Q and A with Vianne Timmons

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U of R president talks to The Carillon about academic freedom concerns

Taouba Khelifa
News Editor

For the past two issues, The Carillon has been covering the growing concerns amongst professors about possible changes to academic freedom at the University of Regina. As part of a 2011 “Statement on Academic Freedom” released by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the definition of academic freedom was revised to include a “shorter and clearer” statement of the “responsibilities associated with academic freedom,” said the AUCC.

What is of much concern to faculty and students, however, is the failure of the AUCC’s statement to recognize the full rights given to professors under academic freedom – particularly the right of professors to criticize their own institutions, and the right of professors to extramural speech and action (commenting outside of their field of expertise.

The University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) – the body representing professors and academics on campus – is currently in the midst of collective bargaining with the University, and a hotly debated subject has been the proposed changes to academic freedom. Currently, URFA’s collective agreement includes the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) definition of academic freedom, which protects the overall rights of academics to criticize their institutions, and freely teach and participate in public service. Many academics worry that if URFA’s collective agreement is changed to reflect AUCC’s definition of academic freedom, then the very core of the university’s foundation will be in danger.  

For its last issue of the semester, The Carillon sat down with University of Regina president, Vianne Timmons, to discuss some of the growing concerns around academic freedom on campus. 

The Carillon: Why did you endorse the AUCC’s “Statement on Academic Freedom”?

Timmons: AUCC is the association that represents all the universities and colleges in Canada to the presidents. I wasn’t on any working committee on this topic, but a [number] of my colleagues were, and I know that they did rigorous and extensive studying, looking internationally, studying what’s going on, to come up with the statement. I felt that the statement was a fair one on academic freedom, so I, as president of the University of Regina, as part of AUCC did endorse it.

The Carillon: From our understanding, professors are already covered by CAUT’s definition of academic freedom, why endorse another?

Timmons: I don’t think they’re covered by CAUT. CAUT has a statement on academic freedom, as does AUCC. What they are covered by though, our professors, is by our collective agreement. If you look in our collective agreement right now, there is a statement on academic freedom that’s agreed to by both parties. If you note, it says that the “University shall defend the academic freedom of members from interference from any source.” So, I uphold our collective agreement.

The Carillon: Would you say then, that the definition provided by AUCC does in fact, because of the collective agreement, cover the omission that CAUT and other academics worry about?

Timmons: There’s a freedom of expression in academic freedom, and CAUT makes no distinction between the two, and AUCC is trying to make more of a distinction between the two. I would say that, and I would hope my record would show it, there has been no professor on this campus – during my tenure here as president, and I think before my tenure here as president – who’s ever been censored for freedom of expression or speaking on academic freedom issues. And as I said before, that will not happen.

The Carillon: Some argue that if the AUCC statement is implemented into the collective agreement, then the path the University will take is that path of censorship. What would you say to that?  

Timmons: The collective agreement is presently under negotiation, and I can’t speak on the negotiations, that would be unfair labour practice. But, there is no intent by the university to constrain our professors’ expression. I mean, a lot of the [AUCC’s changes] are fine tuning in the language. If you read both [the AUCC and CAUT definitions], and if you look at the two versions, it’s about interpretation of language on both sides. And I think you can read both and support both, at the same time.


“There’s a freedom of expression in academic freedom, and CAUT makes no distinction between the two, and AUCC is trying to make more of a distinction between the two.” – Vianne Timmons 


The Carillon: One of the missing points in the AUCC’s definition of academic freedom is the right of academics to extramural speech and action. There is concern that with this missing, academics will not be able to criticize their administrations or participate in the governance at the University.

Timmons: That is not my interpretation of the AUCC. Just by the fact of our governance structure, that faculty, they really govern our academic endeavors through the Executive of Council of this University. There is no program that can improve without faculty governance. It’s embedded in our structure, and there’s no attempt to change or modify that in any university [in] Canada that I can see, or heard of. It’s embedded in the tenants of a university – that collegial governance.

The Carillon: Some academics make the point that as universities become more corporatized, and as funding from government decreases, the AUCC statement is a way to silence professors and students from engaging with and criticizing university administration, so that universities can freely change the institutional structure of the academy to please private and corporate funders, without having to worry about professors’ and students’ thoughts or concerns. What are your thoughts on this?

Timmons: It is the job of a university to be autonomous, and at times we support our government, at times we critique our government. I know that AUCC’s intent is not to get [embedded] with government. That’s not why they [wrote the] academic freedom statement. What they want to do is say “academic freedom is essential and important to universities.” And they believe that…[AUCC] said that they did it because they wanted to try to get a collective statement from all the universities that they could all adopt. An AUCC statement is a collective statement, and universities can modify their own accordingly, and that’s part of the discussions around the collective agreement: what does that modification mean?

The Carillon: Before this 2011 statement, what was the connection between university administration and academic freedom? Was there a governing body on academic freedom?

