Academic Freedom and “Respectful Dialogue” at UAlberta’s Faculty of Arts: Response to Message from the Dean

Just over two weeks ago, there was some surprising news from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which announced the launching of an investigation into infringement of academic freedom protections at Laurentian University. The surprise: the Faculty allegedly in violation of academic freedom is Arts. Arts! Arts is the Faculty one would expect to be most effective at protecting academic freedom principles in practice, given that so much of its raison d’être depends upon its rigorous cultivation, sometimes as a central matter of a discipline, of that other freedom with which academic freedom so complexly intersects, freedom of expression. How, then, could any Faculty of Arts in the country have so disastrously infringed academic freedom protections that it could find itself the object not only of a CAUT investigation, but under threat of CAUT censure?

We won’t know what is going on at Laurentian for months. [Correction: CAUT’s report is here.] But whatever has been playing out there will almost certainly in the end be publicly revealed to be tied to one administrator or another’s failure to recognize how a given administrative practice, policy, or action was antagonistic to basic principles of academic freedom. I, for one, will be particularly interested to hear what CAUT has to report in regard to the second item in its list of announced concerns, “Disregard of collegial decision-making.”

CAUT works hard, of course, not simply to haul university administrations over the coals when they breach academic freedom protections, but to ensure that there is clear policy guidance on how to avoid such breaches. There is no pamphlet entitled “How to protect academic freedom in ten easy steps.” There are, however, touchstone policy documents to which all may turn. These include CAUT’s “Academic Freedom for Academic Administrators,” a document of fewer than 400 words which, if carefully read and digested, would surely have kept Brett Fairbairn, then Provost of the University of Saskatchewan, from believing, in May 2014, that it was perfectly acceptable for him to fire a professor for publicly airing his disagreements with that University’s administration. And there is, of course, CAUT’s primary policy on academic freedom, which should have been of some assistance to John Montalbano last August, before he had a conversation, as chair of the University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors, with Jennifer Berdahl, professor at the Sauder School of Business, about a blog post of hers questioning what happened with the “resignation” of Arvind Gupta as President of UBC. In her “fact-finding” report on events at UBC, former BC Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith reminds Canadian academics, administrators especially, that the clauses in collective agreements between Universities and academic staff associations across the country establish “positive obligations” for the protection of academic freedom. Surely, in the face of such events, all university administrators in Canada are keeping abreast of academic freedom concerns as they arise across the country to ensure not simply that they do not offend against academic freedom principles, but that they are vigilant in protecting the academic freedom of all those in the academic unit over which they have any authority?

I was even more surprised, then, after the news from Laurentian, to read, Thursday afternoon, the message that the Acting Dean of Arts here, Lise Gotell, had sent out to the Faculty earlier that day. In her message, Dr. Gotell expresses, by way of “observation,” her sense that faculty members are being “overly critical—even aggressive” in their response to administrative proposals. She charges them with “lashing out” in “anger and frustration,” and urges them to engage instead in “respectful dialogue.”

What, you might ask, could be wrong with a Dean making a simple appeal for “respectful dialogue” in the face of criticism she finds to be “overly critical,” or a form of “lashing out” at administrators? The question that should be asked instead: is Dr. Gotell not aware of the concerns about the infringement of academic freedom protections and freedom of expression rights that CAUT and academics expert in these concerns have raised in relation to the enjoining of “respectful” conduct of any kind from academic staff by university administrators?

CAUT’s most recent statement of its position on these issues is to be found in the investigatory report issued last Fall in relation to breaches of academic freedom protections at Brock University, where a “respectful workplace” policy introduced in 2006 has wreaked some serious havoc. As critique of the neoliberal university intensifies, such policies are becoming a common administrative technique for attempting to curtail criticism of administrative decision-making, especially where that decision-making cannot be secured by fiat. As John Baker (Philosophy, Calgary), Mark Gabbert (History, Manitoba), and Penni Stewart (Sociology, York) declared in their investigative report for CAUT on the policy at Brock and events ensuing from it:

The goal of respectful workplace policies is to regulate expression. As such, they risk undercutting the principles of academic freedom and free expression which are, as we have said, fundamental regulating principles of university life. If there are to be such respectful workplace policies, then they must put respect for academic freedom and freedom of expression front and centre as explicit limits against which any provision of the [policy in question] must be read. (page 51)

This is necessary because:

Academic freedom can only flourish in an environment in which the right to express one’s views is respected, however distasteful they may be and how wrongheaded are the opinions expressed. Any policy that seeks to restrict debate and constrain speech puts academic freedom and expression rights in peril. (50)

Baker, Gabbert, and Stewart note the essential difficulty of any attempt to impose “respectful” conduct or “dialogue” on others: policies demanding “respect” involve criteria that are necessarily subjective. “Universities have a legal obligation to address the need to avoid discrimination and harassment in the forms defined by law,” they write. Universities do not, however, have any place in demanding a display of “respect” from any one member of the community to others.

