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Dispatches on academic freedom

Should sports coaches have academic freedom?

A recent case that has rocked the Canadian varsity running world raises questions about which university personnel should have academic freedom.


In December of 2019, the University of Guelph’s head cross-country coach Dave Scott-Thomas was fired for what the university described as lying “repeatedly in 2006 about several significant matters.” In subsequent weeks, reports emerged that the long-time coach had groomed a young runner in his charge for sex. That story shook the Canadian running world, leading to criticisms of both the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada for their handling of the case, and raising questions about toxic norms within varsity track and field.

A second shock wave reverberated when Queen’s head track coach, Steve Boyd, was fired for his comments on the case. Mr. Boyd is and had been an outspoken critic of predatory behaviour in sport and is widely regarded as an advocate for fairness in athletics, especially fairness for women athletes.

The details of Mr. Boyd’s case are still emerging. Moreover, in all complex human resources matters, some details never emerge. At issue though are a number of posts Mr. Boyd made on social media. Mr. Boyd characterizes the posts as calling on student athletes to do the right thing to prevent and respond to sexual predation and harassment. In contrast, Queen’s seems to regard the posts as engaging in victim-blaming. In any event, it seems clear that Mr. Boyd was fired for engaging in extramural expression.

It is worth noting that had Mr. Boyd been a professor rather than a coach, Queen’s (probably) could not have fired him for his posts. Professors’ extramural expression is protected as part of their academic freedom. In particular, the Queen’s University Faculty Association’s (QUFA’s) collective agreement states that “Members have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticize the government of the day, the administration of the institution, or the Association.” Unstated but implied in this passage is that professors may also criticize other institutions and bodies. Indeed, such critique is part of how university scholars hold the sector to account on matters of principle. A Queen’s professor who engaged in the kind of expression Mr. Boyd did would have had a robust defense provided by their union available to them.

Indeed, Canada’s national (as it were) union of faculty unions, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), did issue an opinion in Mr. Boyd’s case. Here is an excerpt from CAUT’s February 20 statement on the matter:

While Boyd did not hold an academic post at Queen’s, CAUT Executive Director David Robinson says universities have a special obligation to respect the exercise of free expression, within the law, of all members of the campus community.

“Free expression is crucial to the university,” states Robinson. “Academic freedom cannot thrive in an environment where free expression is suppressed.”

While it is admirable that CAUT stepped in, I think that Mr. Robinson’s statement both goes too far and doesn’t go far enough.

Mr. Robinson goes too far when he says that universities “have a special obligation to respect the exercise of free expression, within the law, of all members of the campus community.” I follow Yale Law School professor and former dean Robert Post in holding that expression at universities is subordinate to the academic mission of universities. That is, unfettered expression – distinct from scholarly purpose – is not a special obligation universities hold. Rather, universities must uphold those freedoms that serve the university’s mission of seeking truth and advancing understanding.

For this reason, it makes sense to think of expressive freedom at universities as protected under the umbrella of academic freedom. Thinking of expressive freedom at universities as part of academic freedom appropriately distinguishes between expression in the context of an institution whose main functions are teaching and research, and expression in the town square. Academic free expression – as we might term the former – supports the university in fulfilling its important social role. By contrast, the free expression of the town square derives from individual rights. Town square free expression is less about the purpose that is served than about the rights of the person who is speaking.

Why care about such a subtle distinction? We should care because claims that universities have a special obligation to permit free expression detach expression from the mission of the university. In recent years, provocateurs such as the notorious White supremacist, Richard Spencer, have exploited this move to force campuses to give them platforms. There is just no reason to think that in the name of free expression universities have a duty to provide venues for speakers like Mr. Spencer. If we treat expression at universities as part of academic freedom, and hence part of the scholarly mission of the university, we are in a better position to say to speakers like Mr. Spencer “You’re not part of what we do here. We have no obligation to host you.”

However, if we are going to get behind the idea that at universities free expression is subordinate to the academic mission, we need to do a better job of supporting academic freedom for all personnel (including students!) who play a role in that mission. This is where I think CAUT’s statement doesn’t go far enough.

The excerpt I quoted above urges that Mr. Boyd is entitled to freedom of expression, but draws only an indirect connection to academic freedom. The reason for this is contained in the first clause in the excerpt: “While Mr. Boyd did not hold an academic post at Queen’s…” Realistically, the type of post Mr. Boyd held does make a difference to what kind of rights he had. In the current status quo, it is only faculty – and primarily tenured faculty – who are extended academic freedom protections. At the end of the day, Mr. Boyd didn’t belong to QUFA and he wasn’t covered by QUFA’s collective agreement. And, of course, CAUT’s job is to represent professors, not other employee groups.

Still, I would have loved to see the CAUT statement argue for academic freedom protections for university personnel beyond the professoriate. Since academic freedom flows from the scholarly mission of the university, all personnel who play a part in that mission ought to have some degree (it may vary by the role) of academic freedom. This is especially important as we see more and more highly qualified personnel take on university roles outside the professoriate. If these personnel are not protected in the scholarly work they do, then the university’s ability to perform its function is weakened.

Are coaches highly qualified personnel who play a part in the scholarly mission of the university? I think they are. They have unmatched expertise on the evidence and scholarship about sport in general and student athletics in particular; some of them (like Mr. Boyd) serve as adjunct professors in cognate disciplines. They play a key role in the training and development – and indeed the moral education – of student athletes. Finally, they represent the university and advocate for students at regional, provincial and national bodies.

We cannot expect coaches to take on responsibilities like these and leave them vulnerable when they provide commentary on matters of principle within their domain. In short, university coaches should have expressive freedom – not because universities owe everyone free expression but because coaches play a part in the university’s scholarly mission and thus ought to have the freedoms (including expressive) under the umbrella of academic freedom.

How could we create academic freedom protections for university personnel beyond the tenured professoriate? That is a huge and difficult question, but Mr. Boyd’s case shows how important it is that both university administrators and employee and student associations begin the work of answering it.

This work may seem anything but urgent while universities are still in the midst of their COVID19 response. However, the longer universities continue with physical distancing regimens, the more their athletic staff members’ work will shift to governance and advocacy. To do that work well in concert with the mission of the university, they need academic freedom protections.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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