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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2009

Academic Freedom Demands Constant Vigilance

By Penni Stewart
Speaking in 1995, distinguished legal scholar and past president of York University, Harry Arthurs argued that “Academic freedom is a central, perhaps the central value, of university life.” The question is what this value means in the daily practice of academic staff, departments and institutions.

Traditionally, academic freedom has been conceived as the right of scholars to teach in the way they decide and to voice their opinions — not only about the subjects they teach and their areas of research, but also about broad social issues — without fear of censorship or re­prisal. The institutional character of academic freedom is the democratic and collegial control of the organization of teaching and research and the general direction of institutions. It is becoming increasingly apparent this conflicts with ideas of entrepreneurial management and short-term demands of the governments which pay the bills.

CAUT has an increasing perception that academic freedom is under attack in Canada. This reflects our mandate and role in defending colleagues whose freedom has been infringed. Relative to the large number of academic staff in Canada, those immediately affected are few in number and we can be accused of overreacting, at a time when there is widespread respect for academic freedom, despite a few incidents. On the contrary, we must pay serious attention to each incident, because each potentially establishes precedents that pave the way for dangerous, widespread institutional change.

This occurs in at least three ways. First, because post-secondary in­stitutions are tightknit communities, the persecution of just one colleague with controversial views be­comes known and acts as a deterrent to others across an entire campus. Second, whether explicit or not, concern for their own preservation may lead collegial bodies which come under threat to avoid funding “controversial” research, conferences and other scholarly activities. Third, institutions can take advantage of seemingly minor incidents to institute student codes of conduct and respectful workplace policies that challenge academic freedom and freedom of expression more broadly.

Recent events at York University raise all three concerns. Last fall the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council granted support for an academic conference entitled “Israel and Palestine: Mapping the Roads to Peace,” planned for June at York and involving the collaboration of colleagues at York and Queen’s University. The conference became the eye of a storm when Industry Minister Gary Goodyear, who is responsible for the three granting agencies, asked SSHRC to reconsider its decision to fund the conference.

Goodyear apparently acted under pressure from a number of non-academic organizations, prominently B’Nai Brith, which were offended by the conference and its speakers. SSHRC president Chad Gaffield acceded to the minister’s request to have the conference organizers ac­count for their program. The conference took place without incident, but under the shadow of tight security.

Joined by academics across Canada, CAUT protested this attempt to interfere politically with an independent granting council and SSHRC’s decision to bow to pressure undermining the integrity of peer review processes. This is clearly an attack on academic freedom. But there was more to come.

Mamdouh Shoukri, president of York University, defended the conference in a statement that noted the subjects of the conference were widely discussed internationally, including in Israel and Palestine, and by some of the same people invited to attend the conference. After the conference, however, Shoukri announced an inquiry into its planning and organization. Considering the procedures in place for adjudication at SSHRC and our colleagues right to decide on suitable subjects of debate, this inquiry can only be an effort to placate external groups (and donors angered by York’s sponsorship of the conference, and it serves as a chilling rebuke to the faculty who organized it.

In announcing the inquiry, Shoukri said: “Universities are obliged to support academic debate on the pressing issues of the day; they are also obliged to ensure the respectful exchange of ideas based on research.” While innocuous-sounding, the second phrase hints ominously at the curtailment of academic freedom.

On Israel and Palestine, and any other political issues, it is not meaningful to think of some ideas but not others as “based on research,” and this criterion could lead to the curtailment of controversial and maybe “offensive” ideas. “Respectful” is also a loaded word that too easily can be stretched to exclude certain content from debate on the grounds it is disrespectful of an established political view. It does this by redirecting attention to the character of what is said rather than the substance of the issue.

CAUT’s concerns about this conference are grave enough that we also have commissioned an independent inquiry by Jon Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick and a leading authority on academic freedom. Thompson will report to CAUT in November, and CAUT will release his report publicly.

In a nutshell, an increasing climate of regulation incrementally erodes academic freedom. At the same time, compounding this in the United States, and creeping into Canada, are overt threats to make life difficult for academics espousing certain views. For example, see the activities of the California-based David Horowitz Freedom Center. These we ignore at our peril.