Academic Freedom

At post-secondary institutions, one of the key principles that define how we work, and the rights and privileges enjoyed by faculty members, is that of academic freedom. As academics, it is our obligation to search for truth, regardless of current social mores or political wills.

It is important that we have some protection from repercussions when our scientific curiosity leads us to investigate unpopular or controversial topics, and our findings do not support the current agenda of an individual or organization that might have some influence over our universities, such as governments or donors. We also need to be free in guiding our students in their acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the world so that they may become active learners and critical thinkers. Maintaining a commitment to academic freedom is critical to the value of universities in our society, and I have yet in my years as an academic had a conversation with a colleague who does not believe in the principle of academic freedom.

With such a deeply embedded belief in the principle of academic freedom, why does the topic of academic freedom become a point of controversy and debate on our campuses? We have the ongoing debate between CAUT and the AUCC regarding academic freedom and each have produced a position statement in support of their views. A critical article in collective agreements, and one that is always a difficult issue during bargaining, is the one that describes academic freedom. There have also been a number of cases within our academic community where faculty members have felt their rights under the principle of academic freedom have been violated and the university has not acted appropriately according to these principles. If we all agree on the principle, then why can we not agree on the application of the principle in our respective workplaces?

After just coming out of a round of collective bargaining where the academic freedom article in the collective agreement led to much discussion, one area where we seemed to focus much of our debate related not to the principle of academic freedom, of which we found common agreement, but to the extent to which the principle should be applied in our lives. That is, there was agreement that academics must be free of repercussions or censure to engage in their work, and the University has an obligation to protect the faculty member when this freedom is challenged, but there seems to be a disagreement on whether as academics, we should be protected in all we do (that is, the principle applies because, by virtue of our education and training, we are academics), or only protected when we engage in academic activity (when I am engaged in my work through the university). And if it is the latter, then when does our “academic” activities cease, and activities that we might participate in as citizens and community members begin?

As an example, all universities identify three areas of responsibilities for faculty members – research, teaching, and service. Although not without some challenges, I have generally found the expectation that academic freedom applies when we are engaged in our teaching and research. However, increasingly, there is an expectation that our service component will involve more and more community engagement as universities work hard to eliminate the “Ivory Tower” view and become integrated with the extant community. As a kinesiologist, and one with an academic expertise in Motor Behaviour and Growth and Development combined with an interest in sport, I may become involved in youth sport in the community and volunteer as a youth sport coach. What if a parent of a participant on my team is upset with how I have managed the team, believing that I have been unfair to their child, and sues me over negligent practice and causing emotional and physical challenges that have limited or harmed their child’s development? When I volunteer to be a youth sport coach in the community, am I protected by the principles of academic freedom and should I have an expectation that my university will step in and protect me from this challenge?

I must admit to not having a developed view on the extent to which the principle of academic freedom should be applied within the life of an academic, but as we engaged in the discussion through the collective bargaining process, I found myself moving more towards a view that the principle of academic freedom is a foundational element of our engagement in academic work, and should be a foundational principle when our service work can be clearly connected back to our status as academics. However, when we make contributions to our society, as we should do as citizens of our communities, then academic freedom is not applicable as a principle but rather we should find guidance within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or within the applicable laws that exist. In the youth sport example above, I would expect to find support and protection within the sport organization, or within the basic laws of our country, but I would not hold the expectation that my University should have some responsibility of providing me with protection or be required to give tangible support as I move through the legal challenge that is occurring. Because I am an academic, I do not believe I have any other rights or responsibilities when I engage in my community as a citizen as would any other person in our society; it is when I am actively engaged as an academic that I believe it is critical to be protected through the principle of academic freedom. I suppose the central question in the example I have cited is whether or not my activity as a youth sport coach could be considered part of the service component of my position at the university or activity I engage in as a contributing citizen in my community. Perhaps the real challenge here is that we do not define clearly enough what constitutes the service component of our workloads at universities.