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In my opinion

Academics facing potential censorship

How do we manage academic freedom, which should be unhindered, unrestricted and inviolable?

BY YVES LABERGE | DEC 27 2021

A few months ago, an independent scientific and technical committee was mandated by the Quebec government to study where academic freedom fits in academe. At the time of writing, the report from this group of universities is still not publicly available [it has since been published and can be viewed here in French], but we can still reflect on its objectives in the current research context based on a preliminary document published in fall 2021.

Researchers’ fears

A survey carried out over 2021 among 1,079 tenure-track professors and lecturers from all of Quebec’s universities showed that most researchers fear subtle forms of control that could limit their research work.

Some figures speak for themselves; firstly, in the sampling itself, which imperfectly reflects the composition of Canadian university faculties: only a third (34 per cent) of survey respondents were lecturers while a quarter (27 per cent) were full professors. We know that in reality, at most Canadian universities, over half of the classes are taught by lecturers or part-time professors, who don’t have job security.

In addition, over half (57 per cent) of respondents didn’t know whether their institution had an official document guaranteeing their academic freedom, and a similar percentage (50 per cent) stated that they did not know if there was a disciplinary process for complaints if related disputes or breaches were to arise. If such a document exists, it would be well advised for university leadership to remind faculty and lecturers, and not only at their time of hiring.

Even more revealing was the response to the statement “In the last five years, I censored myself for fear of negative repercussions while teaching by avoiding using certain words,” to which 25 per cent responded “sometimes” and 15 per cent responded “often.” We can see (and should be worried) that self-censorship is even more present than censorship.

We should note that even though researchers have academic freedom, faculty committees are often the ones evaluating and ranking fundable projects according to the “priorities” of departments and universities. In the same vein, new job descriptions for tenure-track professors are often written based on priorities, decided upon democratically, but in a way that is nonetheless subjective, and even arbitrary, by a few of the most influential decision-makers.

The role of SSHRC and FRQSC

Finally, granting agencies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture occasionally create priority or “strategic” competitions that respond to identified needs and are often justified as intending to tap into the zeitgeist. However, in doing so, during the selection process granting agencies guide, prioritize, and favour specific research groups who adopt these programs’ research questions and/or suggested directions. Conversely, researchers working in these fields whose work does not specifically touch on these preferred directions will not have access to as many funds and will feel immediately disqualified.

Does this mean that the risk (real or perceived) of not receiving funding or a favourable ranking in one’s faculty is the greatest risk to research? Is it not at this initial stage that the avenues for exploration and research are quickly discarded by the team, the team’s community, or the researcher themselves before having time to take shape, simply because “no one will want to approve the research?”

While we were waiting for the final report from the Independent Scientific and Technical Commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in Academia, we could only be encouraged that this inquiry even happened. However, the fact that it has been mandated in the current context (“cancel culture” and the influence of “woke” ideology in universities) is symptomatic of a malaise. Already, the previous survey clearly demonstrates that many academics are not clear on the mechanisms that are ensuring their full freedom. They are also unclear on the tools that give them the power to orient their own exploration, while still respecting basic criteria like rigour, integrity, ethics, and respect for others. Finally, we must remember that academic freedom affects academics’ fields of research first and foremost; their personal, religious and political views do not necessarily have the same scientific foundation.

Yves Laberge has a PhD in sociology and is a regular research member of the Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté at l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

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