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Canada's university presidents have jointly adopted a new statement on academic freedom, pledging support for the right of faculty members to follow their ideas in teaching and research, without inappropriate interference.

But while parts of the statement are being received well by faculty members, other portions are not. The statement contains some qualifiers about academic freedom that the drafters say will strengthen public support for academic freedom, but that some professors question. Further, the statement was prepared by a committee of university presidents only, and it removes supportive references to tenure that appeared in the universities' previous statement on academic freedom.

The new statement was released last week to mark the 100th anniversary of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Much of the statement contains broad language of the sort found in many campus policies affirming the importance of academic freedom. "Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding," the statement says. "In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge. Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship."

That part of the statement largely echoes the 1988 position. But other phrases strike faculty leaders as carving out too many exceptions to academic freedom.

For instance, the statement says that "[t]he university must also defend academic freedom against interpretations that are excessive or too loose, and the claims that may spring from such definitions." And the statement says that academic freedom should be "exercised in a reasonable and responsible manner."

James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that these statements raise questions about who defines what is "too loose" or "reasonable."

Turk also said he was bothered by language about the role of peer review. The statement says: "Faculty have an equal responsibility to submit their knowledge and claims to rigorous and public review by peers who are experts in the subject matter under consideration and to ground their arguments in the best available evidence."

While academics strongly support peer review, Turk said of this language: "Do they mean that if peers view one’s work negatively, one no longer has the academic freedom to pursue the idea? Some ideas are beyond the bound of any serious scientific basis – that the world is flat or that humans were created 6,000 years ago. But many other scientific ideas were broadly panned but proven right."

Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan and one of the presidents who led the effort to draft the new statement, said that he absolutely did not think the universities were suggesting that a faculty member had to agree to anyone's orthodoxy to be protected by academic freedom. "Those kinds of comments go more to the rigor of inquiry than anything else," he said. "Competence matters too. In the academic environment, some of the guarantees of quality happen to reside in peer review."

MacKinnon also argued that colleges and universities will be better off if they don't try to justify every action by pointing to academic freedom. "Academic freedom doesn't give people the right to conduct themselves pretty much as they wish to. There are limitations," he said. "There is a robust community interest, a university interest in defining and defending academic freedom as it is broadly and widely understood," he said, not as any sort of free pass for academics.

No Mention of Tenure

The 1988 statement of the Canadian universities on academic freedom said that tenure "is one important means of meeting" the "obligation" of assuring academic freedom. The new statement does not contain the word "tenure."

MacKinnon said that the omission was intentional, but did not reflect a lack of commitment to tenure, which is as common at Canadian universities as it is at those in the United States.

Rather, MacKinnon said that the presidents do not believe that one should have tenure or be tenure-track to have academic freedom. "It's important for all of us to say that the possession of tenure is not the critical defining element of academic freedom," he said.

While many faculty advocates link tenure to academic freedom, MacKinnon questioned whether this truly advances the rights of all professors. "If I was an assistant professor without tenure, I should have every bit as much academic freedom as a full professor with tenure," he said. "Did we see tenure as the critical element of defending academic freedom? No."


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