by James Compton
“Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil — the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Does this famous aphorism accurately describe our past academic year?
Yes, and no. The cynic in me notes many perennial problems facing faculty associations across Canada. Struggles to improve — and in some cases achieve — collegial governance within the academy continue. Academic freedom remains a “hurrah word” among university presidents (everyone is for it), but when challenged by other priorities — the lure of money, or perceived threats to their brand — support sometimes waivers. The exploitation of contract academic staff continues, as does the perverse popularity of austerity budgets. I could go on.
It’s true that we have hills to climb on many fronts; and it’s also true that some of these hills have very steep grades which will slow our progress. But progress is being made, step by step.
Academic freedom remains a defining core value for CAUT members, and despite current popular discourse, its defense remains robust. Most recently on Dec. 1, CAUT appeared as an intervenor at the Supreme Court of Canada. The case comprises two appeals involving Trinity Western University and the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario. Both law societies refused to accredit graduates from Trinity Western’s law program because of the university’s community covenant, which requires students to agree to abstain from, among other things, sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage. CAUT argued the covenant amounted to a faith test, and as such, is an unacceptable constraint on academic freedom. We await the top court’s decision.
The CAUT policy on academic freedom spells out four key aspects: freedom of teaching, freedom of research and publication, freedom to express one’s critical views about post-secondary institutions (intramural academic freedom), and freedom to exercise citizenship rights without sanction (extra-mural academic freedom). Historically, most academic freedom cases have involved conflict over extramural speech. This was the case in the controversy over comments made by Dr. Andrew Potter of McGill University about the character of Quebec society following a particularly severe snow storm.
However, administrative overreach involving attempts to limit intramural speech have also kept us busy. This past year saw the release of an ad hoc investigatory committee report into the relationship between the University of Calgary and oil and gas pipeline giant Enbridge. It concludes that the school’s president, Elizabeth Cannon, was in a conflict of interest due to a co-existing and “highly-remunerated” role as an Enbridge board member. The committee also noted a “deeply worrying culture of silencing and reprisal” at the university. The report’s recommendations include a review of the governance structure and processes at the university to make them more transparent and linked to the principles of academic freedom and collegial governance.
Our power and influence reside in the strength of our national voice. We work for public funding and policies to ensure our institutions are high quality, accessible and advance our professional interests. And this past year, our lobbying efforts bore fruit. Through our Get Science Right campaign we helped secure a range of important federal commitments. These include: a $95 million increase to the Tri-Councils base funding; the return of Statistics Canada’s University and College Academic Staff Survey, and a commitment to expand it to part-time staff; the commitment to withhold Canada Research Chair funding from institutions that do not diversify their appointments; the reappointment of a Chief Science Advisor; enhanced access to a post-secondary education system, particularly for Aboriginal students, and, the creation of an advisory panel on fundamental science. The advisory panel delivered its final report in April. Its key recommendation of a $1.3 billion increase in base funding for fundamental research was a significant moment. CAUT remains hard at work to make sure the report is not shelved.
I would like to note the exceptional organizational and bargaining efforts of the academic staff on strike for five weeks at Ontario colleges. Their clarity of purpose helped all of us working to improve the working conditions of contract academic staff from coast to coast. The forces and interests leading to the erosion of their working conditions are longstanding and deep-seated. It will require fundamental changes to levels of state support for higher education. The more things change, the more they stay the same.