Academic Freedom: Hoax or Hardhat

Letter submitted to the Lethbridge Herald, not published as of February 1, 2018:

University eggheads seem to claim that academic freedom entitles them to run around saying or doing whatever the hell they want. That’s annoying to say the least. They should be challenged.

First of all what is a university supposed to be? There are lots of attempts at that one, from a few words to long boring books. Here’s a short version many years ago by Frank Scott, Dean of Law at McGill. During his time he was deemed the expert on laws relating to universities. He wrapped up all that tiresome claptrap like this:

A university consists of a group of scholars and students working together to discover, test, and impart knowledge in the various fields of higher learning. It is a non-profit institution, dedicated to the search for an ever-expanding truth. The governors of a university are trustees of the funds devoted to this purpose. The purpose of the trustees is to protect and improve the educational process going on within the university.

Note especially the phrase “search for ever-expanding truth”. So those in a university don’t just snooze around studying what’s already well known. They are supposed to use that old stuff as the springboard for their real job of reaching out to the fringe and beyond. That’s not just their right, its their duty, and it’s tough work.

At its beginning fifty years ago, the University of Lethbridge adopted a Mission confirming that duty. It was drafted by History Professor Ted Orchard and Education Professor Russ Leskiw, endorsed by the first group of students and professors, and officially adopted by the Board of Governors. It’s still in effect.

The Mission says that the University “seeks to cultivate the transcendental dimension of the scholar’s personality”. One needs a dictionary to figure that out. But it means that professors and students should be imagining, guessing, speculating, and dreaming up theories about what might lie beyond the known, and then using their energy and smarts to explore out there to find out. The Mission concludes “the University asserts its right and responsibility for free expression and communication of ideas. It is self-evident that a university cannot function without complete autonomy in this domain”.

In their search beyond the outer boundaries the members of a university look for the causes and reasons why people do the things they do, whether as individuals, groups, churches, business firms and all manner of other agencies and organizations each with their own private self interested purposes, announced or secret. A vast amount of experience shows that those external folks don’t always appreciate nosy eggsheads probing around like that. Some try to intervene to hamper them or even better to stop them altogether, or maybe even better yet to exterminate the pesky probers. That goes especially for wealthy corporations, ruthless special interest lobbies, and most dangerous of all powerful vote hungry politicians and angry governments.

So societies around the world, including Alberta, have built into university law and organization two defences against that destructive intervention. The first defence is to create universities as independent institutions separate from government and free from political control. The second defence is to install trustees, usually called Boards of Governors, specifically to support and protect the professors and students as they go about their work. Academic freedom is the term coined to describe that protection.

At the University of Lethbridge, the trustees and professors have firmly committed themselves to academic freedom through a formal agreement stating:
The Board and (Faculty) Association recognize the need to protect academic freedom. Academic freedom is generally understood as the right to teach, engage in scholarly activity, and perform service without interference and without jeopardizing employment. This freedom is central to the University’s mission and purpose and entails the right to participate in public life, to criticize University or other administrations, to champion unpopular positions, to engage in frank discussion of controversial matters, and to raise questions and challenges which may be viewed as counter to the beliefs of society.

The Board and Association recognize their respective responsibilities to defend academic freedom as specified in this Article. These responsibilities may include, but are not limited to, providing legal support to Members that arise from the exercise of academic freedom, educating Members on the rights and responsibilities related to academic freedom, and promoting academic freedom.

So that’s the academic freedom those eggheads talk about. Maybe not a just a hoax. But how does all that airy fairy cloud nine stuff play out in real life? Time to have a look at just a few of the vast number of controversies over academic freedom in this country during the last half century.

The watershed 1958 Harry Crowe affair set the precedent and tone for academic freedom in Canada ever since. The Principal of United College in Winnipeg fired History Professor Crowe, no cause stated. Amidst growing public concern, the national Canadian Association of University Teachers CAUT appointed a two member investigating Commitee, one of whom was a young law professor Bora Laskin who later served for a decade as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. The Committee reported that the dismissal was a clear violation of both the spirit and letter of academic freedom. As a result, the College Board felt compelled to reinstate Crowe.

There were spectacular consequences. Crowe and twelve other professors resigned from the College in protest over the fiasco. The provincial government recast United College into part of what is now the provincial University of Winnipeg. For its strong performance in the Crowe affair the fledgling CAUT emerged clearly as the national authority on academic freedom, the gold standard for the maintenance of high quality in the national university sector. After a period in labour research, Crowe was appointed Professor at York University and to two terms there as a college Dean.

At the height of North American campus activism, the University of Alberta reached an impasse in determining the status of two professors because of strident claims of bias and prejudice that even spilled over into the community. The Board of Governors reached beyond the campus to request the CAUT to conduct fair hearings within the University’s normal procedural guidelines and national academic standards. For that purpose, the CAUT appointed a seven member commission of professors from other Canadian universities. A satisfactory conclusion was reached.

Closer to home, two very early cases at the University of Lethbridge showed the positive results from firm defence of academic freedom. In the first, a United States Senator aggressively demanded the dismissal of a professor Fang-Quei Quo whom he declared to be a communist and enemy of the United States. The Senator threatened to reduce the campus to ashes if Quo were not fired. The University ignored that attempted intervention. Just a couple of years later Quo was appointed Dean of Arts and Science. In his youth Quo had been in the resistance to the invasion and hostile occupation of his native island Formosa by the Chinese Nationalist army evicted from mainland China by communist rebels. As an enemy of the Nationalists, Quo was evidently by definition a communist enemy of the US.

In the second case, a prominent US scientist Loren Hepler applied for a faculty position. The infant U of L had neither resources nor facilities nor staff to support his large advanced research program. Hepler replied that he could handle that himself. What he sought was protection. Despite his scientific stature, two major US universities had not shielded him from harrassment by federal agencies because of his activism as a pacifist and opposition to nuclear weapons. The U of L did provide that protection. Hepler became one of the campus leaders in teaching, research, and extension of science education into the community. He served as one of Canada’s representatives on the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and as a scientific consultant on oil sands technology and associated environmental factors. A campus building bears his name in appreciation of his comprehensive work and accomplishments at the U of L.

More recently, in two notable cases where legal and contractual duties to defend academic freedom failed, the University of Saskatchewan lost a President and the University of British Columbia a Board Chair.

The University of Calgary is currently charged by the CAUT for violation of academic freedom, administrative conflict of interest, and external corporate influence upon academic policies and staff resulting in a campus culture of fear. Two senior professors have left the U of C because of dissatisfaction over interference in their academic work there. Joe Arvai is now a Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability and Director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. David Keith is now Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Alberta’s loss of these two leading researchers at the forefront of the crucial energy transition now underway throughout the world shows what can result when protection of academic freedom fails.

In sharp contrast to the case described above where the U of A Board sought assistance from the CAUT, here the U of C Board trashed the criticism of the CAUT consisting of 70,000 professional academics from 122 universities and colleges. It even went further to advise the U of C faculty to be wary of the CAUT.

In the real world, academic freedom is by no means a hoax. Academic freedom is to the those who work at univerities what hard hats are to those who work at construction sites.

Owen Holmes
January 4 2018

 

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