The Falling Tree: Talks on Academic Freedom, University of Alberta (28 September 2012)

Last night, fewer than fifteen people showed up for a public talk on academic freedom at the University of Alberta. A tree fell in a forest that hosts over 4,000 academic staff members, and I can confirm that it made a sound, but will the falling tree be heard?

The evening talk was the second of two events on academic freedom hosted yesterday by the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA). The first was a panel discussion with four speakers: University President Indira Samarasekera, University of Alberta Professor David Schindler, graduate student Ashlyn Bernier (standing in for the scheduled graduate student speaker Nathan Andrews), and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at Dalhousie University Jocelyn Downie. Downie then offered a fuller talk at 8 p.m, at which she led a discussion, noting that it was important to her that some discussion take place. (The one-hour slot for the afternoon presentation left no opportunity for questions from the audience.)

As a faculty member in Arts, I am grateful to the AASUA for hosting these presentations, and to Professor Downie for flying across the country to participate. Here is a brief memorandum of a few of the statements that were made in Edmonton Clinic Health Academy Lecture Hall L1-190 at both the 3 o’clock hour and later that evening. Let me note that, to my regret, I did not hear President Samarasekera’s opening remarks at the afternoon panel, and therefore cannot offer any excerpt from them here. 

Professor David Schindler: Professor Schindler offered brief accounts of episodes in his academic career in which he has fought assertions that were not supported by scientific data — the most recent of these involving his response to the Government of Alberta’s use of “full-page ads in Alberta papers . . . telling us that climate change was not happening.” Schindler also spoke about his latest, on-going battle to get the government to run an independent-monitoring program of the toxins flowing into the Athabasca River from Tar Sands production. His climactic statement: “To run a democracy that functions properly we need a well-informed electorate, not one bedazzled by unsubstantiated government propaganda.”

Dr. Ashlyn Bernier (President of the Graduate Students’ Association): Standing in for Nathan Andrews, Dr. Bernier noted that Andrews’ principal concern was that a limited definition of academic freedom might “get in the way of” student or faculty activism, which is often “targeted at authority and government.” (Andrews ia a doctoral student in political science.) Bernier herself insisted that when asserting academic freedom we must distinguish between its use for the dissemination of opinion and its use for the protection of “empirical knowledge.” (Dr. Bernier’s doctorate is in Laboratory Medicine and Pathology; she is now pursuing an MBA in Technology Commercialization.)

Professor Jocelyn Downie, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy (Dalhousie Univerity): Professor Downie began by offering definitions of academic freedom, and then spoke about the responsibilities that come with it. In the first instance, she noted the controversy that has arisen over the issue in the last year in the wake of a revised statement on academic freedom from the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada. (The statement is here.) She cited the open letter in which the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) responded to the AUCC statement, which it characterizes as “an attempt to undo many of the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of academic freedom over the past one hundred years.” This was a prelude to a statement in which she professed her own belief that the AUCC statement constitutes “an indefensible, narrowing redefinition of academic freedom.” 

She pointed us to a “telling line” from the AUCC statement, which she read: “To ensure and protect academic freedom universities must be autonomous, with their governing bodies free to act in the institution’s best interests.” Downie: 

I say to this No. Universities must have autonomy, which must be distinguished from academic freedom, in order to be free to act in the public interest. 

(You can read the spring 2012 statement from CAUT, in which CAUT Executive Director James Turk makes a similar point, here.)

Professor Downie went on to assert that “academic freedom entails the responsibility to defend academic freedom against those who would erode or rescind it.” She spoke about this in relation to the Nancy Olivieri case, and then went on to place her argument about the responsibilities of academic freedom in a more personal context when she declared:

Academic freedom also entails the responsibility to use academic freedom to stand up for the public good that academic freedom serves, for example, the responsibility to stand up and make the case that physicians should not prevent women from accessing abortion. . . . I felt that I had the responsibility . . . to keep saying this even when the co-chairs of the Federal Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus wrote to my Dean and asked him to quote “take the necessary steps to ensure that your faculty members, who have tremendous power to influence the minds of our future lawyers and doctors, do not allow their own personal biases to impair their ability to represent the law.”

