I would like to draw attention to assaults on academic freedom in response to an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau published in the National Observer on March 25, 2020, authored by members of academic faculty at the University of Alberta. Certain groups and individuals have called for the curtailment of academic freedom at Canadian universities, and for universities to censure (or worse) the signatories to the letter. The letter in question, entitled “265 Academics to Trudeau: No Bailout for Oil and Gas in Response to Covid-19”, was penned by Drs. Laurie Adkin and Debra Davidson at the University of Alberta, and supported by additional academic signatories. Anyone, or any entity, can take issue with the letter’s position and arguments. However, in an article entitled “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” published April 4, Ryan Lyman of Calgary-based Friends of Science argues that since an industry, oil and gas in this case, contributes significantly to the tax base that supports the University and by extension the salaries of professors, our professors should not be allowed to criticize this industry. This position is underscored by his statement that individual oil companies have made contributions to capital projects at Alberta (and Saskatchewan) universities. Furthermore, it is argued by him that the University would be expected to exercise distain toward professors who included their university affiliations in the open letter to Trudeau.
Academic freedom was exercised by the authors and signatories of the open letter to Trudeau, and it is central to the societal mission of Universities. Academic freedom allows academic staff to criticize government, industry, or other organizations in society. This is because it is essential that the voices of society’s academic scholars, skilled in logic and analysis, weigh in on problems and challenges of the day. Academic freedom provides an essential service for society, and society is much better for it. Public debate is enriched by the approach and expanded knowledge base provided by academics. A harmful alternative is proposed for Universities and society by Friends of Science, where scholars are to remain silent and choices are narrow, only to be among those acceptable to a select fraction of society. No matter the level of support to Universities, or from whom, that support cannot buy immunity from criticism by academics exercising their academic freedom rights, and should never be an expectation in a free and just society. Thankfully academic protections are stipulated for our scholars in Article 3 of the collective agreement between AASUA and the University, in particular the right to “investigate, speculate, comment, question, criticize… without censorship or deference to prescribed doctrine”.
Additional significant aggressions against academic freedom and academics were put forward. First, in this pamphlet “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”, arguments are made that many of the signatories are not found in academic departments deemed relevant to the topic of the open letter, and are therefore not qualified to contribute to or endorse the letter. On the contrary, academic freedom is ascribed to University scholars and by the very nature of their training as scholars, qualifies them to debate and contribute to broad subject ranges and interests. This is highly desirable as it can lead to novel insights. Although unnecessary given the principle I state immediately above, if we consider names of home departments of academics, such names do not by definition encompass or delimit an academic’s command of subject matter, especially not in modern universities such as our own, where interdisciplinary research and teaching occurs. A second aggression, in rebuttals to the open letter to Trudeau in newsletters by Action Alberta, is that academics who offer opinions that are not agreeable, should not be allowed to influence the youth of Alberta in our academy. Such a position does not reflect an understanding of the purpose of academic institutions, nor how academic freedom is essential in successfully achieving that purpose. The purpose of academic institutions and academic freedom may best be described in the following point from the Canadian Association University Teachers (CAUT) policy statement on academic freedom:
“The institution serves the common good of society, through search for, and disseminating, knowledge, and understanding through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom. All academic staff members have the right to academic freedom.”
In conclusion, challenge and debate ideas, positions and arguments. This is fair and can be useful. However, calls for muzzling and censuring academics (due to perceived disloyalty, and denigration of academic fitness to speak publicly and educate university students), if successful, would be exceedingly harmful to society. Academic freedom is necessary to protect academics from the kinds of assaults discussed here, such that academics can carry out their functions on behalf of society inside, and outside the University. A second point in the CAUT policy statement on academic freedom is pertinent:
“Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual. Academic freedom makes intellectual discourse, critique, and commitment possible. All academic staff members have the right to fulfil their functions without reprisal or suppression by the employer, the state, or any other source. Institutions have a positive obligation to defend the academic freedom right of members.”