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Commentary / Academic freedom: The pillar of an inclusive and collegial university

Commentary / Academic freedom: The pillar of an inclusive and collegial university

By Dyala Hamzah

There is much more at stake with academic freedom than recent media coverage would suggest, with its reductive focus on whether it should be fiercely defended or restricted. The UNESCO recommendation on this subject reminds us that academic freedom lies at the very heart of the mandate for higher education institutions. As such, we are not debating the defence of a privilege, but the protection of working conditions as covered by the collective agreement signed by the Syndicat général des professeurs et professeures de l’Université de Montréal (SGPUM) and the Université de Montréal (UdeM).  

That being said, the process of defending academic freedom is no less informed by social issues related to, among others, the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion and the space accorded to Indigenous Peoples. With the support of its committees, the SGPUM is actively monitoring and reflecting on the ways in which these elements enter into dialogue. 

In Quebec, this consideration is noticeably absent. Not only is it missing from the recommendations included in the Cloutier Commission’s report, but it is also nowhere to be found in the Act Respecting Academic Freedom, adopted by the province in 2022. The SGPUM submitted a brief to the Cloutier Commission and then adopted a resolution in opposition to the Quebec government’s Bill 32, yet the union was neither invited to the hearings on the former nor the consultations on the latter. 

At UdeM, this dialogue has rarely gone beyond lip service, with no effect on operations, even two years after the release of the report from the Rector’s Task Force on Freedom of Expression in a University Context (2021). A “space for mediation” to resolve a “problematic situation” was indeed included in the university’s new Policy on Academic Freedom, which it was obligated to adopt under the Act. But beyond its recent and commendable antiracism campaign, intended to impart a “cultural shift” within the institution, UdeM has consistently snubbed the SGPUM’s invitations to reflect collectively on the issue, the initial efforts that must be deployed to bring about a truly inclusive university and the format that this “space for mediation” should take. 

Moreover, neither this Act, nor UdeM’s policy adequately “recognizes, promotes and protects” academic freedom. Its primacy is not affirmed over the duty of loyalty, nor ahead of any of the university’s policies or bylaws; the institution’s obligation to take up the cause of its employees goes equally unmentioned in any of these documents. The mandate of its grievance committee is unclear – its subordination to the university’s administration places it in a conflict of interest should the latter be called into question – and its composition, intended to be representative of the academic community, reduces academic staff to members like any others. 

As such, academic staff are fighting to add a parity clause to their collective agreement to protect academic freedom. Even if these efforts are successful, this protection will not resolve the structural conditions affecting how academic freedom is exercised. In the context of budget cuts and an increasingly managerial approach to university administration, it is disconcerting to watch as universities conflate philanthropy with autonomy. In an article in Le Devoir last year, UdeM congratulated itself on its autonomy while downplaying the threat of special interest groups as brought up by the SGPUM in its brief to the Rector’s task force. 

Of course, universities are not businesses! Rather than taking an entrepreneurial management model, UdeM should take the time to seriously consider our working conditions. Systematically overworked teaching faculty have less and less time to devote to maintaining their expertise, whereas the increasingly prolific paperwork required to access research funding and the weight accorded to quantity over quality of published research constitute a barrier to the effectiveness of academic freedom, as supported by the San Francisco Declaration

Yet, more than anything else, it is the lack of collegiality that presents a barrier to co-constructing university policies on academic freedom. The SGPUM’s experience corroborates this finding: the Rector’s task force was not the result of a joint consultation. This shortcoming, worsened during the pandemic, can be seen at multiple levels throughout UdeM – we could highlight the lack of transparency in the nomination process for rectors since the university’s charter was modified in 2018, the administration’s refusal to include the SGPUM in its Commission des études [Academic Council], or the cold shoulder given to the idea of creating a joint committee on EDI issues. 

UdeM, despite its proclamations that everything may be taught, read or said within the limits of freedom of expression, struggles to effect transformational changes to its institutional culture even as it recognizes how that culture was shaped by systemic racism. In its brief, the SGPUM proposed conducting a detailed inventory of the (de)colonization of knowledge that would go along with the implementation of genuine acknowledgment, transversal processes, and shared spaces for “free utterance.” 

Dyala Hamzah is an Associate Professor at Université de Montréal’s history department and an executive of the Syndicat général des professeures et professeurs de l’Université de Montréal (SGPUM) for its 2022-2023 mandate.


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