12/28/2011 07:23 EST | Updated 02/27/2012 05:12 EST

Universities vs Profs: Freedom or Censorship?


In 2011 the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) reached the distinguished age of one hundred. The presidents of AUCC's member institutions celebrated their centennial this fall by approving a new "Statement on Academic Freedom."

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), in an open letter to the AUCC, responded with "surprise and dismay." There was "a certain perverse irony," it observed, in the choice of the 100th anniversary for a statement that "would reverse 100 years of advancement in the understanding of academic freedom."

The AUCC replied that the statement protects genuine academic freedom by clarifying its nature, scope, and justification but it welcomed "meaningful dialogue within the collegial environments of our university communities." In that spirit, here are three ways in which the statement seems worthy of a 100th birthday and two ways in which I believe the faculty of Canada are right to be dismayed.

Beginning with the positive, the statement is clear about the centrality of academic freedom to the academic mission: "Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students, and disseminate knowledge and understanding."

Second, academic freedom exists, according to the AUCC statement, to serve "important social purposes." The CAUT agrees, and so does the U.S.-based American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which has always stressed that academic freedom serves "the common good."

Third, in an admirably clear directive, the AUCC statement declares it "a major responsibility of university governing bodies and senior officers to protect and promote academic freedom." University presidents, it adds, "must play a leadership role in communicating the values around academic freedom to internal and external stakeholders."

But the faculty letter raises many important issues. Some of these are subtle matters concerning the definition and scope of academic freedom. In two respects, however, I believe the faculty are right to see a fundamental threat to academic freedom.

First, the statement relies on undefined concepts such as "institutional integrity" to justify unspecified limits on academic freedom. Referring to "the constraint of institutional requirements," it suggests that academic work must "be organized according to institutional needs," including "the institution's responsibility to select and appoint faculty and staff, to admit and discipline students, to establish and control curriculum... and to grant degrees."

The CAUT complained that the AUCC statement "gives incredible power to the 'constraint of institutional requirements' without once affirming them as collegially determined rather than administratively handed down." It called for "collective engagement;" the AAUP calls this "shared governance."

The AUCC insisted in its response that the institution's responsibility "to organize its mission is an appropriate constraint on academic freedom." Its rather disingenuous example was that "a university's responsibility to schedule classes and exams and prepare the academic calendar should not be encumbered by a loose definition of academic freedom."

The issue, as AUCC knows, is not who gets to "schedule classes and exams." The AUCC has explicitly placed core academic matters including the curriculum within the category of "institutional requirements." The CAUT's response, advocating "collective engagement," does not go far enough. The institutional integrity of a university requires that its academic decisions be made on academic grounds by faculty.

The second problem is a serious mistake about the role of professional standards. The AUCC statement correctly identifies "evidence and truth" as "guiding principles" for academic communities. It concludes, "Academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review."

Academic freedom is indeed part of a system that values and depends on reason, rigor, discourse, research, scholarship, and peer review as means to truth. The AUCC is right that academic freedom is not just freedom of speech. But professional standards are not a legitimate basis for censorship. Peer review determines whether a manuscript merits publication, not whether the ideas within it may be expressed.

Intellectual freedom in teaching, learning, and inquiry is not limited to persons and ideas meeting stringent standards enforced by administrators. What distinguishes research and education from dogma and indoctrination is a system of academic self-regulation that fully respects the intellectual freedom of all teachers, students, and researchers.

So happy birthday AUCC, and here's to another century of academic freedom! But it looks like the CAUT has its work cut out for it.