The activities of campus pro-life clubs, Israeli Apartheid Week and a cancelled talk by conservative Ann Coulter were among the thorny issues that university presidents and provosts addressed in a day-long, closed-door workshop held in early December. Organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Vancouver event – dubbed a “dialogue on academic freedom” – attracted more than 30 senior executives.
University of British Columbia President Stephen Toope, who co-chaired the event, said the three case studies served as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion that “tried to draw some important distinctions amongst questions of freedom of expression, academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”
It was “very open, very frank,” Professor Toope said. “We had a very honest conversation around some sometimes difficult issues which are highly politically charged.”
AUCC has a draft revised statement on academic freedom, and one suggestion from the gathering was to strengthen the statement and take “concrete steps” to support the values contained in it, said Professor Toope.
The workshop was one of several new AUCC initiatives directed at its membership, which consists of the executive heads of 95 universities and degree-granting colleges. The association held a summit on aboriginal postsecondary education in October and a workshop on engaging with India last June, followed by a week-long mission of university presidents to India in November. A workshop on university undergraduate education is to be held in Halifax March 6-8.
AUCC President Paul Davidson said the idea for the dialogue on academic freedom – and for some of the other initiatives – came out of a retreat of the association’s board of directors last April. It was the first board retreat in about 15 years, he said. The higher-education landscape has changed substantially over that time, so the gathering was an opportunity to “think about where we want to go in the next 15 years.”
Mr. Davidson stressed that AUCC isn’t just an advocacy organization, but “at its core is a membership organization, and so we have to be listening to our members and try to respond to the interests that they have.” For instance, he said, some universities have excellent programs to promote aboriginal education but until now there had been little attempt to catalogue these efforts and to “scale them up.”
Similarly, a number of university presidents have been engaged in India for years, but this has been mostly “episodic” and “non-strategic,” said Mr. Davidson. “It was felt that if we try to pull these activities together in a more coherent way, we get a greater impact.”
Of the 95 university presidents, close to 30 have been hired in the last two and a half years, Mr. Davidson added. With so much turnover at the top, it’s important that the association provide occasions for the presidents to learn from each other and to share best practices.
Of note, both the dialogue on academic freedom and the upcoming undergraduate education workshop were open to provosts and vice-presidents, academic. “Historically, AUCC has worked almost exclusively with presidents. This was a recognition that we’ve got an obligation to help build the skill set of senior leadership, particularly on these issues,” said Mr. Davidson.
AUCC already holds a regular program for new presidents, the latest of which was scheduled for Jan. 23-26 in Cambridge, Ontario. Charles Jago, who spent nearly 20 years as a university head, most recently of the University of Northern British Columbia, is one of the scheduled speakers.
“People come into these positions and they will be dealing with issues and making decisions the likes of which they have never made before,” said Dr. Jago. “To be able to get some sense of that landscape, to get some insights into how best to operate, I think is really important. There’s a lot to learn.”
Next up is the undergraduate education workshop in March. One of those participating will be University of Sudbury President Pierre Zundel, who recently penned an essay for University Affairs with McMaster University President Patrick Deane, arguing that undergraduate education needs to be transformed. The two also will address the issue at the new presidents’ workshop in January.
Dr. Zundel said he got involved in this debate out of a feeling that “we could do better” and because he believes there’s a need to think more creatively about the conflict between resources and expectations. “We have to think of another way to get ourselves out of the dilemma we’re in. Otherwise you’re just making tradeoffs of one thing against another.”
“It will be interesting,” said Mr. Davidson of the undergraduate workshop. “It’s been a long time since AUCC has been engaged thematically and strategically on these types of questions. Let’s start the discussion.”