Redefining the Scope of Academic Freedom

Principal Threats to Academic Freedom

David Porreca, FAUW President

This is the second entry in the series of posts on academic freedom stemming from the CAUT general meeting in Ottawa last month, this one focusing on attempts to redefine academic freedom in increasingly restrictive and less useful ways.  By way of example, I shall compare and contrast the definitions of academic freedom as expressed on the one hand by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and on the other by our colleagues at St. Jerome’s University in their collective agreement.

In terms of context, university presidents across Canada adopted the AUCC statement on academic freedom unanimously.  The SJU-ASA wording has been held up at CAUT meetings as a model of brevity and comprehensiveness.  The fact that both are almost exactly contemporaneous adds to the relevance of the comparison.

To facilitate comparison, here is the language adopted by both groups presented in a table, side-by-side. I’ve numbered the paragraphs in the AUCC Statement for ease of reference:

AUCC Statement on Academic Freedom
(25 October 2011)
St. Jerome’s University Collective Agreement (effective: March 24 2011)
I. What is academic freedom?

1. Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding.

2. In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge. Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship.

3. Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.

II. Why is academic freedom important to Canada? 

1. Academic freedom does not exist for its own sake, but rather for important social purposes. Academic freedom is essential to the role of universities in a democratic society. Universities are committed to the pursuit of truth and its communication to others, including students and the broader community. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship.

2. For Canadians, it is important to know that views expressed by faculty are based on solid research, data and evidence, and that universities are autonomous and responsible institutions committed to the principles of integrity.

III. The responsibilities of academic freedom 

1. Evidence and truth are the guiding principles for universities and the community of scholars that make up their faculty and students. Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review.

2. Academic freedom is constrained by the professional standards of the relevant discipline and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission. The insistence on professional standards speaks to the rigor of the enquiry and not to its outcome.

3. The constraint of institutional requirements recognizes simply that the academic mission, like other work, has to be organized according to institutional needs. This includes the institution’s responsibility to select and appoint faculty and staff, to admit and discipline students, to establish and control curriculum, to make organizational arrangements for the conduct of academic work, to certify completion of a program and to grant degrees.

IV. Roles and responsibilities

1. University leadership: It is a major responsibility of university governing bodies and senior officers to protect and promote academic freedom. This includes ensuring that funding and other partnerships do not interfere with autonomy in deciding what is studied and how. Canada’s university presidents must play a leadership role in communicating the values around academic freedom to internal and external stakeholders. The university must also defend academic freedom against interpretations that are excessive or too loose, and the claims that may spring from such definitions.

2. To ensure and protect academic freedom, universities must be autonomous, with their governing bodies committed to integrity and free to act in the institution’s best interests.

3. Universities must also ensure that the rights and freedoms of others are respected, and that academic freedom is exercised in a reasonable and responsible manner.

4. Faculty: Faculty must be committed to the highest ethical standards in their teaching and research. They must be free to examine data, question assumptions and be guided by evidence.

5. Faculty have an equal responsibility to submit their knowledge and claims to rigorous and public review by peers who are experts in the subject matter under consideration and to ground their arguments in the best available evidence.

6. Faculty members and university leaders have an obligation to ensure that students’ human rights are respected and that they are encouraged to pursue their education according to the principles of academic freedom.

7. Faculty also share with university leadership the responsibility of ensuring that pressures from funding and other types of partnerships do not unduly influence the intellectual work of the university.

Article 2 – Academic Freedom 

2.0 The Parties agree to uphold, protect, and promote academic freedom as essential to the University’s objective to serve the common good through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge, truth, and understanding, and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students.

2.1 Members possess the individual right, regardless of prescribed doctrine, to academic freedom, which includes the right to engage in the following without institutional censorship or reprisal provided the Member complies with relevant legal considerations and any related policies required by law:

(a) examine, question, teach, and learn

(b) disseminate opinions on any questions related to the Member’s teaching, professional activities, and research both inside and outside the classroom

(c) choose and pursue research, creative, or professional activities without interference or reprisal, and freely publish and make public the results thereof

(d) choose and pursue teaching methods and content;

(e) create, exhibit, perform or adjudicate works of art

(f) select, acquire, disseminate, or critique documents or other materials

(g) criticize the Association, Employer or any other organizations, whether corporate, political, public, private, institutional,
as well as society at large

(h) engage in service to the institution and the community

(i) participate in professional and  representative academic bodies; and

(j) recommend library materials relevant to the pursuit of learning

2.2 Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the Member. Academic freedom makes intellectual discourse, critique and commitment  possible.

