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Academic Freedom and Individual Rights

Goldstein, Rose MD; Zweibel, Ellen B. JD

Letters to the Editor

Dr. Goldstein is assistant dean for faculty affairs, Faculty of Medicine, and Ms. Zweibel is professor, Common Law Section, Faculty of Law; both at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Poses appears to misunderstand both the nature of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine's informal conflict resolution policy and how it was used in The Pelican student newsletter matter. His comments oversimplify the debate over the balance that needs to be struck between academic freedom and the importance of maintaining all students' rights to a harassment-free learning environment. Curiously, Dr. Poses ignores his own institution's, Brown University's, comprehensive Policy on Racial/Ethnic Harassment and Discrimination Prevention (revised 7/2001), which recognizes that the “principles and traditions of academic freedom… must be in balance with the rights of others, including the rights of individuals to be free of harassment and intimidation (including sexual harassment).”1

We would like to first correct Dr. Poses' misunderstanding of our informal conflict resolution policy and the Faculty of Medicine's response to the student newsletter. The policy recognizes people's need for an informal forum to work out misunderstandings, disputes, and conflicts before they become full-blown, formal, and public complaints. Often students, faculty, and staff use the conflict officers as a first-step, confidential sounding board to explore how they can, on their own, approach someone about remedying a problem. Other times, the conflict officer assists through confidential mediation. At any time the people involved can decide to drop the issue or pursue their rights through a more formal university complaint process. The policy is not mandatory and recognizes that informal resolution is not appropriate for all disputes.

As for The Pelican newsletter, it was the medical students themselves, the peers of the editor and Aesculapian Society, who complained that the publication was harassing and intimidating and who wanted some form of remedial action. This was not, as Dr. Poses suggests, an instance where “officials” took “remedial action” because they “deemed” the student newsletter to be “upsetting or offensive.” In fact, rather than issuing a top-down fiat, the Faculty's conflict officers worked with students from all groups, as well as with the Faculty administration, to respond to all the issues raised. The outcomes described in the article were multifaceted, sensitive to both freedom of speech and a supportive learning environment, and were clearly educational and constructive, not punitive.

Most U.S. and Canadian institutions of higher learning have formal policies like those of the University of Ottawa and Brown University that recognize that sexual or other harassment is “not only contrary to the academic mission… to provide students the opportunity to receive full benefit of their education, it is also against the law.”2 While freedom of expression is essential to a university's mission, the statements in The Pelican that women medical students used “feminine wiles” and “toned anorexic bods” rather than medical knowledge to “win points” and “dates” with upper-year classmates and staff hardly rise to the level of free enquiry. Nor did the newletter's mysogynist and racist jokes further the university's mission. As pointed out by both male and female students, these types of statements demean, belittle, marginalize, and generally undermine the targeted students in their academic pursuits. To understand that jokes can be harmful, Dr. Poses need go no further than Brown University's “Information about Sexual Harassment,” which includes “suggestive jokes of a sexual nature or slurs, sexual pictures or displays,… written notes of a sexual nature”3 as examples of sexual harassment.

Finally, we would like to reiterate the central theme of our article. There is a significant body of research documenting different forms of mistreatment, discrimination, and harassment in medical schools and describing the long-term effects on the profession. Addressing these concerns requires both formal and informal channels. The University of Ottawa's informal conflict resolution policy and the Faculty of Medicine's early experiences implementing it are offered for their “lessons learned”—in particular, the need to be highly collaborative in designing the structures for informal conflict resolution processes.

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1. Racial/Ethnic Harassment and Discrimination Prevention. A Guide for Answers and Help. Revised 7/2001. Brown University. 〈〉.
2. Handbook of Academic Administration, Brown University. 〈〉.
3. Information about Sexual Harassment. A Guide for Faculty, Students and Staff to Prevent, Avoid and Stop Sexual Harassment at Brown University (revised 8/2001). 〈〉.
© 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges