Freedom of the Academic and the Academy

Most of us who have joined the academy have a notion that we enjoy “academic freedom”, but most would be surprised to find out that, like other freedoms, it is not a well-defined concept and, like the concept of “tenure”, it is not governed by legislation. It is more typically described in mission statements or institutional principles and, of course, in academic collective agreements.

Recently, the AUCC (Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada), the administrative counterpart to CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers), met and redefined its notion of academic freedom and issued a new Statement on Academic Freedom.

A casual reader may find the AUCC’s statement innocuous. However, that may not be the case when it is considered from what can at times be the polarized perspectives of administrators within the academy and faculty. AUCC’s definition of academic freedom seems to suggest that academic freedom means independence of the academy’s administrators from government pressure. In contrast, faculty attribute to academic freedom independence to impart knowledge, nurture critical thinking, discuss, debate and even disagree with widely held beliefs or happenings in the world around us and within the academy. This is not to say that an administrative perspective is incorrect, but it is important to note that it is different from that of faculty.

These differing perspectives can present difficulties for faculty and while statements on academic freedom are important they are just that, statements. CAUT Executive Director, James Turk, recently noted that he could not imagine finer language than the U of T’s statement on academic freedom, but because it is not negotiated language, it is just window dressing and not worth the paper it was printed on when matters of academic freedom went to the courts. The deciding factor was the language in the collective agreement.

Although AUCC’s new statement was approved by a unanimous vote of the majority of Canadian presidents attending a meeting in Montreal (including our own), the president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor was not present and, subsequent to AUCC’s announcement of its new statement, posted comments about it to the U of T website. Interestingly, President Naylor’s comments, which we have reprinted below, purposefully distance himself and the U of T from AUCC ’s new statement and close with his resignation from the Board of AUCC.

To be fair, President Naylor’s stated reason for resigning from the Board of AUCC is time constraints. However, it could be said that including the resignation announcement with his comments about AUCC’s new statement denotes a connection to his choice to resign, particularly because President Naylor points out that AUCC has no authority over U of T. The university  makes its own policies, has its own statement on academic freedom and openly recognizes that the U of T’s relations with faculty with respect to academic freedom are articulated in the faculty collective agreement.

It is ironic that the position AUCC has taken, that universities and colleges that want to be members must adopt its new statement on academic freedom, is one that curtails the freedom of its members.

From the website of the President of the University of Toronto:

President’s Comment on AUCC Statement on Academic Freedom

On October 25th, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) approved a new Statement on Academic Freedom. The Statement was approved by a unanimous vote of the majority of Canadian presidents attending a meeting in Montreal. I was not present.

The University of Toronto is a self-governing body and external entities such as AUCC have no authority over our policies, principles, and practices. The University’s broad vision regarding academic freedom is reflected in our institutional Statement of Purpose approved by the Governing Council in October 1992. The University’s relations with our faculty colleagues on matters of academic freedom are encapsulated in a clear and concise way in Article 5 of the Memorandum of Agreement with the University of Toronto Faculty Association.

I note that the new Statement updates AUCC’s 1988 statement on the same matter. In part, the update was intended to ensure that institutions seeking entry to AUCC would be alert to the centrality of academic freedom to Canada’s universities. Beyond that general intent, which I obviously support as a Board member, the AUCC’s initiative in this regard has not drawn my close attention.

I also observe that issuance of the Statement has sparked some debate. That debate may be intensified by an unfortunate sentence in AUCC’s publicity about the Statement. The press release states: “Affirmation of this statement by institution’s (sic) is expected to become part of AUCC’s criteria for membership.” I believe it would have been helpful if the press release had instead specified that the Statement was another signpost of the centrality of academic freedom to the AUCC, and that prospective members were expected to provide evidence of such a commitment in their governance, policies and practices.

Last, I appreciate the good work that AUCC does. It seems clear, however, that time constraints preclude my giving AUCC the hours now required for volunteer service in a governance or committee capacity. I have accordingly resigned from the AUCC Board.

