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In my opinion

What do we mean when we talk about academic freedom?

If I were to ask members of any university audience, “Do you believe in the importance of academic freedom? Do you believe we should all be vigilant and vigorous in its defence?”, the answers undoubtedly would be yes and yes.


Those decisive responses might typically be followed by some “buts.” But what about responsibilities as well as freedoms? But what are the limits to the freedom, because all freedoms do have limits? But what is the real meaning of academic freedom in today’s university environment?

Answers and questions like these are to be expected. And they’re not limited to core values just for our own professional lives. As a lawyer, I’ve had occasion to reflect on a different core value, that of judicial independence. Like academic freedom, it is a defining idea and its core parameters are easily understood, though its broader sweep might be more controversial. My involvement in the issue lay in asking whether judicial independence was compromised by including judges in public-sector wage guidelines. I didn’t think it was compromised, but some judges were sufficiently committed to the alternate view that they were prepared to go to court to say, in effect, that their capacity to dispense impartial justice might be compromised if they were included, along with other public-sector employees, in public-sector salary guidelines during a time of fiscal constraint.

The point is that with all values, there’s a core meaning to which we can all ascribe and there is a potentially broader meaning for which general support breaks down. Let’s agree on our acceptance of the value, so that we can examine some of the things that challenge it. I can think of four:

  1. Definitional issues;
  2. Failure to recognize that academic freedom exists for a purpose and that it must be seen generally to advance that purpose;
  3. Extravagant claims made in the name of academic freedom;
  4. Structural features of modern universities that undermine institutional solidarity in defence of academic freedom.

Consider, first, issues about the definition. Each of us needs to set out our own definition of academic freedom, so let me offer mine: Academic freedom means the freedom to teach and conduct research constrained only by two things – the professional standards of the relevant discipline and the legitimate and non-discriminatory institutional re-qui-rements for organizing the academic mission.

The first constraint provides an implicit distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech; the former is a narrower concept. For example, exponents of holocaust denial and members of the Flat Earth Society are free to speak their minds on these subjects on the street – they have freedom of speech – but they are not entitled to claim academic freedom in defence of doing so in an academic setting. The reason is that the claims would fall below the professional standards of history and astronomy.

There are two common rebuttals to a constraint on academic freedom that is based on a distinction between it and freedom of speech. One is that critics argue that today’s heresy may be tomorrow’s truth, and the truth might be suppressed by insisting upon an adherence to professional standards that prevail today. Secondly, critics also argue that all ideas are open to question including the shape of the earth and the historical record of the holocaust. My simple response is that I agree, but that neither criticism undermines the argument.

An insistence on professional standards speaks to the rigour of the enquiry and not to its outcome. And while it’s true that all ideas are open to question in the university, they must be questioned systematically, and answers must be defensible in reason. The claim that “I’m entitled to my opinion” has limited currency in an environment whose raison d’etre is reason and rationality. You may indeed be entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is of no interest and garners no credit if it cannot withstand scrutiny based on reason and relevant professional standards.

The second constraint on academic freedom – legitimate and non-discriminatory institutional requirements – recognizes simply that the academic mission, like other work, has to be organized, and it does not violate academic freedom to insist upon compliance with organizational needs: teaching according to a schedule and adhering to collegial and administrative expectations for getting work done.

So, there is my definition. Academic freedom is a lot of freedom, but it has its limitations, and respect for the core value of academic freedom requires respect for its limitations.
Academic freedom needs to be distinguished from a third concept, that of institutional autonomy. At my university, I’ve heard it suggested that some of our scientific establishments undermine academic freedom because of their connection to industry and industry users. Other university activity may be connected to governments, philanthropists, ecclesiastical interests or other domains of civil society. Such connections do not ipso facto threaten academic freedom; it is only when they compromise the freedom to teach and conduct research that they do so. Some, however, believe that academic freedom is protected only when institutional behaviours align with their own values. The sometimes conflicting values of others in the community presumably do not matter.

Academic freedom exists for a reason

The failure to recognize that this core value exists for a purpose and must be seen generally to advance that purpose is the second challenge.

The point is simple: academic freedom does not exist for its own sake any more than does judicial independence. Both exist for important social purposes. In the case of academic freedom, the purpose is to advance scholarly enquiry in the interests of seeking truth. There is a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationship between academic freedom and scholarly enquiry. In very good academic settings – say, excellent university departments and other units – the importance of academic freedom will be understood by those within and outside the academy because the re-sults are apparent to all. In weak units, the benefits of academic freedom are less readily apparent. In such situations, the legitimacy of academic freedom will be more tenuous. As a consequence, preserving academic freedom requires an insistence on high academic standards.

The third challenge concerns extravagant claims made in the name of academic freedom; this relates to the definition of academic freedom. If definitions are too broad or too loose, so too will be the claims made in its name. We owe it to our universities and publics to confront overly broad and loose claims clearly and sometimes publicly, so that the campus and broader community understand that universities will not timidly close ranks in defence of nonsense clothed in the rhetoric of academic freedom.

That brings me to my fourth and perhaps most controversial point – that the structure of modern-day universities undermines solidarity in defending academic freedom.

There are thousands upon thousands of faculty members in Canadian universities. What do we suppose would be their answers to these two questions: Do you see yourselves as members of a self-governing profession? Do you believe that the professoriate should be a self-governing profession?

I believe that most would answer “yes” to both questions, but the reality is that the professoriate is not a self-governing profession. Perhaps it has never been one, except by serving as a gatekeeper to its ranks. But self-governance is about more than gate-keeping and peer evaluation on the road to tenure and promotion. Self-governance means regulation by one’s peers in accordance with known and accepted standards.

In pursuing and acquiring trade union status, university faculty associations have precluded self-governance in this sense. Job performance and sanctions for non-performance are negotiated with an “employer” and their enforcement depends on “management,” whose initiatives in this area are often, if not typically, resisted by unions as overreach or even malevolence. It may not matter that real academic freedom is not an issue at all. Many of the claims made about academic freedom are about other things, but the damage is done by the rhetoric.

This has two negative consequences. The first is that it contributes to confusion about the accepted understandings of academic freedom; the second is that it pits university administrators as supposed assailants upon academic freedom and unions as its supposed defenders. In other words, it undermines institutional solidarity in support of the value and scope of academic freedom. A self-governing professoriate would not countenance such vulnerability in a value that is essential to its mission.

Peter MacKinnon is president and professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan.

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  1. Mark Mercer / September 12, 2011 at 13:14

    MacKinnon forgets that academic freedom–and freedom of expression on campus generally–is a necessary constituent of intellectual community. Sadly, not only other university presidents but many professors as well fail to value academic freedom for its own sake.

  2. A. G. / November 19, 2011 at 12:59

    I agree with Mr. Mark Mercer. However, Mr. Peter MacKinnon hasn’t discussed the abuse of academic freedom by university administrators and professors. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that most of them justify their wrong doings, power abuse and consequently their partial and biased decisions under the name of academic freedom.

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