Principal Threats to Academic Freedom
David Porreca, FAUW President
The Canadian Association of University Teachers – the umbrella organization representing 68,000 university faculty members and librarians nationwide – held its 74th Council April 25-28th, in Ottawa. I attended representing FAUW. Among the many issues and concerns that were discussed from Thursday to Sunday, threats to academic freedom in Canada loom large. The ten items below were identified as the principal threats to academic freedom currently prevalent in Canada.
- Casualization of the academic workforce
- Redefining the scope of academic freedom
- Undermining the concept of tenure through permissive contracts
- Discrimination and harassment of members of marginalized language groups
- Loss of custody and control of faculty members’ records
- New donor agreements and collaborations
- Contracting out of academic work
- Policies on “respectful workplace” / “civil discourse”
- Diminution of civil liberties
- Restriction of trade union rights
Over the next several months, but interspersed with items of immediate interest, a post about each of these threats will appear on this blog, beginning today.
Although other jurisdictions have advanced far more along the path of casualization than we have – over 70% of university and college teaching in the US is done by contract academic staff – UW finds itself particularly vulnerable to this trend. The research-intensive focus on our campus leads full-time faculty to want to reduce their teaching loads to leave more time for research. In fact, in the ten years I have been a faculty member at UW, my own department has gone from a 3-3 to a 2-2 teaching load to accommodate more time for research. I know of many other departments where the regular teaching load is even less.
From my perspective, the idea of a university is encapsulated by the dynamic interplay between teaching and research, between faculty members and students at all levels. Favouring one to the detriment of the other does a disservice to the idea and ideal of what activities a university should undertake and emphasize. Students deprived of being taught by researching faculty are not getting what they are paying for. Faculty members who limit their interaction with students whenever possible in favour of their research are at risk of missing out on the stimulating effect that transmitting their expertise viva voce can have: explaining complex concepts to a new audience often leads to clarification in one’s own mind, not to mention the useful feedback once can get from clever, critically-minded individuals from a younger generation.
The above observations lead me to ask: Who is doing all the teaching that used to get done when full-time faculty members taught more courses? Part of the answer resides in regular curriculum revisions that, in many cases, aim to reduce the full-time staffing necessary to deliver academic programs. These revisions, unless undertaken with the utmost care to avoid such an outcome, will tend to adversely affect the students’ experience compared to programs delivered, let’s say, a generation ago.
If teaching loads are being reduced and curricula remain viable and strong, inevitably the other part of the answer to the question posed above is ‘sessionals’, also known as ‘contract academic staff’ (or, at UW, as ‘adjuncts’) These people are practically by definition a casualized category of individuals who in many cases are parachuted in to cover gaps in what departments promise to teach in the course listings of the academic calendar. This trend toward casualization is particularly threatening to academic freedom and the quality of teaching students receive because those sessionals whom increasingly we entrust with the teaching of our students do not have tenure. Therefore, they are much, much more vulnerable than tenured faculty members to threats and pressures to modify what they teach for the sake of conforming to whatever ideological or personal flavour du jour that happens to prevail in their academic unit or institution.
One of the more pernicious knock-on effects of this casualization is a reduction in the professional consideration accorded to professors in their workplace and in society at large. On a local level, attempts to exert more control over the working lives of academics (e.g., through changes in practice over scheduling, or increasingly onerous accountability measures ranging from travel expenses to teaching curricula) are being resisted by FAUW on behalf of its members whenever possible. On a provincial level, we can see the end result of the process of de-professionalization in the treatment accorded to Ontario’s primary and secondary school teachers by our province’s government.
Essentially, our students deserve better than to see their university education be casualized and therefore become more conformist and less questioning of corporate or political agendas. Above all, we owe it to ourselves to resist casualization by emphasizing publicly and forcefully that we are purveyors of an essential public good: an educated citizenry that has witnessed the exercise of academic freedom, so that everyone’s civil liberties can be defended effectively when they come under threat, as they increasingly have been over the past 12+ years.
In related news, the contract academic staff at SJU have recently voted to join the SJU Academic Staff Association as a separate bargaining unit. How long will it be before their UW counterparts feel compelled by circumstance to do the same?