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Interview / Penni Stewart

Interview / Penni Stewart

Nicole Brumley

Penni Stewart is president of the Harry Crowe Foundation and a Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression, Ryerson University. Also a past president of CAUT 2008–2011, Penni additionally served on CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, and is emerita professor of sociology at York University. Her current research interests include academic freedom, freedom of expression and respectful workplace policies. Penni spoke at CAUT’s February 2019 Harry Crowe Foundation conference on the topic of free expression in the classroom.

How do the rights of academic staff and the exercise of academic freedom fit into the notion of free speech in the classroom?

For academic staff, the freedom to teach is principally exercised through academic freedom, a key freedom enumerated in CAUT policy: “The right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; freedom to engage in service to the institution and the community; freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its admin­istration, and the system in which one works … and the freedom from institutional censorship…” The policy notes that such freedom “does not require neutrality on the part of the individual.” This is a critical aspect of academic freedom in the classroom and one that has become a red flag for critics on the political right who argue that academic freedom ought not to include the right to advocate for a position or a committed point of view.

How can academic freedom be protected?

Most Canadian post-secondary institutions are unionized, so academic freedom rights are embedded in collective agreements — a key protection making academic freedom enforceable as part of the terms and conditions of work. However, some members, notably some contract academic staff and some in the college sector, don’t have this protection. Even where contract academic staff are protected by language in their collective agreement, without the protection of tenure it remains much easier for employers to get rid of staff who exercise their freedoms.

Why is academic freedom necessary?

Freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential because the goal of our teaching is not simply to provide students with the conventional wisdom — resulting in our institutions becoming what Catherine Ross has called citadels of conformity, but rather to provide them with the tools to engage as critical and independent thinkers — to find the way to ask meaningful questions. For teachers this requires the freedom to explore controversies, to challenge students with new ideas, to risk offending students and to risk being wrong. Acade­mic freedom in the classroom is closely tied to our right to conduct research and disseminate the results. What does this mean in practical terms? That academic staff within the myriad of institutional constraints imposed by curriculum committees, grad programs, Senates, etc., determine the subject matter, course content, course structure, coursework, assignments and evaluate students.

What are the limitations?

Academic freedom is an expansive but not unlimited right. We must teach with an eye to what CAUT, in its Policy on Rights and Responsibilities, terms “relevant academic standards.” This means that even if we privately suspect that the world is flat we should not be teaching this in our Natural Science 100, because it flies in the face of accepted evidentiary standards. Of course, we might teach about flat earth beliefs in a course on the history of social movements. Once we have determined a syllabus, we do need to teach within it and within any course description.

What about student rights?

The student version of academic freedom is the “freedom to learn” and this means the freedom to engage with the course mate-rial and their teacher, to dissent, to disagree and to offer alternatives. It includes the right of association/assembly and the right to participate in academic governance. Students have the right to fair evaluation and accommodation where necessary. More controversially, some students and academic staff have argued that classrooms and campuses need to be safe spaces from which offense is excised. To ensure these, they have called for limits on speech. I think that creating welcoming classroom space doesn’t mean ideas cannot be subject to critical scrutiny, but it does mean that we have to provide the tools so that students learn how to challenge ideas and speak up — or we end up with silent classrooms where no one wants to speak out or, even worse, destructive arguments. We must recognize the need to be thoughtful about pedagogy but resist the idea of safety as trumping expression rights.

What are the challenges to academic freedom in the classroom in Canada?

In Ontario, our premier breached the autonomy of the post-secondary sector with an unnecessary demand to develop free speech policies and even more recently has launched an attack on student governments through de-funding. Is censorship in the classroom an issue in Canada? We don’t know the extent, or whether acade­mic staff and students feel constrained, or even unable to exercise their academic freedom. We know of cases that clearly violated academic freedom, which have been less about complaints from the political right and more about administrative overreach. It is representative of the growing commercialization of post-secondary education, where students are customers, education a product and the institution a brand, prompting academic administrators to act peremptorily in the face of student complaints, ignoring collective agreements, academic freedom and procedural fairness, and frequently creating much bigger messes.


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