Academic freedom faces threats worldwide, controversy close to home 

Student dressed in a graduation cap and gown runs away with their diploma.
Are we free or free falling?  Lee Lim

Are they threats, or do they just not align with your agenda? 

Academic freedom faced record breaking threats worldwide in 2022 and several controversies have already erupted in 2023. Universities around the world rely on academic freedom in order to pursue the truth regardless of the consequences, though many are not clear on the definition of ‘academic freedom.’ 

Dr. Marc Spooner, an education professor at the University of Regina, said it is commonly confused with freedom of expression. While freedom of expression is a right that everyone has, academic freedom gives additional leeway to academics to ensure “teaching, research, and service” at universities are free from interference. Academic freedom grants certain rights freedom of expression does not, such as the ability to criticize your employer or gain tenure. 

Dr. Spooner called academic freedom “a tool that’s required for us to do our work.” He compared it to how hockey players can body check someone without getting an assault and battery charge, like a normal person would if they hit another person. Similarly, academics need more leeway with their expression than the normal person in order to pursue their research. 

However, as reported by the Scholars at Risk Network (SRN), a network of over 500 universities that is devoted to supporting academic freedom worldwide, 2022 saw 391 attacks on higher education communities. The report notes that this was largely spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a military coup in Myanmar, and a civil war in Ethiopia. Although, the SRN warns these attacks “also occur in more open, democratic, and stable societies.” 

For example, closer to home, several historically Black colleges and universities in the United States faced bomb threats throughout 2022. Throughout the months of January and February 2022 alone, historically Black colleges and universities faced 57 bomb threats.  

Also in the United States, the report details how legislatures across the country were “restricting higher education institutions from teaching so-called ‘divisive concepts.’” SRN clarified that divisive concepts often meant “race, gender, and sexuality.” 

An example of this that has been shared widely on social media is the syllabus for a US-wide advanced placement African History course that was changed after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated that it would not be taught in Florida schools, because according to DeSantis, it included critical race theory, queer theory, and intersectionality. Advanced placement courses are taken by high school students for university credit, so they’re created by the US College Board. The College Board disputed that the change was made due to political pressure. 

However, in a February editorial, Holden Thorpe, editor of the world’s third largest academic journal, said that this response by the College Board was an attempt to “gaslight America.” Explaining further, Thorpe pointed out “the material that DeSantis approved of was left in.” 

A similar occurrence almost happened in Canada. In October of 2022, the Alberta United Conservative Party held a caucus vote on whether to ban the teaching of intersectionality, anti-racism, or critical race theory. It failed. Though, a third-party at the convention told the Calgary Sun the issue with the resolution had more to do with the specific wording rather than an issue in principle.  

Regardless of the perpetrator, SRN concludes their report by saying these attacks all have one thing in common, which is their “motivation to punish and silence ideas.” 

Here in Canada, Dr. Spooner explained that academic freedom is a “negotiated right,” often bargained for by unions. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is a trade union, which represents around 70,000 university teachers nationwide. They are often involved in academic freedom cases on behalf of professors in Canada. 

While no cases in Canada were mentioned in the SRN report, some think Canada can do more to help protect scholars internationally. In January of 2023, CAUT reported that Nasim Niknafs, a music professor at the University of Toronto, is unable to return to her home country of Iran due to her research. While she is happy to be working in Canada, Nasim Niknafs reports that she faced delays in getting a visa, which interfered with her ability to continue with her research in Canada. 

Here in Regina, Dr. Spooner recounts how he faced political pressure when he spoke up against the effectiveness of standardized testing in primary and secondary education. Despite the pressure, Dr. Spooner “was able to say things that were counter to the government of the day’s position.” Dr. Spooner could do this because his position was “not counter to the best available evidence.” 

In the end, Dr. Spooner thought his experience showed “I wasn’t silenced. It [academic freedom] actually worked.” 

In nearby Alberta, academic freedom has made the news more recently due to an ex-professor and self-described Marxist, Frances Widdowson, coming to the University of Lethbridge to give a talk called “How Wokeism Threatens Academic Freedom,” as well as lectures critical of Indigenous ways of knowing. Her invite initially came from the head of the department of philosophy, though it was later rescinded by the University president. When Widdowson showed up to campus anyways, she was met with hundreds of students protesting her presence. 

Widdowson claimed that this was an academic freedom issue. Dr. Spooner believes that the case is “more a matter of freedom of expression.” Dr. Spooner still supports Widdowson’s right to speech but says “it doesn’t mean it has to happen on a university stage.” 

As detailed in emails that Widdowson released on her own website, Widdowson threatened University of Lethbridge professor Dr. Caroline Hodes with a defamation lawsuit for telling people on campus that Widdowson was a genocide denialist, in regard to Widdowson’s comments on residential schools. Widdowson was formally fired from Mount Royal University for denying the negative impacts of residential schools. 

In a commentary published by CAUT and authored by Hodes about academic freedom in Alberta, though not directly refencing the Widdowson case, Hodes expressed doubts “whether my academic freedom will be defended as vigorously as those who occupy space on the political right,” pointing to the fact that the University of Lethbridge’s women and gender studies department is “currently under threat of amalgamation and cancellation.” 

On January 31, CAUT sent an open letter to the University of Lethbridge president in support of Widdowson’s ability to speak on campus, stating “a university should welcome controversial speakers.” 

While some cases can be controversial, the SRN did find an overall decrease in respect for academic freedom in many countries and a rise in threats to academic freedom.  

Dr. Spooner said this is an issue because academic institutions play a key role in democracy. “One of them is to provide the best available evidence, even if it’s counter to prevailing thought or powerful interests.” 

Holden Thorpe warned if politicians are able to “paint academics as master indoctrinators,” then it “sets the stage for attacking similarly rigorous material from any course.” 


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