Defending academic freedom & collegial governance takes vigilance, says Pum van Veldhoven
The Carleton University Academic Staff. Association knows it takes vigilance to defend academic freedom and collegial governance. Just ask the association’s president, Pum van Veldhoven.
“Academic staff are invested in the education of this institution and want to participate in a democratic fashion,” said van Veldhoven. “But we have seen a disturbing trend ever since the current president came in.”
That trend is shifting the institution away from principles of shared governance and towards more closed-door and top-down unilateral decision making.
“There are more in camera sessions at board of governors meetings. And last year, they stopped allowing our members to sit in on meetings that used to be open to the university community,” van Veldhoven said. “Now, members of the community who want to participate in the meetings have to sit in a separate room away from the board chambers, and watch a live stream of the proceedings.”
The growing secrecy around board meetings prompted academic staff, students, and other campus groups to come together to voice concern. Through their coalition group, “Campus United,” labour unions and student unions at Carleton banded together to call on the board of governors to open up their proceedings and to “put pressure on Carleton University to play by the rules.”
CUASA member Root Gorelick is the elected faculty representative on the board of governors. He maintains a personal blog on board proceedings that was not well received by some board members and senior administrators.
“He was coming under fire for highlighting transparency, openness and academic freedom,” said van Veldhoven.
In late 2015, a revised confidentiality agreement was introduced for board members to sign that would forbid governors from commenting publicly about open sessions of meetings. Senior administrators argued the changes had nothing to do with either academic freedom or freedom of speech, but rather clariﬁed the ﬁduciary responsibilities of governors. But CUASA and CAUT disagreed.
In November 2015, CUASA brought their concerns to the CAUT Council meeting, which unanimously supported a motion to consider invoking the process leading to censure if Carleton continued with the gag order and took action against Gorelick.
Van Veldhoven said the union wanted to draw national attention because “we had heard that these issues were happening at other campuses.”
“We felt the board of governors did not adhere to the principles of collegial governance, which is a cornerstone of academic freedom. And we are committed to protecting these principles as vigorously as we can.”
In addition to issuing several statements in support of Gorelick’s refusal to sign the agreement because he believed it violated his academic freedom, CUASA held a press conference.
“We are still doing everything in our power to defend his rights,” van Veldhoven said.
Not only did CUASA raise awareness and generate widespread support from academic staff across Canada, the mainstream media also took notice of the issue. At Carleton, academic staff rallied against the treatment of Gorelick.
“We held a special general meeting on the issues. Our members were ready to write letters, sign petitions,” said van Veldhoven. “We had sent out multiple communiques and releases and the majority of our members were willing to fight for Root’s rights.”
The pressure and external scrutiny appear to be working for now. Gorelick has maintained his seat on the board and his blogging continues.
But even in these quieter days, van Veldhoven knows the work isn’t over.
“We have to continue maintaining that the principles of academic freedom are held,” she said, “and to continue urging university governors to act in a transparent and democratic way.”