A Battleground Concept: The concept of academic freedom is difficult for many within and outside of the university sector to grasp – in Canadian labour relations, it is the flag on a tug-of-war rope between those who see the concept as protecting societal interests and those who seek to expand the definition to protect the individual and group interests of faculty engaged in teaching and research. In the battle between the political left and right, it is the target of right-wing critics such as former Attorney General of the US Jeff Sessions who described academic freedom as “transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos”.  See link to the story below at Link 1.

Understanding Academic Freedom: I spend some time explaining academic freedom in my book but the purpose of this blog is to reinforce the importance of academic freedom and to encourage university governing bodies to see the protection of academic freedom as an essential aspect of their role to protect institutional autonomy.  Because it’s a fluid concept and a battleground, I’m always looking for examples to illustrate what it is generally and its’ importance.  When I think about academic freedom in research, in particular, I think about those engaged in solving problems we haven’t collectively even thought of yet (those toiling away these past many years on vaccines to help combat an eventual global viral attack, for example).   Equally importantly, I think about those who observe and study society.  Those who watch the patterns of human behaviour and identify the implications (think of those who have been warning about climate change for many years or those who identify endangered species).  I think of individuals like Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce (who was not protected by academic freedom), an early critic of Canadian residential schools.

The Story of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce illustrates the importance of academic freedom: A link to the CBC article that prompted this blog is below at Link 2.  However, the brief story of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce is that he was appointed as the Chief Medical Officer to the then Department of Indian Affairs in 1904 and was asked to research why approximately half of Indigenous children at residential schools were dying.  In 1907, Bryce produced a report that was highly critical of the Canadian government.  His report contained recommendations to address the issues.  The report was not adopted.  Instead, Bryce was terminated and efforts made to block him from presenting at academic conferences.  Despite this, Bryce persisted.  As the article notes, in 1922, Bryce wrote a book:   The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. For those who believe that the Canadian government just didn’t know what it was doing, it is interesting to know that even after Bryce’s report and his later book, the number of residential schools kept increasing.

If Dr. Bryce had been an academic supported by his university, his work would have been protected by academic freedom and he would have been better protected from government efforts to undermine and bury his work.  He would have been paid by his university to do his research.  He would have had the support of university colleagues.  This is the role that universities play in society – developing medicine we don’t know we need and giving medicine we don’t necessarily want to take but very much need.

Protect Academic Freedom Even If Imperfect:  Accepting the importance of academic freedom does not mean ignoring that researchers and research are not all equally valuable or significant.  Some research protected by academic freedom may appear unworthy of protection.   Some who aspire to conduct what may be highly valuable and relevant research may never make it into the academic governing ranks. University boards should remember that they are not in a position to judge what is valuable.  That role falls squarely within the academic sphere.  The whole point of collegial governance is that the academic community sets its own standards for research relevance and excellence. Boards should also remember that there are other filters or hurdles to achieving academic freedom.  Getting hired into more than a temporary role is a barrier.  Once in the profession, promotion and the securing of tenure are all predicated on achievement within the chosen field.  As in any profession, there are professional and social pressures to achieve and perform.  Funding for government research grants is also competitive.  Industry and other funding partners only fund research relevant to them.  At the same time as we recognize the importance of academic freedom, we must recognize its limitations.

Research funding and academic freedom:   As noted above, research requires financial support, and to protect academic freedom, governing bodies must also pay attention to research funding. There are two aspects to this: 1) ensuring funding, and; 2) ensuring that third-party funding isn’t achieved in exchange for a loss of control over research/teaching.  Without funding to conduct research, protections for academic freedom are without teeth.  It’s great to have ideas and solutions but conducting research costs money.   Universities pay faculty to do research.  In most cases, tenure and tenure-track faculty workload is comprised of 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent service.  In addition to this financial support from universities, the Canadian federal government is a primary funding source for Canadian researchers.   The Canadian government is sensitive to the requirements of academic freedom and its funding is structured to foster it.  Corporate partners and donors may be less sensitive to the need to protect academic freedom.  However, allowing government or corporate partners to direct or otherwise control research and/or teaching erodes academic freedom.  Boards must remember that while donors and industry partners are important, their donations cannot be given on terms and conditions that undermine academic freedom.

Takeaway:  One of the ways in which universities contribute to the advancement and protection of Canadian society is through the protection of the academic freedom of its faculty.  Academic freedom protects those faculty who are finding solutions to a wide variety of societal problems, often well before the rest of society has picked up on the fact that a problem exists.

  1. Link to the story about Jeff Sessions and academic freedom in the US,
  2. Link to the CBC article about Cindy Blackstock and Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce: