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Defending academic freedom

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, shares his thoughts on how the debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict is threatening fundamental principles of academia.
FEB 14 2024

Defending academic freedom

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, shares his thoughts on how the debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict is threatening fundamental principles of academia.


The Canadian Association of University Teachers represents faculty, librarians, researchers and staff across 125 Canadian institutions. Recently, executive director David Robinson sat down with University Affairs to discuss how debates surrounding free expression have embroiled Canadian campuses and faculty, the need to reaffirm the importance of academic freedom and what institutions can do to defend what he describes as a “sacred value.”

University Affairs: Freedom of expression on campus and academic freedom are perennial debates at Canadian universities. But since the attacks on Oct. 7 and the outbreak of war in Gaza, these principles have come to the forefront. What is the difference between the two and why might they be vulnerable right now?

David Robinson: All expressive freedoms become particularly vulnerable during times of social conflict, debate and upheaval. We’re seeing that now. This issue is tearing institutions apart.

Generally, there’s a link between academic freedom and free expression but academic freedom is specific to the academic profession. Not everyone has academic freedom, but we all have freedom of expression. People can express themselves within the law on a whole range of issues, whereas academic freedom is more attached to a specific occupation and setting.

For academic staff, we talk about four elements to academic freedom like legs to a chair. There’s the freedom to teach, to engage in classroom discussion, choose your pedagogical approach and your materials and how you assess students. There’s the freedom to research and pursue knowledge where you think there will be new discoveries without any outside interference. There’s the freedom to engage in service to the institution which also means the ability to criticize the institution. And finally, the freedom to engage in what’s often called extramural academic freedom; public commentary, or to speak as a professor in the public realm. That is often the weak link in academic freedom – the one that’s most misunderstood and historically most vulnerable.

During the Cold War period, the 1940’s and 1950’s, academics were persecuted, fired and disciplined not for what they were teaching or researching and not for their service, but for their outside activities or expressions of solidarity with certain political causes. In today’s environment, that’s what we’re looking at, lot of extramural expression. Most of the cases I’m dealing with are issues of academics who signed a petition or spoke at a rally where they made their views known.

 UA: From the institutional or administrative perspective, where’s the line there? When can the institution say that a faculty member went too far?

Mr. Robinson: There are basically two lines. One is the law. Academic freedom is not a license to break the law. It’s not a license to engage in hate speech, discrimination, harassment or libel. If an academic breaks the law, that is not protected by academic freedom.

The other line is whether extramural expression demonstrates professional incompetence, the inability to do the job. That’s very rare and I don’t know of a particular case where extramural expression has adversely affected someone’s ability to do the job. An extreme example would be if a biology professor says, “I’ve become a born-again Christian and believe the Earth was created 2,000 years ago by a benevolent deity, and I’m going to teach that in my class from now on.” If there’s a direct connection to the inability to do the job, then administration can intervene. But academics should have the right, as every other citizen, to express their views and engage public debate and it’s important that they do because they bring something to the debate.

UA: To what extent are faculty members facing problems with academic freedom in the classroom?

Mr. Robinson: We’ve had many issues where students complain about how a professor approaches a topic or the words that they use. It’s certainly within the rights of students to raise these concerns. But institutions must be clear about what constitutes an inappropriate term and what’s simply a personal view that doesn’t rise to the level of discrimination, harassment or illegal speech.

UA: Have universities been inconsistent or vague with their policies on harassment and discrimination? If so, how has that been perceived by faculty members?

Mr. Robinson: It’s not so much that they’ve been vague, but their interpretation has been fluid. There are legal definitions of what constitutes harassment and discrimination. A student saying, “I was uncomfortable with what was being discussed in class,” doesn’t in my view rise to that level. However, many institutions have immediately made this slide into assuming that if a student is uncomfortable, they must go through an investigation to see whether what happened was appropriate or not. I think that appropriate behaviour then becomes more and more limited. In the current context, this has come back to haunt many institutions who have been quick to move on certain issues and now, for legitimate reasons, both Jewish and Muslim students are going to the institution saying they’re uncomfortable in the classroom. What do you do in that context? It seems, from some views, that institutions have a double standard where they’re quick to deal with certain issues but less so in our current climate.

