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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1996

Administrations Are Accountable for Academic Freedom

Roger Gannon
Much has been written and said in recent years by politicians, university administrators and academics about the accountability of academics in publicly-funded institutions. But there has been much less said about the financial, administrative and academic accountability of university administrations in publicly-funded institutions.

Let us here redress this imbalance by looking at management accountability as it relates to maintaining academic freedom.

In October 1995, Peter Gzowski discussed university problems with four university presidents and one principal. All, without exception, spoke highly of the need for academic freedom. However, a reading of the transcript of that radio conversation indicates that none spoke in any detail about the means by which university administrators would ensure the survival of this vital principle.

Experience indicates that the vast majority of university administrations believe in academic freedom. But there are a few which fail to uphold the academic freedom of their faculty. Some do not fully understand what academic freedom means in practice; others do not realize that the principle needs to be actively supported on a daily basis, both in word and in deed. Still others from time to time get cold feet when the going gets rough politically and/or the prospect looms of a large outlay of cash. And a smaller, but still significant, number of administrations not only fail to uphold academic freedom but actively engage in activities inimical to it, again usually for financial reasons. Several illustrations:

Recently, an associate dean wrote to a departmental chair warning her and her departmental members of getting involved in classroom discussions of the implications of recent budget cuts on a "decent education."

At the same university, another associate dean refused to sign an SHRCC grant proposal because, he argued, it was not in conformity with the research priorities of the institution. After a faculty outcry, protests from the research team involved, and a public disavowal by the dean of the faculty in question, the matter was resolved. But by this time the deadline for grant submissions had passed and the proposal was thus effectively killed.

At another university, a dean (who did not have such a right) refused to sign a grant proposal because he didn't think it "up to much" and because he wanted to demonstrate to the professor his concern re his teaching!

University administrations should consider a few basic principles for ensuring the maintenance of academic freedom and appropriate management accountability. University administrations should:

  • provide an atmosphere in which faculty know from experience that they can pursue their research, teaching and scholarly activities without vexatious interference from the public at large, university administrators or other faculty. This would include, for example, making it clear that administrations will stand behind faculty who are sued while going about their scholarly, research and community work as prescribed in handbooks/agreements etc. (It is more than a little ironic that the same university administrations which take great pride in the publicity obtained by their "star" academics run for cover when it comes to defending a faculty member who has earned not "good" publicity but "bad" publicity while carrying out his or her scholarly and contractual duties in a perfectly appropriate manner);
  • negotiate an adequate, legally-entrenched clause in collective agreements or handbooks re academic freedom, together with the right to efficient grievance and arbitration procedures. In this regard, the CAUT model clause on academic freedom is a particularly good one;
  • negotiate effective financial exigency clauses and redundancy articles which allow for orderly and fair closures of departments or faculties (articles which cannot be used to "pick-off" unpopular individuals) and show due respect for tenure, the vital legal underpinning of academic freedom;
  • provide means by which faculty grievances, whatever their nature, can be heard in a timely fashion with consistent regard for considerations of due process, including the right of appeal. Lack of such a process, or tolerance of a severely-flawed procedure, may in effect act as an impediment to the academic freedom of a faculty member. In a recent Ontario case, the misuse and abuse of an already-flawed procedure has led to severe mental illness for a member, who in effect has been denied his contractual right to pursue his research, with the result that, among other things, he will have an uphill battle gaining tenure and the freedom to pursue a scholarly career;
  • protect academia against the corporate agenda to determine the curriculum, since a slavish acceptance of (some might argue any acceptance of) such an agenda is a very real threat to academic freedom;
  • guard against viewing the "student as consumer" as a determining factor in the setting of university and academic policy. Although students are one of a number of important constituencies to be considered in the setting of academic policy, they are not the only one. Administrations must not lose sight of the primary role that faculty have had and must continue to have in the determination of such policy;
  • have in place some reporting mechanism by which the university community can see how many complaints or grievances have alleged violations of academic freedom and how many have been sustained. Perhaps the mechanism should be designed to delineate the causes of those abuses that were shown to have been real. In this regard, it would be useful if universities could compare notes for possible remediation strategies;
  • negotiate with faculty associations provision for regular, independent, reviews of management performance as it applies to all aspects of university life including academic freedom;
  • hold regular management/faculty seminars for those most likely to be faced with decisions having implications for academic freedom, e.g. deans, chairs and those on tenure committees and hiring committees.

With all of the above in place, academic freedom would be well on its way to a healthy and continuing future and the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee would have far less work to do.

Roger Gannon is chair of the CAUT Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.