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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 59 | No 2 | February 2012

AUCC’s Statement an Academic Freedom Wakeup Call

Back Print
By Wayne Peters

On hearing of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s new statement on academic freedom released this past October, Jon Thompson, the author of No Debate: The Israel Lobby and Free Speech at Canadian Universities, remarked: “There is a certain perverse irony that AUCC chose its 100th anniversary to undo many of the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of aca­demic freedom over the past 100 years.”

Jon’s comment succinctly captures the essence of AUCC’s new statement, which is a full scale attack on academic freedom like no other we have seen. Sadly this attack is brought forward not by external agents but by the most senior administrators within our institutions.

I have previously warned that post-secondary education in Canada is in the midst of a fundamental transformation that is having disastrous effects for our students, our institutions, our communities and our country. While there are many drivers of this transformation, AUCC’s statement confirms our institutions are active collaborators. In the wake of this, it is evident CAUT and its individual member associations represent the only organizational voice committed to a principled defense of the academy.

AUCC’s new version of academic freedom dangerously conflates academic freedom with institutional autonomy. It suggests safeguarding the institution from outside powers will necessarily also defend academic freedom. While we must maintain institutional independence, this position completely discounts the very real, and all too common, threats to academic freedom from within our institutions. Of these, ironically, AUCC’s statement is a case in point. An argument for autonomy cannot be used to undermine academic freedom.

More troubling though is the po­sition put forward that academic freedom exists to the extent that it does not interfere with the needs and mission of the institution. The institution’s requirements, then, always trump academic freedom. Recognizing that the voice of academic staff in institutional decision-making is diminishing as a more top-down, corporate-style, mana­gerial culture supplants traditional collegial governance, we have much to be concerned about with such a position.

Most of us would agree that academic freedom is the essential feature of the academy. It sustains the very nature of our work — teaching, scholarship and research, all infused with a good dose of rigorous inquiry and scrutiny. If we believe we can do our jobs without it, then, quite frankly, we are not being true to our responsibilities as academics.

Nevertheless, I have the sense that academic freedom is underappreciated by many academics. As intellectuals, we don’t spend very much time thinking about it, discussing it, or writing about it. We know it exists but we take it for granted. We have become complacent about its value and, unfortunately, about the need to defend it as an academic necessity — until, of course, we find ourselves in need of its protection.

All the while, academic freedom becomes increasingly fragile, aided by our indifference in a society that is growing less tolerant of dissent. Within the academy, it stands as a substantial obstacle to our administrators’ interests in moving our institutions along more corporate-style paths. Redefining and constraining academic freedom as a much narrower right, as AUCC’s new statement does, affords our administrators the means to exert dangerous control over the academy, our institutions and the academics within them.

Academic freedom must be seen as an essential part of our work, both in and outside the classroom. Our institutions are obliged to uphold it, rather than to try to redefine it to suit their missions. Accordingly, our administrators must be held to this task.

So, then, AUCC’s statement gives a wakeup call to all academics that academic freedom needs our full and undivided attention. It is a rallying point, a catalyst to be used by CAUT and its member associations to mobilize members to be proactive and vigilant in its defense. It is a call to each of us to renew our commitment to academic freedom and to the academy at a time when post-secondary education in Canada is in the midst of a dire transformational crisis.

At the CAUT Council meeting in November, panelists leading a discussion around the issue noted collective bargaining remains the strongest mechanism to ensure academic freedom fully and properly protects all academic staff.

Each member association should review its language in this area and seek to strengthen it where necessary. Strong language is our first defense. At the end of the day, AUCC policy cannot undo what is collectively bargained at the negotiating table. CAUT’s model clause on academic freedom provides an illustration of what should be included.

A comparison with AUCC’s statement will reveal, among other things, several items omitted from the latter. The AUCC statement neglects any reference to academic freedom in our extramural speech — that is, an assurance that we will not be subjected to discipline by our academic institutions for exercising our civil liberties. It fails to recognize the right to intramural academic freedom, including the right to freely criticize one’s institution or its administration. And it does not acknowledge our academic freedom with respect to service to our institutions, our professions and our communities.

Still, strong language will not be enough. CAUT and its member associations must seize this oppor-
tunity to mobilize all academic staff to reclaim academic freedom as an absolute and necessary foundation of our academy — defined by the academy, not by administrators on a mission. The presidents of our individual institutions must be challenged about the position adopted by AUCC for the collective. Hold them accountable.

In closing, a thank you — of sorts — to AUCC for jostling us from our complacency.