The Limits of Academic Freedom

Peter van Beek, Chair, FAUW Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee
Should a psychologist who is a “scientific” racist be defended? What about a historian who is a holocaust denier?  A biologist who is an advocate of intelligent design?  A physicist who denies anthropogenic climate change?  An engineering professor who fiercely challenges the university administration when they propose to open a satellite campus in a country with a questionable human rights record? And finally, what about an ethnic studies professor who, days after the 9/11 attacks, characterizes those who died in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns”?  Should that faculty member’s right to speak and write be defended?
In other words, what are the limits to academic freedom?  That was the topic of a conference organized by the Harry Crowe Foundation that David Porreca, George Freeman, and I attended in Toronto recently on a cold January weekend. Below are some of the highlights that I took away from the conference. However, let me first put forward a disclaimer: Although I have been a faculty member for almost twenty-five years and I chair the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee, to my major discredit I came to the conference pretty much a blank slate on this topic. My learning curve was steep.

In what follows, the CAUT is the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the “national voice for academic staff”, and the AUCC is the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, a “unified voice” for university presidents. As may be surmised from their descriptions, the two associations sometimes have fundamentally different points of view on topics, academic freedom being one of those.
The CAUT has an elegant one-page policy statement on academic freedom. Our Memorandum of Agreement, which governs the conditions of employment for faculty members, has a statement on academic freedom that is quite closely based on the CAUT policy statement. To oversimplify, academic freedom has four main components: freedom in research and publication, freedom to teach and discuss, freedom of extramural expression (the freedom to critique society and the government), and freedom of intramural expression (the freedom to criticize the university and the university administration).
The AUCC recently adopted a less elegant policy statement on academic freedom that received much criticism at the conference. Quite shamefully, in my view, the AUCC statement omits both freedom of extramural and intramural expression.  Some of the most controversial conflicts over academic freedom in the past have revolved around extramural and intramural expression. Bertrand Russell was dismissed in 1916 by Trinity College, Cambridge, for his public criticism of the government. Harry Crowe was a professor of History at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) who was dismissed from his academic post in 1958 because of his criticism of organized religion and the university administration. And lest one think that these conflicts are of the past, Ignacio Chapela was denied tenure by the University of California at Berkeley in 2003 (ultimately granted in 2005), perhaps due to his intense criticism of adeal between Berkeley and Novartis, a Swiss biotech firm. The university collected a total of eighteen letters from external evaluators! My understanding is that collection was continued until a negative letter was finally received.
The AUCC statement also emphasizes institutional autonomy and institutional academic freedom, as opposed to academic freedom being a right of an individual faculty member.  It also emphasizes the role of professional norms in academic freedom (i.e., academic freedom more narrowly defined as belonging in one’s area of expertise and where the discipline sets the standard of inquiry). While professional norms might be a way of shutting up those anthropogenic climate change deniers that I find so annoying, professional norms can also be used to snuff out dissent. Academia is replete with orthodoxy and fundamentalism, and those who own the podium are often reluctant to share the power or to allow critical voices. Several panelists at the conference referred to an excellent speech by Harry Arthurs on why it does not make sense only to allow professors to speak on their “areas of expertise”.  Interestingly, not all university presidents support the AUCC policy.  David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, released a public statement distancing himself from the AUCC policy and (although correlation is not causation) subsequently resigned from the AUCC Executive. Patrick Deane, President of McMaster University, also clearly distanced himself (me judice) from the policy during his presentation at a panel during the conference.
Much more could be said, as there were panels on academic freedom (AF) and professional norms, AF and institutional autonomy, AF and religious belief, AF and equity, AF and the law, and AF and the growth of university-industry collaborations. But I am wary of going on too long, so let me leave further discussion as a possibility for the future.

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Academic Freedom

  1. Has Feridun commented on the AUCC policy? If not, could the FAUW ask him for a statement?Also, it seems to me that our MoA could be strengthened in regards to extramural expression and explicitly state the right to criticize the “system” (as stated in the CAUT policy).


  2. Hello, Urs — first, did I see you and your family at the Checkerboard on Friday? I wasn't sure …Second, I've just reread the MoA, and you're right: there's not really any language on extramural expression there. This might be because of some of the limit cases that Peter raises in the opening of his post, but it is certainly worth considering. It is now flagged for Board attention!Third, as for Feridun, I'm not sure. I can add that to my list of things to check.


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