Unlike other leading Canadian universities, the University of British Columbia adopted a novel stance last week when the national press castigated it and one of its professors, Dr. Christopher Shaw, for conducting research into a possible link between vaccines and autism — it unambiguously backed both Shaw and the principle of academic freedom. Almost immediately, the press backed off and the story died.
In contrast, when the national press outed academics at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University for questioning the position of the government’s public health authorities, the universities went into damage-control mode, announced they were launching investigations into the academics’ conduct and took steps to prevent them from discussing vaccines. The press, smelling blood, then doggedly piled on. The story then reverberated nationally and internationally, besmirching the reputations of the academics and their universities alike.
In the University of Toronto case involving health instructor Beth Landau-Halpern, the university initially voiced support for the principle of academic freedom, then backed off under fire from academics at other institutions who felt U of T went too far. Within days, the deans of U of T’s School of Public Health and its Faculty of Medicine wrote an open letter blaming vaccine skeptics for a rise in outbreaks of preventable diseases. This story lasted the better part of a week.
In the case of Queen’s, which involved Professor Melody Torcolacci’s Physical Determinants of Health course, the story lasted three weeks and was covered some 300 times in the press. By way of apology for permitting unconventional thinking into the halls of academia, the dean of the Faculty of Health Studies at Queen’s University wrote a long blog assuring everyone that he and the school conform tightly to the official positions of governments and establishment organizations, saying “We draw heavily on practice guidelines that emanate from recognized national organizations such as the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Not University of British Columbia. Instead of backing down and stressing its admiration for orthodoxy, UBC doubled down, stressing its commitment to leading edge research and its willingness to challenge status quo thinking:
“UBC is a research institution with a faculty committed to asking questions — all types of questions, sometimes even unorthodox questions — and attempting to answer those questions in a rigorous, responsible manner. It’s also a place that accommodates a wide range of ideas and beliefs. Those are the bases of the academic freedom that we hold dear. It is incumbent on us to probe controversial areas through sound research…. the university has no questions about Dr. Shaw’s academic integrity. His research has been compliant with university research policy and procedures. He publishes his findings in peer-reviewed journals and collaborates with scientists around the world, including the University of Paris, Tel Aviv University and Keele University in the U.K. His results, and the results of those who may dispute his findings, are subject to rigorous challenges. Again, that is the nature of academic freedom, just as it is the nature of a free press.”