UA: Administrations have struggled with how to respond to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Why do you think that is?

Mr. Robinson: It’s an issue that directly affects so many people. I have members who have lost people on Oct. 7. I’ve spoken to our colleagues at Ben-Gurion University which was turned into a temporary morgue. We have members who have family and friends in Gaza and have lost people as well. It’s very personal for a lot of people. In an ideal world we could engage in a dispassionate, calm, rational discourse – but this hurts, it’s painful and it creates a lot of passion and anger. We must accept that and recognize that’s going to happen, but we need to be clear where the limits are. This is where universities could be more explicit on what constitutes antisemitism and Islamophobia because I think those boundaries have been sliding.

Universities have also been caught in a situation where they’re facing incredible pressure from donors and in some cases pressure from governments. We know there are Liberal MPs who’ve written a letter asking what they’re doing about antisemitism on campus as well as class action lawsuits. This is the moment that really tests our commitment to academic freedom and institutional autonomy. I hope that our institutions stand up and do the right thing, which is defend these principles and define the limits.

UA: Do you think it’s best for administrations to take the position of institutional neutrality?

This goes back to the Kalven Report at the University of Chicago, in the late 1960’s, in which the report recommended that in order to protect academic freedom and encourage the flourishing of debate, they should not take a position or rarely take a position on the issue of the day. Where institutions in the U.S. have gotten into trouble is because prior to Oct. 7, they took stances on a whole range of issues whether it was the Russia-Ukraine war or Black Lives Matter. Suddenly, they’re being held up for a lack of consistency. In Canada, institutions are more reticent to take positions, although some have. In this case, I think they are in a no-win situation, whether they support the Israeli government or the Palestinian rights groups – or any point in between.

The role of universities is to be a place where debate and conversations about this can exist. The only way we are going to resolve conflict is through discussion and resolution, not taking one view or the other. We must create space for people to express themselves, and in an ideal world, it could all be civil and calm and collected. But the fact is, we don’t live in an ideal world. People feel passionate and should be allowed to express themselves within the law. That’s where institutions have to be much clearer.

UA: There has been a debate in higher education about how to define antisemitism and of what definition to accept. The University of Toronto, for example, chose not to adopt a definition. Do you think that this has led to some confusion in the current environment?

Mr. Robinson: If you don’t define something, it becomes something interpreted in the eye of the beholder and it becomes inconsistent. Part of the problem is the inconsistent application of what is antisemitism, what is Islamophobia, what is racism. There is an open debate around this and we should have a debate around it, but we need to be clear where the legal lines are. The Ontario Human Rights Code is very clear about what constitutes harassment or discrimination. That’s what we should be following. I hear from faculty members, both Jewish and Muslim, saying, “I don’t want to be around my colleagues anymore because they’re antisemitic” or “they’re Islamophobic,” and I have to explain that just because you’re offended doesn’t mean a legal threshold was crossed.

This all feeds into our current moment, where it’s much easier to vilify someone for their position then to understand whether that position is crossing a line. Is this going from what is legally acceptable to illegal behaviour?

UA: Let’s turn to a few specific examples of faculty that have found themselves in hot water since Oct. 7. A professor at York University was charged with vandalism in Toronto for allegedly defacing a bookstore. She was suspended without pay, which then led to a walkout from faculty, students and staff who supported her. Do you think the institution was correct in its response?

Mr. Robinson: I think that the university mishandled that. The professor shouldn’t have been suspended. Unless you can show a direct connection between someone’s extramural activities and what can happen in the classroom, or that there is an actual or perceived threat, it’s inappropriate to suspend someone. I don’t think the university demonstrated that in this particular case.

There have been cases where faculty members have been accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment and are still allowed on campus under very restricted conditions, so I was surprised that an act of vandalism suddenly became grounds for putting someone on leave. I see why people were upset that this seems to show some double standards. I’m not at all surprised by the walkout and the reaction of many faculty members. We’ve been working with the faculty association who’ve filed a grievance around the suspension, and we are supporting them through that process.

UA: In another instance, a lecturer at the Université de Montréal was suspended after being present at a violent altercation following protests at Concordia University. A video of him allegedly yelling slurs was circulated online. Did the university act correctly in your view?

