the protection of academic freedom be strengthened, weakened, or remain unaffected, if constitutional freedom of expression rights could be asserted against universities?

This lecture will explore why the answer to those questions is complex. The complexities stem from differences between what is protected by academic freedom and what is protected by freedom of expression and from the significant role that institutional autonomy plays in protecting academic freedom.

View the recording of the lecture.

Read Lynn Smith's biography.

November 4, 2021: Diversity and Freedom of Inquiry in Academia

Presented by Professor Akeel Bilgrami, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

Lecture synopsis: This lecture will offer a genealogy of current disputes on campus that confront the trade-offs between commitments to greater diversity and commitments to freedom of inquiry. It will identify some of the effects of diversity on academic inquiry, exploring in particular whether the demands of diversity are bringing about a fundamental shift in the very idea of inquiry and pedagogy in the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

View the recording of the lecture.

Read Professor Akeel Bilgrami's biography.

November 23, 2021: Academic Freedom as a Double-Edged Sword: How Big Tobacco and Big Oil Corrupt Research on Campus

Presented by Professor Robert Proctor, Professor of History, Stanford University

Lecture synopsis: Corporate polluters are very skilled at harnessing science for purposes of delay and distraction. This lecture will examine how Big Tobacco has used scientific research to obfuscate causal links between cigarettes and disease, and how similar methods are being used by Big Oil to obstruct prudent action on the climate emergency. While academic freedom is a core principle of university life, there is a danger if corporate polluters shape academic research and teaching, and use their support for science to create an impression of corporate responsibility. Given the temptations of corporate funding, we need to think more carefully about how to reconcile corporate influence with freedom (and quality) of inquiry.

View the recording of the lecture,

Read Professor Robert Proctor's biography.