Earlier this week, Alberta Politics blogger David Climenhaga published a blogpost in which he noted that a University of Alberta event at the Augustana campus had been cancelled as a result of a communication that UAlberta president David Turpin had circulated to “unit” heads (Deans of Faculties, Chairs of Departments, and Directors of Centres). The cancellation of the event shows that at least one faculty member at the University has been misled by the President’s communication into believing that the University may not host political conversations of any kind during the period leading up to the election. This is wrong. Whether the President intended it or not, his communication has resulted in academic freedom infringements with widespread implications for all Albertans.
The communication pretends simply to pass on information related to Alberta’s new Elections Act which prohibits postsecondary institutions from taking any partisan position on political matters. The Elections Act also prohibits institutional funds from being used to donate to political campaigns.
The Elections Act protocols make sense. Universities should not take positions, as an institution, on any political campaign, and institutional funds should of course not be used to donate to political campaigns. That would be a clear abuse of public funds for special interests.
The problem with Turpin’s communication is that while reminding “unit” heads of these protocols it fails to speak positively about academic freedom protections and the rights of all members of the University community to free speech. The institution may not take political positions. The individuals, however, who comprise it are entirely free to do so. President Turpin’s communication should have expressly stated this. It should also have expressly stated that the communication was in no way intended to infringe upon the academic freedom rights and responsibilities of academic staff.
In failing to make these essential points, Turpin’s communication has sown widespread confusion across the University’s campuses, and created the climate in which it was possible for a faculty member, uncertain about its implications, to cancel an event for the Ronning Centre at the Augustana campus in which Alberta politics would be discussed.
No faculty member at the University of Alberta should feel the pressure, no matter how subtle, to curtail their academic activities as a result of President Turpin’s communication. And no academic discussion about Alberta politics should come to a halt at any University of Alberta campus because of the provisions of the Elections Act.
The bringing of such an event to a halt is an offense against the academic freedom of the faculty member who had planned the event. All faculty members at the University are free to engage with the election as they choose, both in the course of research and teaching activities and as citizens entitled, along with all others, to free speech.
When any faculty member feels the price to curtail these activities, both the University community and Albertans more generally pay a price — a very heavy price, that involves losses to democracy.
The mission of a university is to produce and disseminate knowledge. To do that, its academic staff depend upon the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom, which require them to share with the public the results of their research within established protocols. Academic staff also have, as part and parcel of their academic freedom protections, rights of extramural and intramural critique — rights to criticize the institution, as well as rights to speak up publicly, in any forum of their choosing, on any issue of importance to them.
The premise of these rights is that democracy depends upon robust debating of all ideas — and our universities are crucial institutions for the most rigorous forms of democratic debate.
President Turpin’s communication is a problem because it creates a very narrow sense of what kind of discourse academic staff at the University may engage in during the election period. It declares
While the university encourages individuals affiliated with the institution to be engaged in the political process and to vote in the upcoming election, the use of public university resources for political or campaign purposes is prohibited.
Nowhere does the communication positively assert academic freedom protections or free speech rights. The clause I’ve just quoted in fact implies that the University “encourages” only voting in the election and some other nebulous engagement in the political process. The communication does not characterize the University as a place of free speech on political matters. Nor does it does clearly state that this free speech extends to all members of the University community including non-academic staff and students. And nowhere does it state that the communication is not in any way intended to constrain the academic freedom protections of academic staff.
There are some very confusing discussions occurring right now amongst academic staff in which it is claimed that it is the Government, not the University, that is acting against academic freedom. Even if this is true (which I seriously doubt), it is the responsibility of the University to educate the Government.
It is also the responsibility of the University not to mislead the members of the community into believing that they cannot participate as fully as they wish in democratic conversations about the election, and influence its outcome. The institution may take no position. Every one of its members is entirely free to. It was a serious error of judgment for Turpin to permit a communication to be issued in his name which could possibly have allowed for any misconstruction of these crucial points. And if the University’s Government Relations Office is encouraging faculty members to cancel their events or otherwise curtail their activities, it is actively infringing upon academic freedom protections.
When the free speech of academic staff is suppressed, we all lose, for we lose the expert opinions and expert shaping of discussions in which academics are trained.
President Turpin should immediately issue a clarifying statement to the entire university community so that there is absolutely no confusion about the free speech rights of all members of the community, and the special rights and responsibilities of the academic freedom protections of academic staff. This election needs to be decided as a result of the proliferation of free speech, and not even the slightest hint of the suppression of it — certainly not at any of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions.