Docherty: For Sake of Democracy Academic Freedom Should Be “Extended As Widely As Possible”

A few days ago Thomas Docherty, Professor of English at the University of Warwick, published his most recent contribution to the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement. The claims Docherty makes there are directly relevant to the culture of the University of Alberta, currently presided over by a President who asserted in the national platform of the Globe and Mail last spring (in the wake of what unfolded at the University of Saskatchewan) that the members of the senior administration of any Canadian university, including Deans, must act like a “cabinet” that cannot publicly criticize any administrative decision. If the Deans of a university are not free to express their views on administrative decisions and decision-making to their Faculties or the public, it is not just academic freedom that is at risk. As Docherty notes, democracy is threatened as well:

The scope of academic freedom reaches well beyond seminar rooms and laboratories. . . . and its value is diminished if it is circumscribed as merely a matter of academic procedures or protocols. It should be extended as widely as possible; yet, today, it is “managed” – managed, in fact, almost to death. The power of unconstrained knowledgeable dialogue is marginalised; and, potentially, democracy itself – based on authority given by free and open debate – is thereby weakened.

The threat is at its deepest, Docherty suggests, where the administrative ethos of an institution affects what its members permit themselves to think:

A creeping incremental assault on academic freedom threatens not just what can be spoken aloud, but also what it is permissible to think: thought itself is to be subjected to management, so that its critical power is neutered or constrained. We may still make controversial statements; but we cannot be permitted actually to behave in accordance with them or to live according to moral principles that diverge from accepted norms. Academic integrity – indeed the ethical conduct of the university itself – is thereby threatened.

Full article at

The President of the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta (AASUA), Kevin Kane, wrote to President Samarasekera about her public positions on academic freedom early in the Fall. AASUA Council was told it could expect a reply from the President by mid-October. I understand that an invitation has now been extended to President Samarasekera to attend a meeting of AASUA Council to discuss academic freedom issues with its elected representatives of the University’s academic staff (faculty, contract academic staff, faculty service officers, administrative and professional officers, librarians, trust and research staff, and sessionals and other temporary staff).

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