Fireside Chats with Alan Davis

Academic freedom and freedom of speech. By Samantha Thompson [executive editor]

Hira Matharoo / The Runner
Hira Matharoo / The Runner

When Alan Davis, president of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, was in graduate school at SFU in the ‘70s, he was using x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of inorganic compounds. He was working under the supervision of Fred Einstein of SFU, and in partnership with Neil Curtis and John Martin of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Because he was working with people in New Zealand, they had to rely on snail mail–which slowed down the research process, he says. Those in New Zealand would make the crystals, which Davis says looked like cupcake sprinkles, and then put them in a brown envelope and stick it in the mail.

“I don’t know how many laws you’re breaking doing that,” laughs Davis. “It’s not dangerous stuff, but it’s a complicated chemical that’s been made in the lab.” When Davis received the crystals, he would determine their structure and then send back his results–again through the mail. It would take two weeks each time one of the researchers sent something to the other. The expediency of today’s world is likely just one of the reasons Davis appreciates what he calls the “global community of schools.” “I think we take it for granted, and we forget how wonderful it is to be in an academic environment that is essentially global,” he says.

Freedom of Speech

In 2012, the Kwantlen Student Association rejected the club application for Protectores Vitae, a pro-life group on campus. Following the group’s legal demands however, the KSA overturned their previous decision a month later. It was an event that generated much controversy, and the 2014 Campus Freedom Index gave KPU and the KSA ‘D’ grades, referencing this history as justification for the low score.

The publication comes out of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, and their president John Carpay represented Protectores Vitae as their lawyer during the 2012 events. The report critiqued Davis for failing to overrule the KSA’s initial decision.

“Whether or not I’m supposed to get involved and ‘tsk tsk’ them, I don’t do that with the KSA,” he says. “I think we’re very fortunate to have a KSA right now that is extremely helpful in terms of helping students, they get very engaged with us, they tell us what’s what . . . I don’t have to agree with everything they do, but they sure do engage a lot on behalf of the students and I don’t think that’s always been the case at KPU.”

“I have to say that around this issue I did get email, and other mail, that was very, very aggressive and was offensive. It was from pro-life advocates and it was unpleasant, and it was threatening. So I responded as quietly and as discreetly as I could–but the fact is no one likes to receive letters or calls like the ones I received.”

“I thought the KSA handled [the situation] very well. I was impressed . . . they were very mature about it.” He notes that KPU has been in the news over various things in the last couple of years, and that each time there are two directions they can choose to take: to be public and debunk an issue, or recognize that, “the more you talk about it and the more fuss you make, the more validity you’re giving the original information. It’s best just to keep quiet,” he says. “Which is not really my style and I’m always having to be held back.” “I say if you really want to know what I think, you’ll have to read my memoirs–published post-mortem.”

“They’re free to do this [the JCCF report]. I’m free to ignore it. We’re all free and there are many places in the world where you couldn’t do either, so we’re very grateful that we can just choose to ignore it, or choose to debunk it.”

Academic Freedom

When it comes to free speech and academic freedom, KPU has several policies that outline their approach. The institution has also been working on further developing a code of conduct.

“Academic freedom always comes with the responsibility,” says Davis. “You have the freedom to think and act, but you also have a responsibility. There are laws of the land; there are kinds of behaviour that we expect at KPU.”

He explains that at a recent discussion about the code of conduct policies, faculty members reminded them that KPU is a university, and that “we’re supposed to have difficult dialogues.” According to Davis, the faculty pointed out that it’s not their job to protect the reputation of KPU.

“[They said], it’s [their] job to advance the thoughts and ideas that [they] have in [their] field, and as long as [they] do it as a real scholar, or [they] know what [they’re] talking about,” and are willing to take the criticism, he recounts.

The discussion turned to UBC, who has policies that Davis says are “absolutely beautiful.” “[There is] lots and lots of very well-crafted language that says, ‘This is the deal, we’re a university, this is what we do. But we need to do it in ways that keep the discussion open, it doesn’t shut down people,’” he says. “We can disagree, but there are ways to disagree that does not intimidate, bully or interfere with others’ rights to disagree.”