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The Origins of Academic Freedom in Canada

Historically, the contemporary understanding of academic freedom in Canada emerged from two principal sources. The first was the early British traditions of academic free speech and faculty self-governance illustrated, for example, by the efforts of Isaac Newton and his Cambridge colleagues to resist interference in academic decision-making by King James II in 1687. The second major influence was the development of lehrfreiheit (freedom in teaching and research) and institutional autonomy in post-Napoleonic German universities, principles that were subsequently exported to North America beginning in the late 19th century.

Prior to the late 1800s, most universities and colleges in Canada and the United States had been under the heavy influence of church or state. In the expanding economy of the late 19th century, however, wealthy business leaders began making large financial donations to higher education institutions. The multi-million-dollar donations by railway magnate Leland Stanford to Stanford University and by Standard Oil Company founder John D. Rockefeller to the University of Chicago are two prominent examples. Some donors believed that the more money they gave, the greater the subservience to be expected, including demands that boards or presidents silence or fire professors who expressed views of which they disapproved. Economists who questioned existing business practices or unequal social conditions were particularly at risk, and a number were dismissed from private and public universities across the United States.  Examples were: President George M. Steele of Lawrence College, dismissed in 1892 for promoting free trade; Edward W. Bemis, dismissed from the University of Chicago in 1895 for “antimonopoly views”; and Edward A. Ross, “forced to resign” from Stanford University in 1900 for his views on labour policy, immigration and ownership of utilities.

In Canada, several Canadian academics with unorthodox political and social views were also targeted. University of Toronto professor Frank H. Underhill, whose academic career began in 1914, was one of the leading historians and public intellectuals in Canada. He was also a political activist and an outspoken critic of the prevailing economic and social order, such that his views frequently drew the ire of senior university administrators and politicians. In 1931, the University of Toronto President Robert Falconer sent Underhill a warning letter following his public criticisms of the Bennett government. In 1932, Underhill’s political activities were explicitly curtailed by Falconer’s successor, President Henry J. Cody, who ordered him to resign his membership on the executive committee of the Ontario wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

The Cold War period witnessed many professors unjustly fired and blacklisted for their political views. Typically, academics were targeted and dismissed not because of what they taught in their classrooms or published in scholarly journals, but because of their political or social activism. Mathematician Lee Lorch was terminated by the City College of New York in 1948 because of his advocacy of civil rights for Black Americans. Two years later, he was fired by Pennsylvania State University because he had allowed the family of a Black war veteran to stay in his New York City apartment. Penn State publicly denounced Lorch’s behaviour as, “extreme, illegal and immoral and damaging to the public relations of the college”.   Lorch was terminated a few years later by Fisk University in Tennessee following his subpoenaed appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he had been called after his attempt to enrol his daughter in an all-Black school to protest school segregation. Lorch and many of his colleagues eventually took up posts in Canada, bringing with them a robust commitment to academic freedom based upon their experiences with McCarthyism.

While the extent of Cold War repression was far more severe in the United States, several Canadian professors also fell victim to anti-communist witch-hunts. Mathematician Israel Halperin of Queen’s University was one of those rounded up and charged by the RCMP in the so-called Gouzenko Affair in 1946. Despite Halperin’s acquittal in court, some Queen’s Board members still demanded he be dismissed. Mathematical physicist Leopold Infeld resigned from the University of Toronto in 1950 to protest infringement of his academic freedom. The University had refused to grant Infeld a previously approved sabbatical leave, a decision that came shortly after he was the subject of a baseless allegation made in Parliament by then Opposition Leader George Drew who claimed Infeld had passed on information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

Despite these and other cases, there was no concerted effort to defend academic freedom in Canada until 1958 when the fledgling Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) agreed to establish a committee of inquiry into the case of Professor Harry Crowe. Professor Crowe was a tenured Associate Professor of History and an active member of the faculty association at United College (now the University of Winnipeg, and at the time affiliated with the United Church). In March 1958, while at Queen’s University as a Visiting Professor, Professor Crowe sent a private letter to a colleague at United College, Professor William Packer. The letter was mysteriously intercepted and forwarded to the College Principal, Rev. Dr. Wilfred C. Lockhart. Although the thrust of Crowe’s letter was a discussion of the upcoming federal election, it opened with two short paragraphs critical of current and former College administrators, including Principal Lockhart, suggesting they were hypocritical and not to be trusted, and adding that, “religion is a corrosive force” at the College.

Based on the contents of the letter, United’s Board of Regents dismissed Crowe in July 1958. Two weeks later, the faculty association at Queen’s formally requested that the CAUT investigate, “because of the possibility that issues of academic tenure may be involved.”  The CAUT appointed a committee of inquiry consisting of Professor Vernon Fowke (Economics, Saskatchewan) and Professor Bora Laskin (Law, Toronto). 

Before the committee of inquiry began its work in the autumn of 1958, the dismissal of Crowe had become a matter of intense public controversy in Winnipeg. In early September, Board representatives indicated to Crowe that the College would reinstate him for a year. Then, two weeks later, however, Crowe was handed a second dismissal letter and the Board issued the following public statement to the press:

The board’s opinion of the letter [by Crowe] is that the attitude toward religion revealed by it is incompatible with the traditions and objectives of United College, and that, in the manner in which he has named in the letter six faculty members, two of whom are deceased and of hallowed memory, Prof. Crowe overstepped the limits of decency.

The Fowke-Laskin committee completed its report in November 1958 and declared that “even the most elementary understanding of security of academic tenure excludes arbitrary dismissal without just cause and without proper opportunity to know and meet charges on which the dismissal purports to be founded,” and “there cannot be just cause in a ground of dismissal which violates academic freedom.”  Fowke and Laskin concluded that, Crowe’s dismissal was unfair and unreasonable, and contrary to the basic understanding of academic freedom:

The privilege of a teacher in a university or college to utter and publish opinions in the course of teaching and research and to exchange opinions with faculty colleagues without liability of official censure or discipline is the commonly understood substance of academic freedom…. Academic freedom would be vulnerable indeed if its limits depended on the interpretation placed by a college administration on the remarks of a member of the academic staff.

The Crowe case and the Fowke-Laskin report proved to be enormously influential, propelling discussions about academic freedom into the public spotlight. It also prompted CAUT to focus work on developing a formal understanding of academic freedom in which the lessons learned from the Underhill case, the McCarthyite repression, the Crowe investigation and others, could be put into practice.  Among the main thrusts of this activity was the development of policies on academic freedom, tenure, non-discrimination, and professional responsibilities.

Further Reading

  • Paul Axelrod, “Academic Freedom and its Constraints: A Complex History.” Canadian Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 51 No. 3, 2021: pp. 51-66.
  • V.C. Fowke and B. Laskin.  “Report of the Investigation by the Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers into the Dismissal of Professor H.S. Crowe by United College, Winnipeg, Manitoba”.  CAUT Bulletin, 7, 3, January 1959, pp. 2-90
  • Michiel Horn, Academic Freedom in Canada: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • Peter C. Kent, Inventing Academic Freedom: The 1968 Strax Affair at the University of New Brunswick. Halifax: Formac Publishing, 2012.