Canary in the coal mine

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Academic freedom a hotly debated issue at the U of R

Taouba Khelifa
News Editor

Concerns at the University of Regina are high about the possible changes to the fundamental right of academics to freely express themselves and criticize their institutions.

In 2011, a number of university presidents across Canada endorsed a statement that would change the understanding and application of academic freedom in Canadian universities. The changes were presented in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) “Statement on Academic Freedom.”

Academic freedom is a right enjoyed by academics to pursue their work, wherever it may take them, to freely teach theories and ideas, especially those that may be new or controversial, to express their opinions and criticize the institutions in which they work and their governments, and to express extramural speech and action – that is, to engage in service outside of the walls of the university and their fields of expertise, while still being protected by the institution. 

However, under the changes proposed in the AUCC Statement, academic freedom would no longer protect academics’ extramural speech and action, nor would it protect the right of academics to criticize the university and its governance.

At the University of Regina, these proposed changes by the AUCC have brought much worry, especially since academics were made aware that the U of R’s President, Vianne Timmons, endorsed the AUCC statement, and is pushing for changes to be implemented in the current round of collective bargaining. As the U of R’s Faculty Association (URFA) continues it’s collective bargaining, academics say that academic freedom has been a hotly debated issue.


“The AUCC [Statement] portrays such a profound misunderstanding of the nature of our work, that you wonder whether there are any academics on the fifth floor of this university at all.” – Peter Campbell


But perhaps more troubling, say some professors, is the fact that the university administration is meddling with academic freedom at all, especially given that it is a right that belongs solely to academics.

U of R’s Peter Campbell, professor of Philosophy, Michael Trussler, professor of English, and Philip Charrier, professor of History, spoke to the Carillon about some of their concerns regarding the proposed changes to academic freedom, and the fundamental implications that such changes would mean for education as a whole, but more importantly, for academia in a university.

“Academic freedom isn’t just incidental to the ways of the university; it’s integral. That is, it’s not separable from the ways of the university, and therefore isn’t something that could be diminished or denied, and a university remain. It’s therefore something that a university [administration] should not be tinkering with at all, especially since the university’s viability as an institution of higher learning depends on it,” argued Campbell.

Essentially, Campbell pointed out, “academic freedom is the oxygen of the intellectual engine.” To remove academic freedom from the picture, or to change its meaning and guidelines, as the AUCC statement has proposed, would be to change the very function of a university. According to Campbell, the AUCC’s stance on academic freedom is, in reality, a way for university administrators to take away the voices of faculty and students, making it easier to govern and change the university as they like.

“The AUCC statement presents academic freedom as an antagonism … a fight between the administrators and the faculty. It’s no such thing,” Campbell stated, further explaining that academic freedom has historically been understood to protect the work of the academy from external interference, from governments, administrators or from any other authority. It has never been understood as a protection of administrative “integrity and autonomy.” To present the debate over academic freedom as a contest between competing interest groups – faculty and administrators – is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of academic freedom.

“Universities could exist without management. They wouldn't work nearly so well – and I'm biting my tongue as I say that – if they weren’t well managed, but they would survive as institutions of higher learning,” Campbell said. “Universities would not survive without the academics: without the students, and the faculty, and their work together.”

“Reading between the lines, what [administrators] want is autonomy from not just cranky students and faculty; they want autonomy from the academic mission. They want to be able to decide what the university's academic mission is. One of the things that puzzles me is that [university] presidents think they have a right to have a vision of a university, and then change the university to match the vision,” he continued. “The AUCC [Statement] portrays such a profound misunderstanding of the nature of our work, that you wonder whether there are any academics on the fifth floor of this university at all.”

But, argued the professors, a university has a nature that is determined by its fundamental goal: intellectual excellence.  It’s nature is not something that anyone, administrator or faculty member, is free to change. As such, the vision of a university cannot be created by its administrators and managers; the vision and mission of a university is created by its academics and students.


