Education needs to fight for its freedom

By Trevor Bacque

In a world where misinformation, political corruption, war and other social problems exist, the academy is seen in many ways as a bastion of free speech and thought — where unbiased research exists for its own sake.

Thus we enter into the world of academic freedom and all its many facets.

Academic freedom is the life-blood of modern universities. It is the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and/or discrimination. This freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigourous due process, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

CAUT executive director James Turk says the organization is a defender of academic freedom.

“The only way we make advances as a society is advancing knowledge and by being able to question, criticize, evaluate, judge,” he says.

“Discussion is not to be shut down because it offends somebody in power.”

The former University of Toronto professor says this always creates problems and can alienate certain individuals or people groups.

His organization deals with issues on a case-by-case basis and most problems are resolved before they reach his doorstep.

“[Universities] have grievance arbitration procedures [and] clear, concise language set up as well to avoid these kinds of things.”

The research heavy University of Calgary impresses Turk with the steps it has taken to ensure academic freedom is maintained.

“[The] University of Calgary’s Faculty Association is one of the strongest in the country. They have [a] good collective agreement and in the event it’s violated they have grievance and arbitration procedures so they have a way of resolving disputes.”

CAUT currently has 65,000 members amongst the 121 colleges and universities it represents across Canada, and it continues to grow.

Beginning in 1951, the organization saw it’s first case of academic freedom being impinged in 1958 when Winnipeg’s United College professor Harry Crowe was dismissed for comments made in a private letter to a colleague.

CAUT consulted their southern counterparts, the American Association of University Professors, and efforts to preserve freedom and integrity continue to this day.

Anne Stalker, The University of Calgary Faculty Association president, says the heart of any university should be research and exploration.

“Research is about the thing itself, not the goal,” she said.

Stalker feels universities are dogged by many problems today, including a lack of government money for research.

The scant government funding ushers private companies into the fray. These businesses offer to bankroll research which has caused its fair share of moral dilemmas.

“Researchers have had to scramble money from wherever they can,” said John Baker, CAUT treasurer and U of C philosophy professor.

Baker pointed the finger at pharmaceuticals citing research funded by such companies which have skewed results in the past.

“It’s a subtle interference.”

While the interference may be hard to detect, it can a have massive impact, such was the case with University of Toronto professor Nancy Oliveri.

The highly publicized case of Oliveri who, after being funded by pharmaceutical company Apotex, discovered that her sponsor had a drug which may be harmful to people.

She wanted to make her findings public, but Oliveri’s deal with the drug company included a clause which stated the results would be released to Apotex for at least one year and the company threatened legal action.

Oliveri, who worked at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, was stripped of her responsibilities at the hospital. Oliveri turned to the U of T — which was in negotiations with Apotex for a multimillion dollar donation to the school — which did not intervene.

CAUT was concerned that such actions were in violation of academic freedom and stepped in, exonerating her name and leading to her eventual reinstatement.

To this day, according to Baker, every time Oliveri gives a speech an Apotex representative is present and within a day the company will have again threatened legal action against her.

This is known as academic stalking and such scandals have caused people to question who and what to believe anymore when private companies play such a leading role in research.

“That totally undercuts the idea of autonomy,” said Stalker, who adds the distrust in science is growing.

“You see it coming out with these flu vaccines, people start to question whether it’s valid because they recognize there are vested interests engaged.”

Stalker firmly believes there have to be people without personal agendas involved to ensure unbiased, free research.

University autonomy is something that organizations like TUCFA and CAUT strive to preserve at all costs, despite inevitable problems.

The U of C has had two high-profile inquiries of academic freedom in its history, according to CAUT’s website.

Dr. Aleksandra Vinogradov of the civil engineering department and George Abouna of the faculty of medicine both had rubs with academic freedom during their time at the U of C.

Abouna says he was unjustly treated in regards to his contract non-renewal in 1978.

Vinogradov’s case centred around her treatment as a candidate to teach in the civil engineering department and involved discrimination and misleading information.

Both instances sparked caut intervention, something Turk says the organization doesn’t hesitate to do if necessary.

“People shouldn’t have to be afraid,” he said.

“The history of the university is a place where all things can be examined.”

While adding to his keen sense of academic justice, Turk makes it clear research must be shown regardless of its outcome or repercussions, a reason why tenure exists.

Tenure appointments happen after a six-year probationary period and, if accepted, individuals find themselves with a serious form of job security where they can only be fired if there are severe circumstances.

“People have to demonstrate they are very deserving of [tenure] before they get it,” says Turk.

You cannot be a functioning researcher or professor unless you have academic freedom at the university level, according to Baker.

“This is why tenure is so important.”

His summation of academic freedom includes seeking truth, understanding objectivity and being as free of bias as possible.

“It’s very difficult to do that, but that’s the duty.”

Leave a comment