2.3 Academic freedom does not confer legal immunity and carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a responsible manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge. In exercising their legal rights, Members shall not be hindered or impeded by either Party in any manner contrary to this Agreement.

2.4 In any exercise of freedom of expression, Members shall not purport to convey an official position of the Employer unless so authorized by the Employer, President or his/her designate.

Some unsettling observations result from this exercise in contrast:

  • At I.3, the AUCC appears to be suggesting that academic freedom is a lesser right than freedom of speech, whereas the opposite is true.  Would freedom of speech prevent one from being fired for criticizing one’s corporate employer?  Only academic freedom allows the professorate to have a say in how it and universities are governed.
  • The AUCC statement (III. 2) purports that academic freedom is “constrained by the professional standards of the academic discipline and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission.”  Besides the ambiguity inherent in the statement “professional standards” (which ones? set by whom? isn’t obtaining tenure a high enough bar to qualify one as having “professional standards”?), I doubt any academic discipline could agree internally on a set of “professional standards” – disagreement is precisely the point of having academic debates. 
  • Anyacademic who criticizes their employer would be in breach of academic freedom according to this section (III. 2) of the AUCC statement.  Indeed, aside perhaps from certain branches of philosophy, there is no academic discipline that deals directly with issues of university governance.  So, if a mathematician sees fit to publish a critique of her/his employer – clearly something guaranteed by the SJU statement (2.1 (g)) – the AUCC would view this individual as being in breach of academic freedom since none of the “professional standards” in mathematics have anything to say about university governance. If the criticism came consistently from the same department, could administrators use the AUCC statement to justify the targeting of that department because it hinders “the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission”?
  • The previous point is made all the more ominous when read along with the next point (III. 3), which places in institutional hands the task of appointing faculty, determining curricula and so on.  This statement would be acceptable if it recognized that “the institution” and “the faculty” are one and the same, based on the principle of collegial governance.  It is not at all clear, however, that this is the understanding implied in the AUCC statement.  The separation of “the institution” from “the faculty” is a pernicious sub-text to the AUCC document, the barn door through which academic freedom can be wheeled out on a gurney.
  • At IV.2, the AUCC makes a strong case for institutional autonomy and administrators acting in the institution’s best interests. As public institutions, however, universities have a responsibility to the public good, and it is the latter that academic freedom ultimately aims to protect and foster.  Not much is said explicitly of the public good in the AUCC statement.
  • Despite its considerably greater length, the AUCC statement says nothing about protecting faculty members who criticize corporate entities, governments or their own institution.
  • At IV.3, we read: “ Universities must also ensure that … academic freedom is exercised in a reasonable and responsible manner.”   Who determines what is “reasonable and responsible”? I’ve rarely seen such unsettling Orwellian language in an official statement, and it takes very little imagination to figure how such a statement could be abused to the detriment of individual faculty members or even whole departments.  Universities are in the business of learning about the world and transmitting what is learned to subsequent generations at the highest possible levels of attainment.  Being a general rights defender is not part of the ‘central mission’ of a university, although an institution should be willing to defend the rights of its own constituents (as McMaster University has done in the recent cases brought against one if its librarians, Dale Askey).
  • At IV.7, the AUCC invites faculty members to join the university administration to prevent “undue” influence by funding or other partnerships on university-based intellectual activity.  What would qualify as “appropriate” or “due” influence, and how would those boundaries be defined?  The qualifier is unnecessary and unsettling.  Better would have been to emphasize the importance and value of curiosity-driven research.

In light of the above, I invite our President to renounce the AUCC statement, since it effectively erodes and fails to defend basic principles of academic freedom that faculty members need to do their jobs.

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