“In every case I can think of, whenever steps have been taken to limit [academic freedom] in universities, or to reduce the ability of academics to speak their minds on matters that they deem important, usually it’s been suggestive of an anti-democratic swing in society, of a move towards oppression, towards absolutism, and the broader social consequences have been very negative.” – Philip Charrier


Yet, at a time where government funding to universities continues to decrease, more and more universities are starting to look elsewhere for financial support: namely from corporations and private donors. In an effort to secure funding and attain that financial sustainability, university administrators across the country are changing the visions, missions, and foundations of their educational institutions to align with the beliefs and values of these private donors and corporations.

Academics across Canada find this move to be extremely problematic. According to Charrier, history has provided a foreshadowing of such consequences.

“In every case I can think of, whenever steps have been taken to limit [academic freedom] in universities, or to reduce the ability of academics to speak their minds on matters that they deem important, usually it’s been suggestive of an anti-democratic swing in society, of a move towards oppression, towards absolutism, and the broader social consequences have been very negative.”

Trussler agrees with this point, noting that in North American society, universities are one of the few places that pride themselves on allowing freedom to exist.

“[Full freedom] does not exist in the government right now. It does not exist in business. It does not exist in most religious organizations. The university is a place where everyone can meet and discuss ideas in a rational way, and everything is on the table, and it is absolutely essential to our democracy that this is kept free,” he said.

In theory, Trussler argued, “the university is not interested in the student as a consumer. The university is interested in the student because of his or her particular history and capability of thinking on their own.”

Charrier joked that this situation can be seen as a type of “canary in the coal mine syndrome,” which garnered some laughs from the other two professors.

Legend has it early coal miners would take caged canaries into the mineshaft to help them detect any dangerous gases in the air. Canaries, being especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, could detect the toxic chemicals before the human body. As long as the canary kept singing, miners knew the air was safe. If the canary got sick, miners knew they needed to get out as quickly as possible.

As administration begins meddling with academic freedom, the canary in the coal mine can be best understood as a warning that other freedoms and rights of citizens are in jeopardy.

“If a successful limitation of academic freedom is achieved within the Canadian university system, what does that open the door for, more broadly, in terms of freedom of the press, free speech, freedom of organization?” Charrier said. “I think academic freedom is something that belongs to society as a whole. University is a place where people can come and feel free to express themselves, to challenge, to question, to argue. The negative impact [of limiting academic freedom] as a whole could be quite significant.”

Not only could limiting academic freedom be devastating to the university and society as a whole, but such limitations could also lead to the underdevelopment of student minds.

Creating Citizens

“We need a place in our society that does not have to be tied to economic or financial results,” Trussler said. “It is important to study physics even if there will not be any economic application to physics for a very, very long time. It is important to study Aristotle, even if that is not going to be turned into something that is sold or bought.”

The professors noted one important goal of a university is to create citizens who are able to think for themselves, understand ideas, justify their decisions, and analyze their surroundings. If universities turn into businesses, then they should be in the business of creating intelligent, well-informed citizens.


“It is completely wrong to think of a faculty member as being a specialist in only one narrow thing that he or she then writes about and teaches class on…While it is true that I may have an interest in American literature, for instance, it is crucial for me as a writer, as a scholar, to get out of the narrowness of my particular field, and see how things exist in a larger way.” – Michael Trussler


At their core, Campbell added, universities house the “guardians of our intellectual traditions,” the professors, their students, and the work between them. Through the work of the professors, universities are able to nurture the minds of the next generation, working to make them autonomous and strong. “That all sounds kind of grand, but that’s in fact what the institution of the university is for,” he emphasized.

Trussler and Charrier agreed with Campbell’s analysis of the university. The job of universities and academics, they reiterated, is not to create employees, but informed, critical citizens who question their surroundings, and think outside of the box.

However, Charrier questioned this idea of creating citizens without the presence of full academic freedom, saying, “if students are going through a system in which professors are circumscribed in terms of what they can say” because their academic freedom is limited, how then can universities mold intellectually critical students? Limiting academic freedom, and the extramural action and speech of academics, say the professors, is problematic in allowing the university to fulfill its most basic responsibility.

The Extramural Sense

In order to create citizens that are well-rounded, academic freedom, needs to also include a protection of extramural speech and actions. AUCC’s revised statement does not include this protection, and further fails to acknowledge that extramural ideas are important. 

A subtle but grave implication of the AUCC model of academic freedom is that academics are expected to limit their expressions of critical thinking to their narrowly defined areas of expertise. This leaves the university administration as the sole authority on all other matters.