After noting various other forces affecting academic freedom, including the issues that arise around funds received from private donors — these require, she said, “a very nuanced response” — Professor Downie suggested we must also be alert to the ways in which academic freedom is threatened by “self-censorship” on the part of academics. We need, she asserted, people who will “speak truth to power.” We also need to stand up not only against obvious threats to academic freedom that come when “piper-payers” get to “pick the tune,” but also the far more subtle threats that come in the form of the “carrots” that are given to some faculty members and withheld from others. We must especially concern ourselves with “moves” to “shift the locus of control over academic matters within universities from faculty councils . . . to administrative bodies . . . especially bodies controlled by non-academics.” Finally, she urged that we “stand firm against” those who attempt to silence those academics who question whether and where the commercialization of knowledge and research is or is not in “the public good.”

Closing Statements

All panelists were then given one minute each to respond to what they had heard from the other panelists. President Samarasekera was invited to speak first. Professor Downie spoke last. Here’s what each panelist had to say for their last word.

President Samarasekera: President Samarasekera noted that academic freedom is a “challenging subject” that involves many “complexities.” She asked that we remember that public universities are funded by taxpayers, and that universities “are accountable to elected officials.”

Professor Schindler: Professor Schindler claimed that in his view the issue of academic freedom is more important now than it has been at any earlier time in his career. He worries about the “speed at which we are approving environmental projects,” and wishes that our elected officials would be grateful that academics, rather than simply writing research papers that get shelved in libraries “in the Ivory Tower,” bring their research forward to ministers so that their work may help in the shaping of public policy. He also noted how worried he is about current practices in which academics are accompanied to public meetings by government “handlers.” Professor Schindler likened these practices, or the “muzzling” of Canadian scientists, to the repressive practices for which another nation, one that is not a democracy, is notorious. 

Dr. Bernier: Dr. Bernier asked everyone to remember that universities are places where the next generation’s researchers are being nurtured, and that “students are watching”: specifically, they are looking to their supervisors and university administrators “to aspire to the responsibilities of academic freedom.”

Professor Downie: In her final statement, Professor Downie agreed with President Samarasekera that the issues are complex, and said that as an academic she is willing to take on those complexities. As a citizen, however, she worries that we’re not getting even the “easy stuff” right. She urged that we need to work collaboratively on this issue to meet our responsibilities to society as a whole.

Professor Downie’s Evening Presentation: At the evening talk, in which she elaborated upon her earlier propositions and took questions, Professor Downie asked why it is that we cannot find ways to structure agreements with private donors to ensure that some of their funds go to “the stuff no one wants to fund.” (This would be one way to achieve balance between the acceptance of funds for specific schools or specific research projects with support for research activity elsewhere on campus that does not lend itself to the commercialization of research, and a lot of which helps shape the engaged and informed citizens that Professor Schindler called for.) Downie’s last word: We need to be explicit in our call for the issue of academic freedom to be dealt with by governance structures at universities, and ensure that the governance structures themselves are not weakened at a moment in which academic freedom is “in peril,” and all of society at risk.

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One Response to The Falling Tree: Talks on Academic Freedom, University of Alberta (28 September 2012)

  1. Laurie Adkin says:

    Thanks so much, Carolyn, for preparing this synopsis on behalf of the many of us who were keenly interested in the discussion, but unable to attend. It is heartening to have Dr. Downie’s words and personal example to remember as we struggle with the “complexities” of institutional academic life. I am also a fan of “St David,” as I have called him since he got (then) Canadian Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, to implement a panel to review the environmental monitoring system for the bitumen sands. Regarding the very poor turnout for these talks, I must say, once again, that I take this to be further evidence of the main barriers to citizenship in this milieu: excessive work demands, the competitive/disciplinary work environment, and our general capitulation to these, which means that we have no time for anything but “tomorrow’s” job and are paying the price in multiple personal and social ways. Those of us who are parents, and/or care-givers for elderly parents, have additional commitments to juggle which often prevent us from attending “extra-curricular” activities like this, despite our deep concerns about threats to academic freedom and the general direction of the university. Thanks again, Carolyn, for attending and for taking such excellent notes for us.

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