Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a limited monthly series on academic freedom by the author.
September is back-to-school time. Amidst the new students and new courses, I’m delighted to start the school year by launching this new series for University Affairs. Each month in this space, I’ll be dispatching news and views about academic freedom from the front lines. This series is the outgrowth of research on academic freedom I’ve been sharing on my blog Daily Academic Freedom, and occasionally in other venues, like the blog of the Canadian Philosophical Association.
I started writing about academic freedom because it seemed to me that the concept was too often absent from discussions about recent campus controversies. Consider, for instance, the considerable ink – both literal and metaphorical – that has been spilled over University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, Wilfrid Laurier University communications M.A. student Lindsay Shepherd, and the students, staff and professors who support or oppose them. On traditional and social media, as well as around the water cooler, this discussion has tended to focus on freedom of expression. Wilfrid Laurier University even struck a freedom of expression task force in response to the now well-known events surrounding Ms. Shepherd. That task force recently produced a new Freedom of Expression Statement for the university. And just last week, the Ontario government announced a new policy obliging publicly-supported universities and colleges in the province to create free speech policies modeled on the Chicago Principles, and to discipline their students for “disruptive” protests or risk funding cuts.
Members of the public unfamiliar with how universities work might infer from all this that freedom of expression is the central freedom for universities, and therefore the main purpose of universities is expression. If that were true – if expression really were the main purpose of universities – then we wouldn’t need laboratories and archives. It would be enough to provide megaphones. The reason that universities undertake the considerable expense of running labs, and that scholarly publications employ the labour intensive method of peer review, is that the mission of the university isn’t just expression for its own sake. Rather, the purpose of the university is to serve society by pursuing knowledge and advancing our understanding of the world in its many aspects. Universities exist not merely to communicate, but to try to get the story right. To this end, they employ cutting-edge technology and a dizzying array of hard-won credentials.
There is no doubt that the commotion surrounding Dr. Peterson and Ms. Shepherd (and other similar kerfuffles) involves freedom of expression. However, in debates that centrally concern what happens at universities and how university personnel conduct themselves, it misses the mark to focus on freedom of expression to the exclusion of academic freedom. To do so disregards the distinctive function of universities, and the essential role that scholarly personnel play within that function.
I think the overemphasis on freedom of expression and the comparative inattention that is often paid to academic freedom is partially owed to the relative complexity of academic freedom. As this series will make clear, academic freedom is complicated. It isn’t just one freedom. It is a cluster of freedoms associated in various ways with various scholarly personnel and institutions. Freedom of expression is just one of those subsidiary freedoms. Academic freedom provides (inter alia) the freedom to teach, to learn, to decide on which research questions to inquire into and what methods to use in that inquiry, to engage in extramural communication, and to criticize the university itself. This is a lot to get our heads around. So, it’s not surprising that some members of the media and the public – and even some scholarly personnel – feel more confident discussing the comparatively simpler concept of freedom of expression.
A second reason for the over-emphasis on freedom of expression in the Canadian context is the massive shadow that is cast over us by the United States. Many Americans are passionately committed to First Amendment protections of free speech. Moreover, various differences between the postsecondary sector in the U.S. compared to Canada result in a lower level of literacy about academic freedom among many U.S. scholars. It is no surprise then that in the many media stories about campus controversies in the U.S., the focus is very much on free speech. Because these accounts are so ubiquitous, it is tempting for us to echo them. However, it is important to remember that both the constitutional supports for freedom of expression (as we call it in Canada) and the institutional culture supporting academic freedom are very different in Canada and the U.S.
We can take some lessons from our neighbours to the south, but we must be careful to adapt them to the Canadian context. In this monthly series, I will be laying out some of the general features of academic freedom in the Canadian context, and wrangling some tough associated questions.
Let me conclude by saying a few words about the name of this series – Dispatches on Academic Freedom. The terminology of “dispatches” conjures up images of war correspondents embedding themselves with military units to send news to the home front. In the first paragraph, I riffed on that idea a bit by referring to the “front lines.” But are we really at war? There certainly has been a lot of talk – again, on social media and around the water cooler – about an emerging (or perhaps resurging) culture war. Some people seem to imagine that universities are battlegrounds for a war in which the combatants are, on the one side, gender studies ideologues and safe space snowflakes, and, on the other, white nationalists and their canon-hugging defenders. I think that description is too polarized and too polarizing.
More than that, I think it’s just plain inaccurate. Despite some heated flame wars on academic Twitter and periodic end-is-nigh feature stories in The Atlantic, the vast majority of scholarly personnel – students, faculty and staff – are just trying to do their work as best they can, often in the face of serious budgetary and other constraints. Credulity about culture wars on campus risks making that serious work – the work of the university – harder. By contrast, a better understanding of the mission of universities, and of the role that academic freedom plays within that mission, puts us in a better position to support university scholars and the work that they do. I hope that Dispatches on Academic Freedom contributes to that important (and as last week’s news from Ontario reveals – urgent) project.