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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 1998

The Insidious Attack on Academic Freedom

Arnd Bohm
Perhaps the most insidious presupposition in the growing attack on tenure at Canadian universities is the widely-held conviction that academic freedom is not, could never be, at risk in Canada.

Therefore, the argument runs, those who defend tenure are merely using the potential of threats to academic freedom as a paper shield to protect job security. We are, after all, a nation of decent people and our universities are communities of openness, tolerance, fairness and due process. How serious can talk of threats to academic freedom be in such a peaceable dominion?

Recent events at Carleton University expose just how vulnerable academic freedom is and should serve as a clear warning across the country -- tenure must be defended not as a sinecure but as a genuine safeguard for the freedom to teach, to research, and to publish according to the highest disciplinary standards, without the imposition of arbitrary controls by any university administration, government or other non-academic body.

In June, 1996, Carleton's faculty association (CUASA) ratified a new collective agreement that significantly weakened protection against tenure, conceding "that senate shall be requested to discuss the matter of program redundancy." The concession was made on the belief that faculty members would never turn against their colleagues and that the clause would not become operative. On Dec. 5, 1997, Carleton's senate voted to close a slew of academic programs: MA (German, Spanish); BA Honours (Classics, Comparative Literary Studies, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish); BA (Classics, Comparative Literary Studies, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish).

This in itself is dismaying, but would set off only quiet alarm bells, for it must perforce be accepted that universities have the authority to discontinue programs. More distressing is that these closures became the pretext for an attempt to dismiss tenured faculty -- but that is not the issue I want to address here.

No, what makes this a bellwether case is that while closing these programs, the administration began proclaiming its intention to keep teaching "languages," insisting on a putative distinction between the teaching of foreign languages and of foreign literatures. The announcements were not based on any decisions made by the units or faculty members involved; nor were the appropriate bodies such as the academic planning and curriculum committee of the faculty board consulted.

Some typical quotations, cited here at length to make clear what the intentions of the administration are. Dean W. Jones announced during the debate at senate (Minutes for Dec. 5, 1997): "... that Carleton University will still have language training and teaching as they have no intention of getting out of teaching the european (sic) languages; language courses would exist at some level, to some degree, given by some other unit."

On Dec. 11, 1997, This Week at Carleton, a semi-official organ, announced: "As well, the University will continue to teach courses in European languages to support such programs as the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Humanities, Bachelor of International Business, and the graduate programs in international affairs. Classics courses will be offered through the College of the Humanities."

On Jan. 29, 1998, President Van Loon wrote in a letter to the student newspaper the Charlatan: "Second, and most important, closing these programs does not mean that language courses will no longer be offered at Carleton. We will continue to offer language courses in Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cree, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian at the undergraduate level for students in all programs -- especially, the bachelor of arts, the bachelor of international business, the bachelor of journalism, Canadian studies and international affairs. (...) Finally, it means that new students entering Carleton will not be able to take a major or honors program in German, Spanish, Russian or Italian. While we will continue to offer language courses in these areas, in the future we will no longer offer the literature courses necessary for a language degree."

This is the cutting edge of an attack upon academic freedom that goes beyond anything the senate legislated. Carleton's senate closed programs, it made no statement about courses. Course proposals and planning normally originate in the department or school, proceed through faculty boards and are then approved by senate. The procedure is designed to make sure that at every level qualified academics have control over the decision-making, since only those with qualifications in the discipline can know what should be taught and whether the faculty members are competent to teach it.

No one would condone a university administration ordering a professor of German to teach Swahili, at least not without adequate retraining. And only at the individual level can decisions be made about which textbook and which methodology should best achieve the goals of teaching students the material. No administration should be able to order me when teaching German never to include an exposure to literature or, for that matter, to anything else I can justify pedagogically to my professional peers and to my educated conscience.

Now, however, the Carleton administration presumes to be able to intervene at the micro-level in my teaching, claiming the right to draw an arbitrary distinction between "language" and "literature" courses. What does this mean? If I am teaching German to beginners, will someone have to be posted in class in order to ascertain whether I ever use a poem or a short story? Would that be teaching "literature" or "language?" Are the only authentic texts that I will be allowed to teach be labels from cereal boxes? Will the School of Business select the textbook for me and the readings? What professional or technical competence do a dean who is trained in psychology or a president trained in political science have to rule on what the content of language acquisition courses should be?

Recognizing quite rightly that we as professionals would never give up our academic freedoms, Carleton's administration is taking the logical step - get rid of the professors and replace them with pliant sessionals and part-timers. As President Van Loon stated to the Ottawa Citizen (Nov. 20, 1997): "Some teachers who lose full-time jobs could return as sessional instructors, who will play a larger part in teaching at the university."

The real reason for this conversion is not financial savings. To quote from a confidential planning document produced by the Office of the Vice-President (Academic) in May 1996: "The consequences of financial exigency have thus created an opportunity as well as a challenge to reconfigure the University and to do so rationally. That is to say, the reconfiguration should be guided by our vision and our goals so that adversity hastens rather than hinders their attainment."

"Reconfiguration" entails giving the administration the power to set and determine curriculum. This can now extend down to selecting the textbooks and stipulating course content, since sessionals and part-timers must teach the course outline they are given when they accept the position. Vulnerable due to their marginal position, sessionals and part-timers must acquiesce or risk not being rehired.

Program closures, restructuring, a "new mission" for the university -- all of this sounds so innocent, in the best Canadian tradition, of any malicious intent or of any ideological agenda. These administrators are not witchhunters of the McCarthy era, they are serious, well-meaning people. The goals seem admirable and in the national interest: concentrate on science and technology, on practical and profitable enterprises. We are just going about the business of managing.

The ultimate point is that the power to dismiss tenured professors on pretexts such as a "deficit" or a "change of mission" has given Carleton's bureaucrats free rein to lay off or "redeploy" professors whose research interests are undesired.

Tenure has been breached here; academic freedom is under direct attack. Take heed. If the dictates of bureaucratic convenience are permitted to override the authority and the responsibility of those initially charged with teaching and research in a discipline, then there is also no academic freedom.

Once tenure is gone, we might as well wait for the administration to tell us what our next thought should be.

Arnd Bohm is associate professor of German and Comparative Literary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT. Les articles reflètent l'opinion de leurs auteurs et pas nécessairement celle de l'ACPPU.