When I was planning the program for the “Academic Freedom Week” for the Association of Academic Staff in the Fall, I made sure to invite Jamie Cameron of Osgoode Hall and Jim Turk, former executive director of CAUT, so that the leading experts on these issues in Canada could speak together in a panel entitled “Freedom of Expression and ‘Civility.’” You can watch the video of their presentations on 5 November 2015 here. You can also find some of what Cameron has to say in an article posted in York University’s digital commons.

In that article, Cameron argues that “it is imperative that expressive freedom be protected to its maximum in university settings,” and that any regulation of conduct or speech “be limited to instances of more transgressive conduct, such as harassment and bullying.” The question is not whether we should not all want to be civil, or whether it is fair to have an expectation that others will be so. “After all,” Cameron writes, “who does not prefer civility to barbarism?” The problem is taking this preference for civility and making it the basis for “establish[ing] and [aiming to] enforce standards for discourse,” for “regulations of this kind cannot be institutionalized without compromising academic and expressive freedom.” For a university to be the institutional actor in such a regard is for a university to work against its own academic mission, which amongst other things includes nurturing “the condition that inspires human potential,” freedom. Universities have an obligation to “promote a fearless spirit of inquiry,” she writes, “not tame it.” To this end, universities must ensure that all members of their communities “have at least as much protection [of their expressive freedom] on campus” as they do “elsewhere, and not less.” “Imposing norms of civility and respect” not only “puts a bounty on the kind of open discourse that defines the university mission,” it stands in the way of the “expressive freedom” necessary to the “distinctive social, public, and intellectual roles” that a university plays in a democracy. The enjoining of “respectful dialogue” in a university setting, regardless of how benign it may seem on the face of it, is of concern precisely because any such constraint on speech in a university setting is antithetical to our universities’ responsibilities to democracy. (For further on that topic, I encourage readers to listen to Thomas Docherty’s talk for AASUA’s Academic Freedom Week, “The Public University, Academic Freedom, and Democracy.” Docherty was suspended from the University of Warwick for months without explanation for, as it turned out, “making ‘ironic comments and sighing” at a departmental meeting in a way not appreciated by the head of his unit.)

The university is, moreover, the last place where any fences whatsoever should be going up around how we talk, given that the nature of academic governance is shared or collegial. In a talk at Ryerson University in the Fall of 2014, Jim Turk noted:

In the university, if we’re going to have collegial governance, if we’re going to have the institution guided in its policy by what academics think, then those academics have to be able to be free to say what they think about what’s going on, whether it’s terrible or not.

Whether any given colleague or administrator likes the critique, or the tone in which it is offered, or the emotion from which it is spoken, or the person who utters it, is irrelevant.

Dr. Gotell’s message claims to be concerned only with the “overly critical” or “aggressive,” and to ask only that members of this Faculty constrain their discourse within the limits of the “positive.” But to position oneself against the “overly critical” is in fact always to position oneself against the “critical” tout court, despite the feint of the adverb: who, after all, is going to adjudicate what constitutes critique that is operating within acceptable limits, and critique that is not? It does not matter how seemingly gentle the injunction to be “respectful,” for it is an injunction, all the same, inconsistent with the freedom of expression crucial to the university’s mission. Circumscription and proscription are circumscription and proscription, even if they are served up with a smile.

Now, it is true that Dr. Gotell’s Thursday message to the Faculty, publicly available on the Faculty’s website, is not a policy document, just as a sovereign’s proclamation is not, technically, a law. (In the academy, policies, like laws in common law systems, should be made by those for whom they obtain.) Dr. Gotell’s message is, however, a sign of a desire on the part of the current leadership of the Faculty of Arts to manage criticism—if only by corralling critique within the limits of the “positive.”

The attempt is inapposite given what “the sixth floor” has done since September to occasion the critique that its members are now attempting to control.

