News from South of the Border: University of Oregon Strengthens Academic Freedom Policy (28 May 2014)

So! Even as the Globe and Mail was yesterday publishing University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera’s response to events at the University of Saskatchewan, an American university President was issuing a dramatically different statement on the matter of academic freedom.

In the Globe and Mail article, President Samarasekera declares that according to the principle of academic freedom:

faculty members can pursue their research, teaching and scholarship in their search for new ideas, discoveries and truth. Based on critical thought, knowledge of their subject area and insightful research, they can take intellectual risks and comment on issues they know and understand deeply – even when their opinions are unpopular or run counter to current thinking.

She then insists that “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” are to be understood as different, unrelated phenomena:

Yes, it is true: universities are also places where freedom of speech is cherished. But the broader concept of freedom of speech is not the same as academic freedom.

President Samarasekera’s definition of academic freedom is consistent with the statement issued by the Association of University and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) in 2011: “Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. . . . [It] includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship. . . . [It] is constrained by the professional standards of the relevant discipline and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission.” And it is to be held apart from “the broader conception of freedom of speech.”

When AUCC rewrote its statement on academic freedom in 2011, CAUT declared that “There [was] a certain perverse irony that AUCC [had chosen] its 100th anniversary to undo many of the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of academic freedom over the past 100 years.” In an open letter to AUCC at that time, Wayne Peters (President) and Jim Turk (Executive Director) noted that the AUCC statement “makes no mention of academic freedom including the right to criticize the institution where one works” despite the fact that CAUT “has long defined academic freedom as including the right to express freely one’s opinion about the institution, its administration, or the system in which one works.”

The news from Oregon: Oregon surges ahead on the academic freedom front even as we fall behind. The University of Oregon is extending academic freedom to all employees, not just faculty, and on the very terms that President Samarasekera’s statement in the Globe and Mail would withhold from academics serving as administrators:

Before decisions are made, faculty and those in leadership positions, especially vice-presidents and deans, should debate issues and question directions — just as they have had extensive opportunity to do during the TransformUS discussions at the University of Saskatchewan. But to suggest that deans be permitted to publicly condemn the decisions of the senior leadership or board at all times after a decision has been arrived at is folly. This is no different to decision making principles in a cabinet. No organization can advance without these principles.

(“This” seems to be top-down Executive decision-making in institutions that are supposed to be places of shared governance.)

According to President Michael Gottfredson, the University of Oregon’s new policy, which he signed off on yesterday, makes a policy that was already one of the strongest in the United States even more “robust.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the University of Oregon’s new policy “applies broadly to ‘members of the university community,’ including those employed as administrators and staff members. It covers speech connected to research, teaching, public service, and shared governance, offering university employees explicit assurances that they cannot be fired for speech related to campus policies.”

Clause C of the University of Oregon’s policy, “Policy and Shared Governance,” declares: “Members of the university community have freedom to address, question, or criticize any matter of institutional policy or practice, whether acting as individuals or as members of an agency of institutional governance.”

And Clause D, “Public Service,” reads:

Public service requires that members of the university community have freedom to participate in public debate, both within and beyond their areas of expertise, and to address both the university community and the larger society with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, cultural, or other interest. In their exercise of this freedom, university community members have the right to identify their association or title, but should not claim to be acting or speaking on behalf of the University unless authorized to do so. [my emphases]

In a memorandum accompanying the newly signed policy, Gottfredson notes: “Together, these statements provide a comprehensive set of protections for both academic freedom, which is so critical to the work of all who teach and conduct research on our campus, and freedom of speech, the principle closest to the heart of our democratic ideals.”

In Gottfredson’s statement we have the essential link that President Samarasekera’s statement in yesterday’s Globe and Mail refuses.

Canada’s university administrators have an unfortunate habit of looking elsewhere for illiberal or retrogressive policies that they can apply to the restructuring of our institutions. It was a turn to thinking from south of the border that made possible the situation at the University of Saskatchewan, which is pursuing a restructuring program based on the “Program Prioritzation Process” of American Robert Dickeson. If Canadians must look elsewhere for thinking to inform our universities, for God’s sake let us look for thinking that strengthens the progressive character of our institutions rather than weakens them. The positive news from Oregon should help drive what Wayne Peters called for in 2011, when AUCC first issued its narrow definition of academic freedom:

[A]cademic freedom [is becoming] increasingly fragile, aided by our indifference in a society that is growing less tolerant of dissent. Within the academy, it stands as a substantial obstacle to our administrators’ interests in moving our institutions along more corporate-style paths. Redefining and constraining academic freedom as a much narrower right, as AUCC’s [2011] statement does, affords our administrators the means to exert dangerous control over the academy, our institutions and the academics within them. AUCC’s statement gives a wakeup call to all academics that academic freedom needs our full and undivided attention.

Our full and undivided attention: that is indeed what a culture increasingly ready to limit both academic freedom and freedom of speech to meet corporate agendas demands. All Canadian universities should have the “comprehensive set of protections” achieved by the University of Oregon’s new policy — and should want clearly and vigorously to articulate the links between academic freedom and freedom of speech in a democratic society. What Professor Buckingham has experienced was an assault on both, in intimate relation.

 

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