Academic Freedom and Systemic Racism

You may have read about the faculty member at the University of Ottawa who was recently suspended after students complained that the Professor had used an anti-black, racial slur during a lecture. Her union, and echoed by many academics, immediately criticized the University’s “zero-tolerance” position citing academic freedom requires that the assessment of the appropriate use of this language consider the context in which it was used. Moreover, academic freedom is essential to faculty efforts to promote understanding, knowledge, and truth. The Union was then was taken to task for failing to consider how their knee-jerk reaction to defending academic freedom may perpetuate systemic discrimination. Context is important, and for many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) faculty, the context to consider is the racial violence that pervades Canadian society and language plays a critical, dehumanizing role that allows this violence to persist. In the end, the Union and the faculty member apologized for their conduct. The union, in particular, apologized for failing to consider the complex relationship between academic freedom and systemic racism.

As an Executive, we questioned how we would respond if a similar situation arose at the UofS. What became clear in our discussion is that the Executive does not have a good understanding of the views of BIPOC faculty on this issue. Without this understanding, we risk our response leaving BIPOC faculty feeling unrepresented by the USFA.

The relationship between academic freedom and systemic freedom continues to be of interest to the membership of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Any USFA members who wish to shape this conversation at the national level should consider joining the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of CAUT.  Information about nomination to that committee can be found in CAUT’s November Bulletin.

The USFA Executive recognizes our responsibility to vigorously defend academic freedom and address systemic racism within the University community. We welcome all views, especially those of BIPOC faculty, on how best to carry out these responsibilities. Simply let us know in a reply and someone will contact you.