Two months ago I wrote about my experiences of reprimand at UBC after publishing a blog post that raised uncomfortable questions about organizational culture, diversity, and leadership. A fact-finding process was agreed to by the University of British Columbia’s Faculty Association and the UBC Administration into allegations of interference with my academic freedom. The findings of the third party investigator, the Honourable Lynn Smith, Q.C., led her to conclude that UBC failed in its obligation to support and protect my academic freedom.
The Smith Report notes that “The protections of academic freedom extend to the dissemination of scholarly research and opinion through these new electronic media” (p. 5) as well as to “commentary (whether positive or negative) by members of UBC on the extent to which the central functions of the University are being advanced or hindered by decisions or initiatives affecting the University” (p. 6). Some people did not understand that an academic blog, and comments about one’s university and its leadership, are protected by academic freedom. So is scholarly opinion and speculation; asking questions and proposing theories are crucial to the advancement of inquiry and knowledge.
Academic freedom is to a university what love is to a family. It is not simply one of many priorities a university must remember to keep in its sights, it is the university’s fundamental and most sacred priority. For its members to grow and thrive, for it to be functional and productive, and for it to have a positive impact on the world and future generations, a university’s members must be able to operate in an environment of free inquiry and respectful debate. Unless people are willing to challenge and disrupt the status quo, there will not be breakthrough research, or advancement of the frontiers of knowledge, or real progress in addressing societal problems such as the lack of diversity and equity in organizations. These conversations are especially important in universities, whose role it is to educate and prepare the country’s future leaders and contribute to the public discourse on issues that matter.
I am disappointed that the university leaders involved in my case lost sight of this, and prioritized the feelings and concerns of a powerful donor over the well-being and rights of a faculty member. I am heartened, however, by the numerous students and faculty I heard from across campus, at other universities, and from members of the public who readily understood the concept and importance of academic freedom and reached out to support me. I am also grateful for the tireless support of the University’s Faculty Association and for the University Administration’s commitment to collaborating with the FA to productively investigate this problem. I am hopeful that UBC can learn from this and strengthen its commitment to, and safeguards for, academic free speech for all of its members. This will only improve UBC’s excellence as a university.
Just over a year ago I arrived at UBC with a mandate to lead the Gender and Diversity in Leadership Initiative at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. I look forward to continuing to pursue my mandate of advancing equity and diversity in leadership through research, education, and engaging the broader community in a discussion around diversity in leadership.