Academic Freedom

But first, more institutional politics.

I’ve agreed to be on a committee out of the vice-provost’s office which is organizing a 1-day symposium on academic freedom in April, which could well lead to a written policy on academic freedom for the university, to be submitted for approval to academic senate and the board of governors.

I am not totally sure that a formal policy on academic freedom is a good idea, but after the various events of last semester, it at least needs to be discussed.

By virtue of its membership in the organization, McGill is listed as an official endorser of the AUCC’s abysmal policy, which I’m told was changed because religious colleges couldn’t sign on to a proper academic freedom policy. Which begs the question of whether it’s academic freedom anymore if it exists as the pleasure of administrators: it’s sort of like redefining evolution to accommodate creationism.

Anyway, a number of us were horrified at the announcement, and when I challenged the principal on it she emphasized that it didn’t reflect McGill University’s value or policies. The thing is, we don’t have an academic freedom policy at McGill. And maybe we shouldn’t have a fixed definition of academic freedom, but the current scheme unfortunately means that people with power get to say that academic freedom is whatever they say it is. And that is not academic freedom.

There is always some danger that a formal process of discussing academic freedom will turn into “a democracy theme park,” as one of my colleagues calls it, but I think it’s important to take it seriously and try and make sure the conversation goes in the right direction, starting with strong protections for faculty and students who criticize people who have authority over them, up to the top of the administration and the board of governors; who take public political stands; or whose work takes heterodox positions within their home departments and disciplines.

In the meantime, if you’ve dealt with this in your home institution or have some policy advice for me, please send it along. I would also love to have recommendations for speakers, though I’m sure we can only have a few.