Timmons: No, and there is no governing body on academic freedom. And if a university chastised or sanctioned a faculty member because of academic freedom, then CAUT would be the sanction against that university. We have a process in place that is laid out. As far as I know, the U of R has never been sanctioned for impeding a faculty member’s ability to speak out. Since I’ve been here, faculty have critiqued administration, and I have publicly said that faculty have every right to critique administration. I’ll use the Project Hero as an example. Sixteen professors wrote an open letter to the newspaper critiquing administration’s decision to sign on to Project Hero. I went public, and I will always go public, and say that is their absolute right to critique administration, and administration needs to weigh that, and take that into consideration in either reviewing the decision or upholding the decision.

The Carillon: Some professors have said that university presidents should not have visions for the university, that the vision of a university is created by academics and students, not by presidents. How do you respond to that?

Timmons: Well I’m an academic. That to me is very interesting, and I’ll use the strategic plan [as an example]. Our strategic plan, when we formulated it, was not done by me. I didn’t write the strategic plan and give it to the university. I set up an inclusive consultative process that the strategic plan emerged through. But, I’m a member of the academy, and I think that I, as any other academic, should give input into that.  My philosophy as a president is that it’s a collaborative, inclusive process to truly reflect the stakeholders on the campus – both faculty, staff, and students. I consider myself foremost an academic – I research, I still continue to do my work. I would not be in my position as president if I didn't. There's some presidents who aren’t academics, but for me, that’s what I value the most about what I bring to my job.

Photo courtesy University of Regina

2 comments

  1. BA, distinction 6 December, 2012 at 12:01

    Not only does Vianne not understand her own role as president, but she intentionally conflates government interests with private interests. Government has provided sufficient funding to the university. Likewise, tuition has increased relative to entrance rates, which explains sold out parking passes and parking lot construction. The university is bringing in more than enough money. At issue is poorly framed budgets and perverted spending priorities.
    For instance, spending $50m on a derelict building off campus is not an appropriate use of university funds. The administration claims that its board determined that the derelict building is the heart of the academy. No. it is not. The derelict building is a building. It is not even on the campus. The heart of the academy is the professors and students. The administration should operation ONLY in their interests. That money could be better allocated to hiring more TAs in all faculties, both giving students valuable income and creating a vastly superior support structure for students. Therewith, it would allow professors, instead of being forced to teach introductory courses ad infinitum, to pursue important research opportunities, bringing a higher degree of prestige to the academy, which in turn would attract a better class of students.
    What is occurring is that, due to systemic budgetary mismanagement (and misrepresentation in consultation), the university is cutting funding for core programs in the Faculty of Arts, because these programs, while essential to the legitimacy of the academy, aren't deemed productive by the administration. Through attrition (even in good years) the university has cut position in English (TAs and professors). As a result, the Faculty of Arts will soon be unable to adequately provide an English degree program. The same thing is occurring in philosophy, and will occur in other programs as cost cutting and attrition comes into greater effect.
    Under her incompetent stewardship, Vianne has allowed a systemic gutting of a core component of the academy. It doesn't take a philosophy major to recognize the consequences of cutting liberal arts from the university. It's credibility as an of higher learning will be undermined to an irreparable degree. And that, unfortunately, is the administration's goal. 
    The UofR seeks to become a technical institution, increasing graduation rates and "productive output" by removing any program that doesn't directly feed into a specific employment category. The nursing program is the first step. As the Faculty of Arts is cut down for cost savings to pay for expensive programs like nursing, other programs will be cut. In English, instead of being able to offer upper level courses, the department is forced to funnel more resources into English 100, in order to increase its "efficiency".
    Vianne's comments illustrate that on a fundamental level she does not understand what the academy is; what function it serves society. On her watch, the academy has been systemically attacked and some of its most essential programs – English, philosophy, sociology, journalism, and others – have slowly fallen away. The university claims it is adapting to changing demand. Nonsense. It is the university's responsibility both to preserve core programs and to work to demonstrate the practical applications of "non-practical" degree programs like English or philosophy. 
    While the Faculty of Business Administration is undoubtedly important (and business majors should be able to read and write with some degree of competence), it is not more important than the Faculty of Arts, or the Faculty of Fine Arts, or any other faculty. It is not more "efficient" than any other faculty, either. A university should protect ALL faculties because that is its duty; it owes that to the thousands of people across history who have died fighting for institutional freedom. And it owes it to the bright young minds that enter the academy each year. If even a single student has to suffer through a sub-standard degree program due to budgetary constraints, then the administration has utterly failed.
    I am profoundly disappointed in my institution. Its behaviour is reprehensible, and I fear that the quality of my degree will decline as the legitimacy of the academy fades away. It is disheartening to know that even the president of the University of Regina is willing to stand by, blaming the government, while the core of the academy is burned away.
    Vianne is duplicitous. Vianne should be ashamed.
    – BA, distinction.

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