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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2016

Walking through the minefield of academic freedom

Hobbled by “civility codes” and eroded by corporatization, academic freedom has had a rough ride these last few years on university and college campuses, and 2015 was no exception. Does this ideal that’s so vital to the profession have a future?

That’s the question Hank Reichman, vice-president of the American Association of University Professors, set out to answer in a speech at CAUT’s Council meeting in November.

“Academic freedom can never be taken for granted,” Reichman told his audience of around 100 people attending the event dinner. “While academic freedom is one of the foundations of greatness in our higher education system, it has always been — and always will be — contested and vulnerable. Academic freedom must be fought for repeatedly, and there will be no final victory in the struggle.”

At its own annual meeting last June, the AAUP voted to censure the administrations of four institutions for failure to adhere to principles of academic freedom and tenure. Topping the list was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which withdrew Steven Salaita’s job offer for comments he made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Twitter.

“Whether it is a matter of First Amendment, rights or of the principles of academic freedom, there is concurrence on the dangers to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech,” Reichman noted in his talk.

Last year, the trend also played out in some regions north of the border: University of British Columbia: Professor Jennifer Berdahl received an unusual phone call from the chair of UBC’s board of governors after she blogged about the resignation of the university’s president, Arvind Gupta.

University of Calgary: The former director of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability claims he was let go from the position after raising concerns about Enbridge’s influence. The university’s president sits on the board of Enbridge Holdings, a subsidiary of Enbridge. CAUT has launched an investigation.

Carleton University: The administration asked biology professor Root Gorelick, who sits on the university’s board of directors, to sign a confidentiality agreement barring all governors from commenting publicly on board business. Gorelick, who blogs about the board’s public meetings, has refused to comply.

Brock University: A CAUT investigation concluded that the university’s administration violated the academic freedom of faculty who criticized the religious focus of a foreign volunteer program offered to students by the university’s Roman Catholic chaplaincy.

Then there’s the issue of tenure, Reichman reminded his CAUT audience, while providing a picture of the situation in the U.S.

“If most colleges and universities now provide tenure protections, they provide them for an ever-shrinking segment of the faculty,” he said. “At present, only about a fourth of all those who teach in higher education are included in the tenure system … If, as the AAUP has argued, the tenure system provides the most reliable protection for academic freedom — especially if that system can be supported by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement — then academic freedom today may be as endangered as it has been at almost any moment since the AAUP’s inception.”

In Reichman’s view, the influence of America’s wealthiest on politics, society and culture is growing ever larger, and their tentacles now reach deep into the country’s campuses.

“Today’s universities — and many smaller colleges, too — now function increasingly as corporations,” he said. “Governance at these institutions is progressively more hierarchical, and the principal focus is more and more on their bottom line.

“As colleges and universities grow increasingly dependent on outside largesse, concerns over the abuse of external influence are expanding dramatically. The recent proliferation of externally funded ‘centers’ catering to the needs of business or other outside forces is an especially troubling illustration.”

He also warned against increasing demands for “civility” on campus, citing in particular the proliferation of “trigger-warning” policies to alert students that class content might contain discomforting material. “Colleges and universities have traditionally been places designed to make people uncomfortable. Education can and should be joyful, but it should also be challenging, difficult, and sometimes unsettling,” Reichman said.

“Colleges and universities must protect their students from genuine threats, and the freedom of students to question and to dissent is as important as their instructors’ freedom to do so … But demands that syllabi include mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ and that the university community adhere to some arbitrary standard of ‘civil’ discourse … are out of place in higher education.”

The best way to ensure academic freedom? Vigilance, Reichman said. And, of course, tenure.

“There is no more critical task in the defense of academic freedom today than a renewed fight to make the overwhelming majority of faculty appointments once again full-time and probationary for tenure,” he told his CAUT audience. “Yes, union activism, participation in faculty governance bodies, and simple involvement can be time-consuming and tiresome. But it can also be rewarding and enjoyable. Yes, we have our divisions: humanists versus scientists, business versus education faculty, part-time versus full-time, young versus old. But if we do not transcend these differences, if more of us do not become active, all of us will suffer the consequences.”