On Campus

A lesson for presidents on academic freedom

AUCC's new statement needs some editing: Pettigrew

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada has released its new statement on academic freedom. I welcome any clear, unambiguous statement saying that limitations to scholarly freedom, by anyone, are intolerable. It’s too bad that’s not what we got.

Although the AUCC proudly notes that the statement was unanimously accepted by university presidents, it must be noted that the views and interests of professors and presidents don’t always align. At many universities (though by no means all), the senior administration is viewed by the professoriate, not as the leader in academic progress, but as the occasional enemy of it.

While there is plenty to like in the AUCC’s statement, its framers have missed an opportunity by introducing numerous qualifications, and language that vaguely—and thus ominously—implies that the freedom of faculty can be subordinated to the will of the administration. Chief among these worrying qualifications are the repeated references to things like institutional “integrity,” “autonomy,” and “mission.” Given that university “missions” are usually dictated by senior administration, these qualifications imply that administrators are happy to give their professors all the freedom that they are comfortable giving them—and no more. That’s not really academic freedom at all.

Now, since it’s that time of year when essays are flooding in, let’s think of this statement as a first draft. In my never-ceasing desire to help universities be better, I’ve provided a copy of the AUCC statement, with edits that I believe could turn this C paper into an A.

Statement on Academic Freedom

What is academic freedom?

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.

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.

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.

Why is academic freedom important to Canada?

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 [ADD: because free academic discourse helps promote the vital skepticism needed to question political authority.] 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.

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.

The responsibilities of academic freedom

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.

Academic freedom is constrained [ADD: only] 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.

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.

Roles and responsibilities

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.

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 [ADD: of its faculty and students].

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Some might say that my concerns over words like “institutional priorties” are overblown. But phrases like this give administrators carte blanche to restrict academic discourse they find embarrassing or inconvenient or distasteful. This statement in hand, a university president could conceivably say: “of course I support academic freedom, but sadly, Professor Smith’s research does not fit our institutional priorities, and Dr Jones is doing work that just doesn’t seem reasonable and responsible to me. Don’t blame me for firing them. I’m just exercising my institutional autonomy.”

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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