Mr. Robinson: In this case, there was a direct altercation with students. I might not agree exactly with how the university handled it, but I think there was some justification for suspension pending a proper investigation because it was a physical interaction that involved students unlike the case at York.

UA: The third instance might be more complicated because it involves the online world. A resident doctor at the University of Ottawa was suspended for a social media post that was considered antisemitic. How unusual is it for a faculty member to be reprimanded for something said online?

Mr. Robinson: Unfortunately, it’s not entirely unusual. We have many cases where professors run afoul of university administration or the public generally for things that they post on social media. As you know, social media is not always a forum for calm, rational discussion. Its very nature tends to be conflictual.

This resident is not a member of the faculty association and isn’t protected by its collective agreement, but I would again ask whether the post demonstrates illegal speech or professional incompetence.

I do have cases where two or three faculty members in medicine have signed a petition calling for a ceasefire, and now the university has said they need to be removed from any student admissions committees because they’re biased and have a conflict of interest. In my view, that’s highly speculative and creates real problems.

UA: Do you worry that faculty members being suspended for what they say and do outside of their professional capacity, online or in person, might lead to self-censorship?

Mr. Robinson: Yes, I’m concerned about that, and I hear from many of my members who say, “I just won’t speak out anymore,” and that’s troubling because there are so many people that can make positive contributions to this and other debates. Now they feel it’s become too toxic to say anything. There is a level of self-censorship and it’s going to take universities to enforce that they will proactively defend academic freedom.

UA: You mentioned institutional autonomy. How is institutional autonomy related to academic freedom and do you believe that is also under threat?

Mr. Robinson: I am increasingly worried about it. We’ve seen disturbing signals in Canada recently, particularly in Ontario. Jill Dunlop, the minister of colleges and universities, stood up in the Ontario legislature where she knew she was protected from any libel action and named a number of students and professors, accusing them of being antisemitic and asking universities to take action against them. Historically, I had to go back to the 1940’s to find another time when anyone in a legislature in Canada accused a professor of wrongdoing. That was when George Drew, an opposition leader at the time in Ontario, accused Leopold Infeld at the University of Toronto of being a communist spy. It was completely untrue, but it essentially destroyed Infeld’s career.

Political influence on universities creates a dangerous precedent of governments intervening directly in the affairs of institutions. The strongest concern is around academic freedom, but it’s also the ability of institutions to set their own policies and guidelines. The governing rationale of universities is that it’s a community of scholars that make decisions, not government officials. Academic freedom cannot thrive without institutional autonomy.

UA: Are there other places where institutional autonomy is being threatened?

Mr. Robinson: When you look at what’s happening in the United States, the political right is certainly rising to the moment. You have people like Governor Ron DeSantis who is suddenly a champion of academic freedom and protecting students on campus, while at the same time banning the teaching of critical race theory and defunding equity, diversity and inclusion offices. In Canada, the governments of Alberta and Ontario impose so-called free speech requirements on universities. These are the same governments that now are trying to crack down on certain speech they don’t like. The hypocrisy is kind of hard to take sometimes.

We also see it in Hungary and in Turkey, where authoritarian governments are increasingly meddling in the affairs of universities. It’s a pattern and it’s something I’m quite concerned about, and I would hope university leaders are too.

UA: If we meet in a year from now, are you hoping that the landscape might look a little different?

Mr. Robinson: My doctor would certainly hope that the landscape is different. It’s been an incredibly stressful period for all of us here [at CAUT], with difficult cases to deal with. I hope that in a year from now we have more clarity and a better understanding of what academic freedom is and isn’t, and what the institutional responsibilities are for protecting academic freedom. Frankly, our members are the ones to say they don’t want to speak out because they feel the institution won’t have their back anymore. That’s very sad. By next year, I would want to see a recommitment from institutional leadership to academic freedom and why it’s so important.

Editor’s note: Following publication, York University responded to University Affairs with the following statement: “For privacy reasons, the university will not comment regarding the specific situation or circumstances of the professor. We can assure you that the university has engaged with the professor and their union representatives regarding this matter.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hannah Liddle
Hannah Liddle is the digital journalist for University Affairs.
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