A View of Academic Freedom and Top-ten-ness

—George Freeman, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

The President’s Luncheon on Academic Freedom, held March 12, was the start of a great exploration, particularly if the university develops a serious interest in President Hamdullahpur’s vision around seeking to be a top-ten school, seen in his discussion document “Disrupting the 21st Century University, Imagining the University of Waterloo @2025” where it is expressed as the question “do we want to be recognized and respected as one of the best in the world?” [emphasis added].

This first meeting spoke to the general policies protecting academic freedom at Waterloo and focused mostly on aspects protecting our freedom to engage controversial ideas and disseminate controversial results. I take a much wider definition of academic freedom which includes all three of President Hamdullahpur’s “non-negotiable principles” around this topic: institutional autonomy, faculty independence, and academic freedom”. Although dismissable as just semantics, I believe it is important to not forget those institutional- and faculty-autonomy components. There’s a similar trap in the University of Waterloo Act, where our objects are “the pursuit of learning through scholarship, teaching and research within a spirit of free enquiry and expression.” It is too easy to group free enquiry and free expression under a common mental heading of “free talk” and forget that what it is we talk about has to come from someplace. Academic freedom in the large also protects that place (or spirit).

In my opinion, the history of scholarship demonstrates that it is extremely difficult to suppress ideas and their evidence-based evaluation forever. To me, academic freedom, in the freedom-of-expression sense, acts mostly to prevent long delays and prevent the messenger from being punished for the message. This protection of an environment free of recrimination and censorship is obviously important but not the whole story. In a policy sense, it admits to after-the-fact remedies for violations, something easy for us to contemplate.

I also think the history of scholarship demonstrates that the most powerful known force in creating new knowledge is serendipity. On that front, we don’t seek to prevent negative consequences, but rather to nurture positive outcomes by harnessing this force. If we did a thought experiment where it was possible to accurately measure both openness to, and ability to capitalize on, serendipity, I think we would see our local environment as very eroded by good-intentioned structures for which academic-freedom consequences, in the autonomy sense, were not explored. In the policy world, addressing this erosion ex post facto is difficult. What retroactive appeal can redress ideas which might have originated here but did not?

Waterloo does have scholarly groups which should be recognized and respected as best in the world. These seem to come about either by pure luck or by the hard work of building a group or financial fortress against the erosions. Discussing the nurturing of autonomy might open up alternatives to this star-pyramid-fortress scholarship model and its concomitant defects.

Curiously, through my involvement in FAUW and university governance, I have attended multiple conferences/workshops/retreats on concepts like tenure, academic freedom, and the future of universities, which engage every imaginable type of attendee (faculty, students, staff, administrators, government, industry, entrepreneurs, agitators, lobbyists, historians, futurists, snake-oil salespeople, to name some). I also started my formal scholarly career in a place which was at the time recognized and respected as best in the world. From that perspective, I believe there are interesting and non-obvious things we could discuss under the banner of academic freedom to enlighten our understanding of long-standing problems which may hamper the “respect” goal in strategic planning.

Operationalizing academic freedom, in all its meanings, evolves under the same forces to which every other part of the university is adapting, such as the deprivileging of education, the explosion of human knowledge, the removal of barriers to information, and the urgency of global human problems. Historically, I see tenured-professor privilege as having encapsulated the role of professor along with many academic-freedom protections. I think we’ve adapted our faculty role in some positive ways but not given a lot of thought to maintaining the protections. I hope events like this President’s Luncheon can be the beginning of deeper exploration and change.

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