This is deeply concerning for Campbell because this sort of ideology shifts the power in academic freedom from a right that protects thought and speech, to a right that protects administrations from criticism. Such a shift, says Campbell, would put the right of academic freedom in the hands of the administration, and would “muzzle” faculty and students from providing telling criticism of the way their universities are run.

While some may argue that academics and students should not speak about matters that go beyond their research-based expertise, Charrier stated that this way of thinking undermines the valuable critical role of universities in society.

“On the surface it may seem like a logical thing,” he said. “But if you think of it in a different way, what this restriction does is reduces the university to the sum of its parts, and there’s no way that any university is going to have expertise on every subject and issue of relevance to society. If you eliminate [extramural sense, the university will become a place with] no ambition and no imagination beyond a very limited sphere. Think about it: a professor with no training on guns or crime who dared speak about the gun registry to question this or that policy, could be deemed not to be speaking within her field of expertise; under the AUCC statement on academic freedom, [the professor] would not be protected from discipline or censorship from within the university.”

Beyond this, a major flaw in removing or restricting the protection of extramural speech is that academics would lose their right to criticize the administration and engage in the university’s collegial governance.

“It is completely wrong to think of a faculty member as being a specialist in only one narrow thing that he or she then writes about and teaches class on,” Trussler said.  While it is true that I may have an interest in American literature, for instance, it is crucial for me as a writer, as a scholar, to get out of the narrowness of my particular field, and see how things exist in a larger way.

“Should I be able to offer critique regarding budgets, even though I am not an economist or an accountant? Absolutely. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to deal with the basic components of what it means to be a citizen,” Trussler continued. “To suggest that we are only capable of speaking about our limited areas of expertise is, in fact, remarkably arrogant.”

Campbell and Charrier agree, stating that in their own fields of Philosophy and History, as in the field of English, the responsibility of their expertise is to think of and explore the whole human experience, which means exploring various fields and looking at various subjects. It would be impossible, said the professors, to do their jobs by only narrowly focusing on their fields. A wider exploration of the social and historical arena is an essential part of their daily work. To limit this exploration, by removing the extramural aspect of academic freedom, would be to strip professors of their duties as academics and teachers. 

Accountability

The AUCC’s statement has caused much concern among academics here at the University of Regina. Professors and other academic staff say that the administration should have consulted with professors, students, and staff before deciding to throw their support behind the AUCC Statement. While President Timmons has endorsed the AUCC’s changes to academic freedom, the professors say it’s not too late to bring the conversation to the table, and allow professors and students to give feedback.

“A debate should be held where [the administration] should be able to articulate their rationale for their changes…One of the things that disturbs me about the AUCC is that it’s sort of coming in the back door,” Trussler said. “It’s the sort of thing that should be debated all across the university. Those who want to make these changes should be able to convince the rest of the University community, through reason, that this is actually a better thing.”

Photo by Kyle Leitch

3 comments

  1. Jeff 29 November, 2012 at 14:29

    The University of Regina has gone quite sideways. The administration needs to be overhauled, and Vianne should be fired outright both for gross incompetence and budgetary mismanagement, in addition to systemically devaluing the institution through her attempts to turn the academy into a glorified technical college.

  2. Don Kossick 5 December, 2012 at 00:05

    Dear Carillon,
     
    As a former Editor of the Carillon – 1967-68 – I would like to compliment you on writing this article and exposing the undermining of academic freedoms that is in process.
    Universities historically were meant to be free spaces of thought and speech. Out of the turmoil of many wars, the tyranny of religions – people sought a space where idea, and concerns be shared freely.
     
    The history of the University of Regina (before that U of S  Regina Campus) was very much  a liberal arts education dedicated to critical thought and inquiry in a free space. We had to fight hard for that against the impositions of the Thatcher government and the corporations they served.
    It is with great sadness to see the President of the University of Regina succumb to the corporatization of the universities of this country. They should be ashamed of their role.
    We should not give up – your article is encouraging in showing what we are facing, and what we have to fight for.
    Feel free to publish these comments in the Carillon.
    Don Kossick
    Massinga, Mozambique
    Student number 00736  – U of S, Regina Campus

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