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President’s message / Some thoughts on academic chains

President’s message / Some thoughts on academic chains

James Compton

By James Compton

— Academics are trained to be free, and everywhere they are in chains. Or so thinks Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It’s unknown whether Ford has read the famous first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, but it’s clear he’s decided that professors across Ontario are shackled when it comes to freely expressing their ideas.

As a result, the Government of Ontario has mandated that all Ontario colleges and universities put a free speech policy into place by January 2019. Failure to comply and submit an adequate annual free speech report to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario will put colleges and universities at risk of penalty. Be free or suffer state sanction. If you’re sensing a contradiction here, you’re not alone.

Universities must maintain their institutional autonomy if they are to be sites for the free and open exchange of ideas. And it’s not enough to say, as some supporters of the new policy have suggested, that “the province is respecting the autonomy of each university by requiring (and therefore permitting) it to elaborate its own system of protecting free expression.” Institutional autonomy is not supported by using such legislative hammers.

The impetus for the top-down government diktat comes from the assumption that free speech is under attack on campuses across the country from illiberal leftists. This claim is routinely asserted as common sense in many newspaper and magazine articles. And while it’s certainly true that there have been some high-profile incidents cited as evidence by Merrilee Fullerton, the Ontario Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities, and her supporters, I suggest these claims are blind to the larger threat to academic freedom on Canadian campuses: government de-funding, the increased reliance on corporate partnerships and the growing use of precariously employed academic staff.

The well-documented decline in government support for higher education has forced colleges and universities to search for new revenue streams while simultaneously cutting costs. On the revenue side, we have seen the proliferation of research partnerships between universities and corporations. As previously reported in this space, the 2013 CAUT report Open for Business documented how “… universities have agreed to various violations of their own academic integrity” by allowing “private donors and corporate partners to co-opt roles formerly, and properly, played by academic staff.” The Guardian newspaper has gone so far as to argue the “corporate capture of academic research by the fossil fuel industry is … a threat to tackling climate change.”

On the cost-cutting side, colleges and universities have grown dependent on low-paid contract academic staff. A recent report published by CAUT estimates that between 2005 and 2015 university professors working part-time, or for part of the year, increased by 79 per cent. The survey found that contract academics suffer from several “dimensions of insecurity,” including employment and income insecurity. Only 17 per cent of respondents answered positively to the statement “that they feel secure enough in their employment to make major financial commitments, such as purchasing a home.” An overwhelming majority of those people (70 per cent) said they were employed on a course-by-course basis in 2016–2017. The survey also discovered that “35 per cent of contract academics had less than six weeks’ notice before the start of the course that they had been hired to teach.” Years of loyal service to an institution does not guarantee one’s position. Results showed that more than “half of the post-secondary educators who participated in this survey must apply individually, each term, for every course they wish to teach.”

People working under these conditions do not enjoy academic freedom. Instructors whose livelihoods lack the security of permanent, steady employment are much less likely to introduce the controversial and challenging ideas the minister says she wants to see in the classroom. Here’s an idea: ensure that corporate partnerships contain clear language protecting academic decision making and, secondly, fund post-secondary education so that more academic staff don’t have to worry about whether they have a job each term.

Yes, some academics are in chains, but not the ones Ford has described. Perhaps the Premier should forget about pandering to his political base and focus on the real threats to our universities.


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