Losing the academic voice


Changes to the guidelines of academic freedom has many academics worried about the punitive measures this will have

Taouba Khelifa
News Editor

University institutions pride themselves on providing a teaching atmosphere where professors are free to examine ideas, research findings, and explore theories from various perspectives – those that are well established, and those that are new or disputed.

Under this educational atmosphere, Canadian professors are protected under academic freedom, and advocated for on behalf of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Under CAUT’s guidelines, academic freedom is the right to “teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. It includes the right to criticize the University and the right to participate in its governance.”

But a statement released in 2011 made changes to the guidelines of academic freedom by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) – a national voice for Canadian universities – has had CAUT and many University faculties and professors concerned about the potential violations of their academic rights under these new changes.

AUCC’s mission is to participate in the “development of public policy to find solutions to the economic and social challenges facing Canada [by working] closely with governments, private sector and the public to raise the profile of higher education.” One of these recent solutions has been the aforementioned 2011 statement on changes to the guidelines on academic freedom.

In an open letter to AUCC, Wayne Peters, President of CAUT, and James Turk, Executive Director of CAUT, expressed their “surprise and dismay” with the statement’s changes, stating the “perverse irony that AUCC chose it’s 100th Anniversary to attempt to undo the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of academic freedom over the past 100 years.”

A number of Canadian University presidents have signed on to AUCC’s statement of changes, including an endorsement from the University of Regina’s President, Vianne Timmons.

According to U of R Professor, Emily Eaton, the endorsement by Timmons has left many faculty members “really upset about the fact that our President did sign” the statement.

Eaton further added that AUCC’s statement not only changed the guidelines to academic freedom, but has also “left many key components out.”

“One thing they left out was that particular component that said that academics are protected from reprisals for criticizing their own institutions. So, the new AUCC statement on academic freedom concentrates mostly on the threats coming outside of the university, and that the University has to protect its faculty from the outside,” explained Eaton.

“One of the things that concerns me is if universities…are being defunded in terms of their public support, [and] if their operating grants are coming more and more from student revenues and less and less from provincial governments…then the University itself has to do a lot of begging in different corners, to different types of funders…[such as] corporations…or private funders [who] have particular interests in mind.” – Emily Eaton

CAUT’s open letter further elaborated on this point, stating “that building a moat” around the University to protect academic freedom is “disingenuous and ignores the reality of internal threats to academic freedom.”

Furthermore, AUCC’s new statement also fails to recognize and protect all three responsibilities of academics: teaching, research, and service. While the changes protect teaching and research, the “statement fails to make reference to service, even though, most collective agreements have long recognized that academic freedom includes freedom to engage in service to the institutions and the community,” Peters and Turk explained in the open letter. 

What this means, Eaton says, is that academics will be limited in the type of work they do “beyond the walls of the university” because under these new guidelines, academic freedom does not protect professors from “censorship, or from any negative sanctions” they may face from the University based on their work in the pubic sphere.

For Eaton, these two missing components in AUCC’s academic freedom statement are troubling, especially when coupled with the recent defunding of public education programs and universities across the country.

“One of the things that concerns me is if universities…are being defunded in terms of their public support, [and] if their operating grants are coming more and more from student revenues and less and less from provincial governments…then the University itself has to do a lot of begging in different corners, to different types of funders…[such as] corporations…or private funders [who] have particular interests in mind.” This, says Eaton, becomes a major threat to academic freedom, and AUCC’s statement fails to protect against this threat.

While AUCC’s statement was released in October of last year, its implications on U of R academics and staff have been debated since December 2011, when the University of Regina’s Faculty Association (URFA) entered into negations for a new collective agreement. In a ‘Bargaining Update’ released by the University in May 2012, the U of R declared that “to date there have been thirteen bargaining sessions,” with “academic freedom language” being one of the main issues of discussion. While the U of R’s interest is to adopt the new guidelines in the AUCC statement, URFA has been opposed to the change, proposing “language that is supported by the CAUT and expands academic freedom to include service in general and administrative work.”

In addition to the problematic changes of AUCC’s statement, Eaton also added that it was troubling that so many university presidents endorsed such a statement without consulting any faculty associations.

“Many universities across Canada were really upset. Many faculty associations across Canada were really upset, because in our collective agreements with the university, we often have language around the protection of academic freedom. The statement was understood as potentially agreeing to something outside of the collective bargaining process, which shouldn't be allowed. Those agreements are contractually negotiated between the University and the faculty association,” she said. “By all of these University presidents signing on to something that would drastically see a change in that, that was sort of understood as going outside of the process that normally governs the relationship between faculty and the University.”

With a growing pressure on academic institutions to “compromise their defense of academic freedom in the quest for financial support”, Peters and Turk suggest that University presidents and administration need to be taking a more active role, now more than ever, to advocate for “a more expansive notion of academic freedom, not a restrictive one.”

Eaton could not agree more, stating that academic freedom makes a huge difference in the way students are taught in an institution.

“You’re going to get a very different education in a place like a University verses a place like private government run educational certificate. Academic freedom, I think, for students, means that they get the opportunity in their classes to be taught by people who are protected in those ways, to do things that might be, not necessarily yet the sort of standard practice or the norm of a particular discipline. They get to experience learning from the edge.” 

Photo courtesy Tenielle Bogdan


  1. m 22 November, 2012 at 20:19

    Academic Freedom is the fundamental principle that makes our Universities work the way they do. It is the primary reason why the founding of 'western style' universities in countries without good human rights records is so problematic – because the University can't function as it NEEDS to function without these guarantees.
    The right to question – and the right to be shot down for intellectual laziness – go hand in hand with rigorous and inquiry approaches to life. It is what we teach at a University – how to THINK. Academic freedom, in many ways, is what allows a university to pursue its research and teaching in the way that it does. It is above all a communal culture where individuals cannot only seek the truth in their domains of knowledge, but are also held accountable for it BY the COMMUNITY of their peers – not regulators, not funding agencies, and not the Institution. But their intellectual colleagues, students, and counterparts. This is what makes the system WORK.
    Cutting this out demonstrates how little administrators are aware of the ways in which academic culture actually functions. More loudly it declares how little funding agencies and donors are aware. This is our failure as academics – young and old – to educate our wider community as to why the right to question and interrogate any form or domain of knowledge is so essential to our wider cultural health. Unlike businesses we need to have a place and space for honest self critique AND creativity. This is the University.
    So stand up – protect academic freedom – it's what girds your teaching, your learning, and your research. Its the life blood of the University.

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