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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2016

Academic freedom at risk as shared governance is undermined

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[ / IpgGutenbergukLtd]
The participation of academic staff in the governance of universities and colleges has long been seen as a key component of academic freedom. Today, however, collegial governance, and by extension academic freedom, is facing a critical challenge from new managerial practices and an increasing concentration of power in the administration.

“There is a now an unholy alliance between economics and management, such that the university as an institution exists primarily for the growth of financial turnover, for the circulation of money (with no specific purpose beyond itself), and for the management of all that governs that circulation,” notes Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom.

Docherty has long been a critic of the state of governance in UK universities, and he knows first-hand the importance of preserving the right to critique and express dissent. In 2015, he was suspended from his job over accusations of “inappropriate sighing,” “making ironic comments,” and “projecting negative body language” during job interviews where his department head was present.

He was banned from campus for nine months, and forbidden by the university to write reference letters for students, supervise PhD students, or to have contact with undergraduates. University officials denied that Doch­erty’s criticism of the marketization of education was a factor in their decision to suspend him, and were forced to lift the suspension after he was cleared of all allegations against him.

“Technically, I was not even allowed to tell my family that I was suspended because the matter was deemed confidential,” Docherty said. “The purpose was to make sure that my situation was not to be discussed amongst colleagues. If the situation was going to be discussed in the office, it would have become unmanageable by the university.”

To confront these threats to academic freedom, “academic staff need to organize and speak with one voice,” says Peter McInnis, a history professor at St. Francis Xavier University and chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee. “Unions make us strong and certification is the base for bargaining and protecting our academic freedom.”

To illustrate his point, McInnis cited the work done by the academic staff associations at the Uni­versity of British Columbia after the surprise resignation of the university president, the University of Calgary following questions raised about perceived conflict of interests related to the Enbridge Centre for Sustainability, and at Western University following a scandal over the university president’s compensation.

Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University in New York and an expert on the McCarthy era, couldn’t agree more. “In the US, we see the same trends, but professors don’t have unions,” she said.

Schrecker said she’s not convinced that shared governance with academic staff ever truly existed, but she does say that until the mid-1970s both staff and administrators were largely committed to the idea.

“Shared governance was seen positively. It was a period where people didn’t always look at the bottom line and the faculty was in demand. Over time, the administration’s control has evolved and we are now dealing with their wishes to control the curriculum and to control personnel. But faculty are in the best position to know what should be taught and by whom it should be taught,” she added.

Dalhousie University senator and ethics professor Françoise Baylis has been a member of numerous boards throughout her career. She sees growing tensions between the economic bottom line and the academic mission.

“The university does not always speak with one voice,” Baylis said. “There are often diverging interests between the board of governors, the senate and the administration.”

She asserts that academic institutions are in trouble “because we are not able to pull together. It’s no longer clear that we have the same vision of what the institution is supposed to be. And it means we are phenomenally shortchanging our students.”

In addition to inadequate post-secondary education funding, a large part of the problem lies in leadership. Baylis says when leaders are committed to doing the right thing it permeates the whole culture of an organization.

“In my experience on boards and governing bodies, it really becomes a function of who is at the helm,” she said. “We need more people in leadership positions who have both the moral courage to stand up for what they believe in and unfailing personal humility to recognize we are all fallible and need to find support through difficult times.”

“Fundamentally, management is now about the policing of social and political conformity, about policing of behaviors, and even about the self-policing of behaviors,” adds Docherty. “In the UK, the latest abomination of this case is what comes across as a strategy for preventing the radicalization of Muslim youth. That means that I am now legally required to report, for example, changes in the behavior of my students. I kind of always imagined that teaching was precisely about that.”

Docherty believes social partnerships and collaborations between organizations like CAUT are a necessity in the interests of academics. “It’s the world of Harry Crowe who, as we should remember, did not act alone. In 1958 he was fired by United College, but then reinstated; and then resigned in protest when colleagues who resigned over his dismissal were not reinstated. This — acting for a freedom that is more than academic — is the political necessity facing the institution in our times.”


Governance issues across the country

British Columbia
February 2016, the University of Northern British Columbia’s senate passes a motion of non-confidence in the chair of the board of governors over irregularities and the lack of consultation on James Moore’s appointment as chancellor.

December 2015, the Faculty Association of the University of Calgary raises concerns over how the governing body is becoming increasingly secretive and academic processes designed to ensure bicameral collegial governance are being progressively more controlled by the senior administration.

March 2016, ahead of a large number of administrative appointments and review, the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association reminds members they have not only a vested interest but also the right to participate fully in the processes of appointing and reappointing senior administrators, and that members who serve on a hiring committee should be mindful that external consultants retained to assist with searches should not exert undue influence on the process nor make decisions for the committee.

January 2016, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association launches an alternative budgeting process to challenge the current spending priorities of the university administration.

December 2015, an elected faculty member serving on Carleton University’s board of governors faces discipline for refusing to sign a gag order preventing him from speaking publicly about board issues.

October 2015, an independent review at Western University finds serious flaws in how Western president Amit Chakma’s contract was negotiated.

March 2016, the Syndicat géneral des professeurs et professeures de l’Université de Montréal raises concerns over what they allege is a flawed consultation process on reorganizing the university. The union launches a complaint with Quebec’s labour board.

Nova Scotia
November 2015, Saint Mary’s University Faculty Union successfully grieves the presidential search process that sought to restrict the union’s involvement.