As of a few weeks ago, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), in tandem with York and Queen’s University, was set to fully fund “Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace.” The mandate of the conference, which will run June 22 to 24, is to “explore which state models offer promising paths to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respecting the rights to self-determination of both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians.”
But last week, in a furious press release, the Canadian Association of University Teachers demanded that Gary Goodyear, the federal minister for science and technology, resign his position. The group alleged Goodyear had telephoned president of the SSHRC, asking him to reconsider the peer-reviewed decision to fund the conference.
“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference,” said CAUT executive director James Turk.
“This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”
The National Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students joined the debate, echoing Turk’s angry sentiments on academic freedom. The group said Goodyear’s move continued a “dangerous trend” in the Harper government’s strategy of directing research funding to score political points.
The next day, in an interview with The Record, Goodyear struck back at his critics.
As this public debate raged, SSHRC said it asked the conference organizers about any changes in programming that may had been made. The council was told that the lineup changes made since last November were “minor and that the aims of the event remain unchanged in their essence. ”
Perhaps it might have ended there.
“Your action of requiring the conference organizers to immediately provide you with a list of all changes to their program since their grant was awarded violates SSHRC’s own policies and legitimates the Minister’s unprecedented and unacceptable political intervention in SSHRC’s peer-reviewed granting process,” wrote CAUT.
“When asked by the Minister to review SSHRC’s peer-reviewed approval of the York University conference, you should have pointed out to him that his request was inappropriate — that every minister before him had understood it was unacceptable to bring political pressures to bear on academic decision-making.”
“By intruding into the planning of an academic event after a funding decision has been made, SSHRC’s actions are likely to have a most unfortunate chilling effect on academics considering the exploration of controversial or unpopular topics,” seconded the York Osgood profs.
“In addition, by casting doubt on the integrity of its own procedures, SSHRC has empowered those who would devalue academic research and discourse by insisting that academic freedom be reserved only for those who happen to share their point of view.”
York, for its part, remained cautiously neutral in the matter. The school, according to multiple press releases, said it recognizes the freedom of independent scholars to organize conferences on matters of “legitimate academic inquiry” and that “it would be entirely inappropriate for the university administration to intervene in…the academic content of such events.” The school also made it very clear that, as far as it was concerned, academic freedom should not be a shield for racism and bigotry in any form, including anti-Semitism.
In the most recent volley, but assuredly not the last,
According to him, Goodyear’s request to the council was a reasonable reaction to citizens’ concerns, and CAUT’s call for him to resign was “irresponsible.”
“The call for Goodyear’s resignation makes academics look insular and arrogant,” wrote Hunt. “It creates the image of stuffy intellectuals who think they’re above everybody else and don’t have to account for how their money is being spent. In these troubled economic times, advocates of higher education cannot afford to maintain such a reputation.”
What do you think about this whole debacle? Let us know.