CAUT executive director James Turk (left) & president Wayne Peters pen open letter.
Academic freedom has come under attack from an unusual source — the organization of presidents of Canadian universities. In an open letter
issued to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, CAUT noted the irony of the group choosing its 100th anniversary to issue a new statement on academic freedom that would undo many of the advances achieved over the past century.
“With the growing pressures on universities to compromise their defense of academic freedom in the quest for financial support, we need a more expansive notion of academic freedom, not a more restrictive one,” CAUT president Wayne Peters and executive director James Turk said in the letter to their AUCC counterparts.
“A major problem in Canadian universities is not that too many people are asserting their academic freedom, but that too few are,” they wrote.
The 2011 AUCC statement
makes no provision for key aspects of academic freedom, such as the freedom of extramural utterance and action, first recognized in 1915 in the landmark statement by the newly founded American Association of University Professors. Freedom of extramural utterance is the right of academic staff to participate in public discourse without suffering academic penalty.
Many of the most famous academic freedom cases have involved attempts to suppress academics’ right to engage in public discourse, such as the firing of Bertrand Russell first from Cambridge in 1916 and later from the City College of New York in 1940 for taking unpopular positions on public issues.
The letter says AUCC also omitted any reference to the right to publicly criticize one’s own institution — a central aspect of academic freedom as it has been understood in Canada and internationally. This right is specifically protected in most collective agreements at institutions whose presidents voted unanimously for the 2011 AUCC statement.
The statement also doesn’t recognize that all three facets of academic staff work — teaching, research and service — must come under the protection of academic freedom.
Equally concerning, the letter says, is AUCC’s conflation of academic freedom with institutional autonomy.
“It is absolutely true that academic institutions must not restrict the freedom of academic staff because of outside pressure — be it political, special interest group, religious — and institutions need to be autonomous in that sense,” it added. “But to pretend that building a moat around the university protects academic freedom is disingenuous and ignores the reality of internal threats to academic freedom.
“In 1915, AAUP recognized the danger of internal threats — from boards, the administration, colleagues and students. It is strange for AUCC to ignore that danger almost 100 years later.”
The letter further raised concerns over AUCC’s willingness to see academic freedom constrained by conventional disciplinary standards, by an institution’s self-defined mission and by the “constraint of institutional requirements,” which would legitimize institutions imposing faith or ideological tests as a condition of employment, as long as such restrictive requirements are consistent with the institution’s mission.
Speaking before assembled delegates to CAUT’s Council meeting last month, Turk said: “We are not prepared to see 100 years of progress stripped away by an administrative group’s redefinition of the oundation of post-secondary education.
“An immediate priority is for each academic staff association to review academic freedom clauses in its collective agreement to ensure its members are fully and properly protected.”