David Naylor


We Need More Exercise

Professor Findlay (right) receiving an honorary D.Litt, from Dean Peter Stoicheff at Spring Convocation 2011.
Professor Findlay became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2007 for outstanding scholarly contributions. Findlay’s citation read: “Len Findlay has produced influential work on Romantic and Victorian authors and movements. He has more recently turned to the reciprocal nineteenth-century flows of radical thought between Europe and Canada, and to the failure of Canadian radicals to show common cause with Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. For the past decade, he has collaborated with Aboriginal colleagues in defining and promoting the Indigenous Humanities.” Pictured here is Professor Findlay (right) receiving an honorary D.Litt, from Dean Peter Stoicheff at Spring Convocation 2011.

Professor Len Findlay, Department of English, is not only a distinguished scholar, he is considered a leading thinker in the area of academic freedom. He is Chair of the CAUT Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee and the most recent recipient of the USFA Academic Freedom Award. The following two paragraphs are a few of his thoughts on Academic Freedom.

Academic freedom has seldom been more important than today, and that is why so many people are trying to restrict its meanings, entitlements, and obligations. Too many academic leaders currently take their cue from the federal PMO which is only too eager to gag scientists, intimidate or dismiss whistleblowers, and punish critique as disloyalty. The brand of “The Harper Government” is being policed and polished by running roughshod over the need for good data, its rigorous analysis, and the dissemination of both in the public interest. Most university leaders are not quite as brazen or philistine as the federal government, but they like controlling the message too, in part by confining academic expression to matters pertaining to academic disciplines and discouraging (where they cannot disallow) critical intramural and extramural faculty speech as damaging to civility, collegiality, and/or institutional repute. Some administrators are also too eager to uncouple the robust exercise of academic freedom from academic excellence. Bluntly put, if you can’t cut it as an academic, you become what Les Macpherson calls “a chronic malcontent” while ‘discovering’ your faculty association as a safe haven for poor performance where academic freedom serves as an excuse for all deficiencies. Such claims are frequently heard in the upper regions of administration, even while there is silence on a related claim: namely, if you can’t cut it as an academic, you go into administration. Both claims are unfairly sweeping, but both suggest a widespread, underlying awkwardness about the necessity and value of intellectual work ‘beyond’ disciplines or ‘outside’ one’s academic expertise: an awkwardness about the scholarship of administration, and the scholarship of activism and dissent.

This awkwardness has always struck me as unfortunate and dangerous, leading me to insist throughout my career that the university should be the focus as well as the locus of inquiry, the object of investigation as well as its source, and that I have been no less a scholar when working for USFA or CAUT, or in researching and writing  about academic freedom, than when discussing the early modern appropriation of Homer or Aristotle, the allure and menace of French structuralism for literary studies, or the cultural underpinnings of treaty federalism. For me, it is important to function as a public intellectual rather than a self-sequestering or self-censoring one, and academic freedom is key to that sense of vocation, both demanding and protecting it. I’m only too aware that I have come up short as a teacher, scholar, and academic activist. However, I have tried to offer an example to my students and colleagues of the need for candour and critique within and beyond the contemporary university. The problem for me, as for many colleagues actively engaged with their local and national associations as well as with their teaching and research, is not that too many are exercising their academic freedom but that too few are doing so, and doing so too timorously.

 USFA Academic Freedom Award

The University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association (USFA) has long recognized the importance of academic freedom to the work of faculty. In fact the USFA was one of the groups representing faculty at Canadian universities who, in the 1950’s, came together to form CAUT and actively defend attacks on academic freedom.

The USFA Academic Freedom award is intended to recognize distinguished contributions to understanding and defending this crucial concept. Recipients may include an individual, or individuals, who have made a significant contribution to academic freedom in Canada.

The first such award was made in 2005 on the recommendation of a committee coordinating a week of events around the concept of academic freedom. Each year since then the USFA has hosted an academic freedom event and recognized the contributions to academic freedom made by various people.

Past recipients include:

  •  James Turk, Executive Director, CAUT
  •  Gavin Gardner, President USSU, and Jonathan Anuik, President GSA
  •  Michael Hayden, Professor Emeritus
  •  Linda McMullen, Professor, Psychology
  •  Howard Woodhouse, Professor, Educational Foundations
  •  Len Findlay, Professor, English

Nominations for this award can be made by any current USFA member or by any USFA committee. The nomination should include a statement of the reasons the nominee is deserving of the award.

For more information about the USFA Academic Freedom Award, contact the USFA office.