For Extraordinary Heroism — John Warkentin, Marian Martin, Roman March, Kay Sigurjonsson & Hugh Makepeace were at CAUT’s council meeting in Ottawa to receive the Milner Memorial Award.
Fifty-one years ago, 16 academic staff at United College in Winnipeg sacrificed themselves to defend the academic freedom of a colleague who had been fired for writing a letter critical of the president of the institution.
The dismissal of historian Harry Crowe in 1958 became CAUT’s first academic freedom case. It served to define for CAUT the centrality of academic freedom to its mission and created the model for investigating allegations of violations of academic freedom that CAUT has used since.
“While much has been written about the unjust treatment of Crowe by the United administration and board, the true heroes of the story have not been properly recognized,” CAUT executive director James Turk told delegates assembled for the association’s biannual meeting last month. “These are the 16 colleagues who resigned over Crowe’s dismissal.”
For their courage and solidarity, the 16 earned CAUT’s Milner Memorial Award with a unanimous vote by Council delegates adopting a recommendation from the association’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee. Eleven individuals have received the award since its inception in 1969.
“The individual decision of each to resign was in a difficult time when there were not many academic jobs and little assurance that they would find positions elsewhere,” Turk said. “The Milner award recognizes distinguished contributions to the cause of academic freedom. The 16 who resigned in solidarity with Crowe are truly meritorious recipients.”
CAUT presented the awards Nov. 28 in Ottawa to Hugh Makepeace, Roman March, Marian Martin, Kay Sigurjonsson, and John Warkentin. Richard Stingle was unable to accept his award in person.
Fred Harper, Michael Jaremko, Kenneth McNaught, Elizabeth Morrison, Michael Oliver, Viljo Packer, Gerald Panting, Stewart Reid, Margaret Stobie and Walter Young received posthumous awards. Most deceased award recipients had either a partner or one of their children present to receive the award in their honour.
During the award ceremony, Turk shared with CAUT Council Beryl Young’s description of what happened in the case of her husband, Walter, who had just been hired to teach political science at United College.
“We were just back from Walter’s two years at Oxford,” Beryl wrote in a letter mailed to CAUT. “We had our first child, a three month old baby, and it was his first academic job. The day after we arrived in Winnipeg after driving from Victoria was the day the story broke in the papers. We seemed to make instant friends and instant foes, and Walter joined the friends in resigning a week later. So much for our first job.
“Walter and I learned a great deal that year. The most important thing we learned was that a job is just a job but you carry your principles with you through life. That experience certainly helped us define our principles.”
Life was difficult for many following their resignations, although all went on to important careers — both inside and outside the academy. Crowe’s firing and the resignations of the 16 were headline news across Canada, dividing Winnipeg and the university community.
The board of regents at United College remained resolute in its determination it had acted properly. In a letter to Marian Martin, one of those who resigned, board chair Allan Watson wrote, “It would appear that you have not informed yourself of all the relevant facts, as otherwise I do not believe that you could reasonably escape the conclusion that the principles of academic freedom are not involved in the present situation.”
He added that the board is “composed of thirty-eight men and one woman who have won the esteem of their fellow citizens over a long period…Do you not think it possible that the joint decision of these highly esteemed and respected citizens of Winnipeg could be right and that you could be wrong?”
Watson’s question was answered by the 1959 Laskin-Fowke investigatory report
commissioned by CAUT: “It is no part of the function of a professor to speak only in accents familiar to the administration…Crowe has been a victim of injustice, violative of academic freedom and tenure.”