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It’s never just academic

Academic freedoms: we need to fix this ourselves

Instead of having mediated debates, faculty and students need to set aside their differences and decide among themselves what should be covered under academic freedom.


Let’s admit it: there are so many interesting topics I could write about, that I decided it would be a good idea to “plan.” For example, this column was scheduled for later in the year. However, it seems only fitting to discuss what has emerged as a pressing issue in Canada’s academic community…

For most readers, the debate over freedom of expression and teaching is relatively recent, stemming from the University of Ottawa incident. Both McGill and Concordia Universities are facing similar challenges. Essentially, the question is whether an instructor (I use that term to avoid saying “professors, lecturers and other teaching staff” each time) can be compelled to modify their course content as a result of a student complaint. How each of these cases was handled is another matter – I’d go so far as to say that it even deserves its own column. Advocates for faculty members involved in these complaints refer to the fundamental freedom of university faculty to teach whatever they deem appropriate (a freedom to which the adjectives university, academic, or intellectual are all too frequently and interchangeably attached). There are other arguments, including the importance of confrontation and critical thinking in the intellectual development of students. Now back to the question of freedom.

This issue forms the root of the discussion. Are university teachers free to teach concepts, use terms, read literature, and discuss (or even defend) heterodox ideas?

Before I answer this question, I suggest you consider another: Is the university a place where expression of ideas should be restricted?

“But where did that tangent come from? ” you might wonder.

In my view, the content debate is about more than professional freedom of individual university instructors to deliver what they think is most relevant, in the language they believe is appropriate. It has become embroiled in the larger debate about freedom of expression on university campuses.

During the 2000s and 2010s, we saw a number of “incidents” regarding freedom of expression… but not in the classroom. These incidents occurred in reaction to the presence of guest speakers at campus events, or in response to public criticism of the institution by faculty members. In both cases, the status of university campuses as spaces for exchanging and communicating ideas which are sometimes controversial was seriously challenged. Not surprising, current events are also harshly testing what is, in my view, a crucial facet of the “expanded” freedom of expression that should prevail in the academic world.

This finally brings me to the point I was trying to make in this column. You can read one open letter after another on the issue, all of them written in support of vigorous administrative or policy intervention in favour of academic freedom. There have been media reports about students voicing opinions on this issue – and many support the idea that restrictions requested by the plaintiffs are fair game in the context of decolonizing higher education.

Both perspectives are valid.

For the record, I think academic freedom needs to be protected. Hopefully, this is not a surprise. By contrast, the argument that educational content needs a decolonizing process doesn’t strike me as ill-founded either. Although the method of reporting discomfort may be heavy-handed, the institutional response is what raises eyebrows.

Both “sides,” as I will refer to the faculty and students, are asking for the intervention of an entity other than themselves to find a solution to the problem – a solution consistent with their stance. While university administrations are most frequently called upon, there are also open letters that call for legislative protection of whatever freedom is being claimed.

In an era where university communities continue to defend the so-called “collegial governance” model (or at least, one of its 12 versions), it’s difficult to ignore these appeals to authority to secure its own integrity.

Read also: Two misconceptions about ‘collegial governance’

The McGill University Student Association has introduced a motion in the university senate “calling for clear limits on academic freedom.” The Canadian Association of University Teachers, on the other hand, argues that academic freedom for faculty includes using language that, while it may create discomfort, is nevertheless necessary to achieve pedagogical intent.

I would like to suggest an alternative to each party calling on the powers that be to impose their viewpoint.

What if, on each campus, the two sides in question would negotiate all of this between themselves, by mutual consent? Instead of arbitration, the communities that define themselves as collegial and democratic would choose dialogue and sharing, rather than a confrontation mediated by a faction they often see as a third party.

It’s merely an idea, and it may be a bad one, even blasphemous. However, I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde in An Ideal Husband, where a character says “[…] when the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

Are we really willing to leave it to everyone but ourselves to define what one of the fundamental aspects of academic life is? I would argue that this debate, however unpleasant it may be, must first take place between the parties involved.

Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée
Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée is an assistant professor in higher education administration at the Université de Montréal's faculty of education and a regular researcher at the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l'enseignement supérieur.
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  1. Raúl Colón / May 5, 2021 at 15:15

    This is the least critical position, we can even call it a soft approach to a crying situation on free speech and academic liberty in our universities. So, lets see if it works. I hope it does, because the alternative, as I already read it somewhere else, is: “At best, these policies evoke pity; at worst, they fuel resentment”.