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Dispatches on academic freedom

Three ways professors can support academic freedom as we head back to school

Academic freedom is not merely a negotiated perk of being a professor, it is a sine qua non of the university’s mission.


The days are getting shorter and professors across the country are polishing their course outlines for the new semester. There is no better time than the new school year to renew our commitment to academic freedom. Here for your metaphorical school bag are three ways faculty members can help to defend academic freedom in the coming year.

1. Hold up your end of the bargain

Academic freedom is a cluster of protections afforded scholars so that they can play their part in postsecondary institutions’ important social function of seeking truth and advancing understanding. That is, academic freedom is not merely a negotiated perk of being a professor, like a health plan or a paid vacation. Rather, it is a sine qua non of the university’s mission. In order to advance knowledge, scholars need to be able to engage in controversial and risky research and teaching, without fear of reprisal.

Thus, important responsibilities are baked in to the very concept of academic freedom. When we shirk those responsibilities, we risk weakening academic freedom by removing the reason for its existence.

The core responsibility associated with academic freedom is to engage in good faith in brave, honest research and teaching in pursuit of truth and the advancement of understanding. We ought to be brave in our scholarship precisely because academic freedom exists in order to allow scholars to push beyond the status quo – whether by undertaking a research project that might fail to prove the hypothesis, by teaching controversial material, or by contributing to an inchoate subject area. But this scholarly courage ought to be in service not of risk for its own sake but of the pursuit of knowledge. Teaching a theory that has been thoroughly discredited by experts in the field – like climate change denial or race science – merely in order to be provocative is not a good faith use of our precious academic freedom, students’ time, or university resources.

Responsible scholarship also requires us to pursue our academic projects in accordance with the evolving ethical and methodological standards of our disciplines or subdisciplines. The considerable protections associated with academic freedom are extended to scholars in virtue of their expertise. A physics professor has greater freedom to pursue scholarly projects of their devising than their undergraduate students do precisely because of the prof’s expertise in the methods and norms of the discipline. If they violate those standards, the community of scholars has both the right and the duty to take them to task using a range of professional discipline mechanisms.

The notion here of a community of scholars points to a further crucial responsibility: participation in collegial governance. Since the main purpose of universities is scholarship, universities’ academic governance bodies are largely composed of scholars. This system of collegial or shared governance ensures that academic decisions are made for good scholarly reasons informed by appropriate expertise. While collegial governance is beleaguered around the world, it remains comparatively strong in Canada. Canadian professors have a duty to keep collegial governance strong by participating in it with principle and vigour. For collegial governance as for academic freedom more generally, if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.

2. Defend academic freedom for untenured and minority scholars

The strongest protection for academic freedom is tenure or its equivalent – for instance, permanent status for teaching-stream professors. However, in Canada as elsewhere, tenured faculty members make up a shrinking proportion of university scholars. Last year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report indicating that in 2016-2017 almost 54 percent of Canadian university faculty appointments were non-tenure stream. According to the report, this figure reflects a sector-wide reliance on precarious faculty that has lasted for at least a decade.

Further, universities increasingly employ highly credentialed scholars in staff (rather than faculty) or contract research positions – neither of which typically come with academic freedom protections. And, as the 2017 strike by Ontario community college professors made clear, in Canada, academic freedom protections at community colleges are much thinner than at universities, even though a large proportion of Canadian scholars teach in the community college system.

Even among university professors with tenure, academic freedom is unevenly distributed. African American sociologist Johnny Williams, himself the target of a campaign by conservative website Campus Reform, argues that critical scholars, especially “socially defined black faculty who critically examine white supremacy,” do not benefit from the same robust academic freedom as scholars in general. Recent research by Jeffrey Sachs seems to support this view. Dr. Sachs found that the majority of recent faculty members terminated in 2017 for political speech were liberal, and “the most common types of speech to result in termination were those perceived by critics as ‘anti-white’ or ‘anti-Christian.’”

In the face of these challenges to academic freedom, tenured professors ought to use their tenure to “have the backs” of their colleagues, whether precarious, non-faculty, college faculty, or minority. This can take a variety of forms – supporting campaigns for better working conditions and job protections for these colleagues, fighting the “precarification” of the postsecondary sector, and very publicly defending colleagues who get attacked by organizations like Campus Reform, Breitbart and Turning Point USA. If a colleague – tenured or not – is attacked by one of these publications, tenured professors ought to vigourously fight any reprisal by the university against the targeted colleague.

Further, if a precarious academic workforce is the new reality for postsecondary institutions, then as a sector we need to develop creative mechanisms to ensure that scholars, irrespective of their appointment type or duration, have the protections they need to play their part in the performance of the university’s scholarly mission.

3. Support colleagues around the world

Most of this column has focused on the situation in Canada and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. However, around the world, academic freedom is under serious attack.

Since 2016, the Turkish government has dismissed thousands of academics, with many of the dismissed academics facing detention and trial.

In 2018 the Polish government tabled “Bill 2.0” or “Constitution For Education,” a sweeping bill that, among other things, stripped small, regional universities of their research budgets and their right to award PhDs, placed universities under the governance of external councils rather than collegial governance, and lowered the mandatory retirement age for women professors (and only women professors) to 60.

In Brazil, the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro was quickly followed by military police storming classrooms and arresting university employees for their political views. Within months, Bolsonaro was threatening to withdraw federal support for university sociology and philosophy programs.

Last month, Central European University (CEU) president Michael Ignatieff called on European governments to fight back against Hungary’s attacks on academic freedom, which most notably included chasing CEU out of the country as part of the right-wing Orbán government’s so-called “Stop Soros” law.

By June of this year, the Chinese government had reportedly imprisoned in camps more than 300 ethnic minority Uyghur scholars in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and was beginning to seriously compromise academic freedom in Hong Kong. Now, after a summer of anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, the academic freedom of the students and university personnel who are leading the protests, and now returning to school, is more vulnerable than ever.

This list only scratches the surface of the serious, ongoing state attacks on scholars and scholarship around the world. Canadian faculty have a moral duty to stand with the global scholarly community to protect international scholars’ academic freedom. Start by educating yourself by following Scholars and Risk, Human Rights Watch and PEN International. Then, when you’re ready to do more, consider donating to these organizations, joining letter-writing campaigns in support of imprisoned academics, persuading your university to join Scholars at Risk (or, if they already belong to the organization, asking how you can get involved locally), or hosting a refugee scholar in your department or institution.

Summer’s over. Time to get to work. There is much to be done.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. David Seljak / September 4, 2019 at 14:35

    This is a great series. Really, it is one of the best that University Affairs has done–and that is saying a lot. With each article, I find a new way of thinking about academic freedom in a more intentional and clear manner. Perhaps more importantly, this series has sharpened and strengthened my moral commitment to academic freedom! In the interest of full disclosure, the author works at the University of Waterloo, where I am Chair of Religious Studies. Even so, I will take the risk of embarrassing my colleague by saying how much I admire her work on this important issue.

  2. Stuart Chambers / January 27, 2020 at 20:53

    Another great article by Shannon Dea. Professors teach and take risks to push boundaries, but these risks must be founded on credible research. Making bold claims backed up by nothing but conjecture is what ideologues do, not professors.