If, for example, the Sixth Floor:

  • issues a document that declares that the Faculty “supports revenue generation” from its members, and the Acting Dean then rejects any questions about or criticism of this claim from faculty members in the very forum, Arts Faculty Council, in which these members are supposed to be able to have their say, informing them instead that “this is not the room” for the expression of their concerns; or
  • issues another document that declares that faculty in Arts do not know how to defend the pedagogical value of their courses, and then the Acting Dean begins the Town Hall to discuss the ideas in this document by informing the audience that there may be no “speeches” or “debate,” just “brief comments” on the proposal to sweep away the “core” requirements for the degree; or
  • informs the associate chairs running graduate programs in the Faculty that the funding of those programs will now be tied to undergraduate enrolments, offering no rationale for this whatsoever, even though such a plan shows utter disregard for the success of some of these graduate programs (and is indeed even more senseless than the “program prioritization” of Robert Dickeson); then

its members should expect not just criticism at how the Faculty is being run, but downright outrage. Faculty members must necessarily reject exercises of top-down authority that defines itself as “consultative,” and seeks debate on its own, “positive” terms, so that they may, instead, work horizontally, pursuing academic decision-making as peers, who may choose to disagree violently with one another in their pursuit of the policies that are best for the Faculty, and to secure something that resembles a genuine consensus on the policies they make.

Other members of the Faculty will, of course, have their own examples of the issues that are driving their so-called “lashing out,” or their refusal to be the “shiny, happy people” who will consume without criticism whatever the Sixth Floor serves up. Can we hear them?

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3 Responses to Academic Freedom and “Respectful Dialogue” at UAlberta’s Faculty of Arts: Response to Message from the Dean

  1. Without delving to far into the particulars of academic freedom — I get this is your main point Kathleen — I have been more struck by the need for some staged, systematic process of gathering feedback and coming to consensus around the BA Renewal process. In my experience, the open forums allow people to express their views and concerns. That’s an important stage of any change process. But at some point there needs to be some organized way of resolving differences and reaching consensus if we’re ever to come to a BA Renewal that everyone can live with. Also, there needs to be lots of transparency about the rationales for decisions, the conditions under which they were reached.

    As for respectful dialogue… would it be more useful for us to think in terms of “constructive” dialogue? Respectul — you are correct — is sticky territory. Both “civlity” and “incivility” can be used to silence unpopular perspectives. At least “contructive” begs the question, “Hey are we at least getting anywhere here?”

  2. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Hi Laura — thanks for responding! I think your points get at a really important question about what kind of conversation we are having when we discuss the BA Renewal. If it were an “all parties are beginning from zero” conversation about, hey, what should this look like? Along the lines of “what should we have for dinner” or “what do you want to plant in the garden this year?”, then constructive suggestions and consensus are the right way to go, for sure. But this process has been one in which a lot of framing assumptions (along with a logo, even) were already made before the “conversation” with Arts faculty at large began, and objections to those assumptions have been treated pretty dismissively (as Carolyn documents so well in her piece, above).

    I don’t remember where I first came across this notion, but the fact that “we have to do something” (because, yes, declining enrolments are a problem) is not the same as “we have to do THIS thing”, though one often sees it deployed in situations where what is aimed at is compliance.

    Something that has been largely missing in the approach taken so far is any use of data *other* than “help help enrolments are down”. The solution proposed (throw out all requirements! Become more groovy!) is an ideological one: unbuild it, and they will come.

    Maybe that is true. The worry is… it just as easily could be dead wrong.

    Even adopting the market stylings of the conversation to date, how do we know that the freewheelin’ new Arts BA is going to be the next Air Jordans (give me two purr, I need two purr) (10 points for linking the source for this reference in comments 🙂 ). What if it turns out to be the next New Coke?

    Whether we view students as clients or, well, students, before we shake things up it would be nice to see a lot more analysis of what is and is not working before flinging it all out the window. We have lots of expertise in Arts for carrying out this kind of analysis. What are the features of introductory level courses that turn students into Arts students? We need to know what an Arts “conversion experience” looks like before we can set out to multiply it, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to test out some assumptions before scaling them up. That kind of investigation, conversation, and experimentation might sometimes be rather fractious but I suspect would actually create a basis for real consensus. I also think it would offer a much more solid promise of long-term success.

    • Hi again Kathleen,
      I get your point about the “back story” with these conversations. I recall Stephen Lukes’ three faces of power — how agenda setting delimits what can and cannot be considered.

      And with the BA Renewal, there is all sorts of wonderful, constructive, creative curriculum theory to be consulted and evaluated. I have some sympathy for the argument that the BA is, in its present form, too complex and could be more flexible, but I think a lot of this could be improved via Arts 100, and other communication strategies. I have also been really, pleasantly surprised to hear that students want some direction and structure, and some “sticks” to force them out of their comfort zones into other disciplines. This is, as we all know, the real gift of a liberal arts education!

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