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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2016

Françoise Baylis earns distinguished academic award

[Photo: Graham Kennedy]
[Photo: Graham Kennedy]
The word upstander might not appear in the Oxford dictionary yet, but if and when it does, Françoise Baylis, a Dalhousie University professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy, might be cited as an example to illustrate the concept of someone who has the courage to move from silence to action.

“We need people to stand up and defend the mission of the university as a place of higher learning,” said Baylis, who received CAUT’s 2016 Distinguished Academic Award in April.

She’s made it her mission to make people in power care, to inspire colleagues to stand up for academic rights, and to fight the commercialization of the university because she believes it is the root cause of many of the issues in higher education.

“My area of teaching and research is applied ethics and I have been known to say somewhat facetiously that when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place — when no matter what you do you will pay a price — well, then, just do the right thing,” she said.

Baylis is a member of Dalhousie’s senate and an active member of the campus community. When the Dalhousie scandal over male dentistry students participating in a misogynistic Facebook group broke, she immediately sprang into action, organizing meetings with colleagues to try to find solutions.

And they did. They proposed a four-point plan and presented it to Dalhousie president Richard Florizone.

First, acknowledge that there is a problem of sexualized violence at Dalhousie, and on other campuses across the country.

Second, apologize for the failure in the past to respond effectively to the problem of sexualized violence on campus.

Third, commit to the work required to make campuses safe and supportive learning environments for women and members of other vulnerable groups.

Finally, develop an integrated approach to the problem of sexualized violence on campus — an approach that responds to the specific harms and addresses the underlying systemic issues.

In the end, Florizone ignored the plan.

“I often wonder how things might have been different if we had followed this approach,” Baylis said.

She said she believes that in failing to stand up, “we not only failed the four female dentistry students, who wanted a formal process and were blocked from having this, but also failed all our students in not sending a strong message against misogyny and gendered violence. As a result, some were left with the impression of a cover-up.”

She laments that so many administrations try to solve issues that arise on campus through their communications departments and legal counsel. She has the same critical analysis about the reaction of Dalhousie administrators following publication of a report of an independent committee of inquiry established by CAUT to investigate allegations of violations of academic freedom involving clinical faculty at Dalhousie.

The investigation found that clinical faculty have no guarantee of academic freedom, that the concept of collegiality is misunderstood and misapplied, and that dispute resolution processes involving clinical faculty are unfair.

“These are pretty damning findings and you might well wonder what has been the university’s response. Officially, the response is ‘no comment’ because matters are before the court,” Baylis noted.

She said what concerns her most is that the university is trying to silence dissent on campus out of supposed thinking that everybody should “get along” and work together. She disagrees because she believes that debate is essential to the pursuit of knowledge.

She cites a 1971 Dalhousie senate document stating that the absence of conflict is likely to be a sign the university is intellectually moribund. The situation today, she says, is very different.

Baylis says academic staff need to take back the university and to reassert the values of academic freedom and integrity.

“First, you have to identify who the powerful are — and here I so want to believe that Foucault is right and that if we want to find where power rests we shouldn’t look to the King, but we should look to the masses who allow the King to remain in place. Power is ultimately at the base. If this is right, then my challenge is to make sure that we all care and that we all have the moral motivation and the moral courage to act.”