Brock’s Administration Falls Short on Protecting and Upholding Academic Freedom
The Executive Committee of BUFA was dispirited to read Brock University’s formal statement released Friday, and the pro-forma support it offered for the principle of academic freedom therein. We join The Canadian Association of University Teachers in expressing this concern.
The statement issued by Brock University was in response to excerpts of an article written by one of Brock’s researchers, wherein the researcher questioned the implications that certain employment equity hiring practices have for finding the most meritorious candidate. Moreover, the researcher suggested that graduate students ought to submit to their mentors’ instruction more thoroughly than is commonly the case, controversially using the language of master and apprentice to make their point.
In its statement, the University concluded that the researcher’s views did not invite ‘civil dialogue’. Additionally, the University stated that the article has done us all a disservice, and contrasted the piece with the “responsible” use of academic freedom. The implication is that the articulation of disagreement on matters of important societal interest and public policy, is anathema to the “responsible” use of academic freedom if it is not consistent with the ‘values’ of Brock University’s Administration.
Brock University decided to double-down on this statement by releasing an open letter to the Brock community the following Monday indicating that each graduate student in that researcher’s department had been contacted and invited to take advantage of the University’s “supports”. The open-letter ominously warned of “further steps” that are being considered by the Administration. Academic staff at Brock should be deeply concerned that the University’s Administration would harness its institutional position to publicly excoriate and intimidate one of its own researchers for the expression of views with which it does not agree.
The Executive Committee of BUFA embraces the principle of employment equity. It is enshrined in our Collective Agreement and our members serve on the joint-committee that enforces this contract provision. It is the Executive Committee’s view that our employment equity principles and practices have in no way resulted in fewer meritorious candidates, and indeed, to the extent that they have resulted in greater diversity, enrich the university. We believe in respectful and healthy mentorship of graduate students and recognize that our members have a responsibility to provide this, consistent with their own academic freedom in teaching, and disciplinary norms.
The Executive Committee of BUFA also embraces the principle of academic freedom without which our University cannot function as a bastion of knowledge. It, too, is enshrined in our Collective Agreement, as it is in the vast majority of faculty association collective agreements in Canada. Academic freedom must be safeguarded, otherwise the University cannot fulfill its central mission to expand knowledge for the general good.
The Executive Committee of BUFA recognizes that there are some views so hateful and specious that they cannot be reconciled with academic freedom such that they would fall outside the parameters of legitimate research and expression. They give us who are committed to academic freedom pause, and they challenge us – intellectually, morally, emotionally. It is understandable that the views expressed in the article might cause anger, frustration, and hurt. To embrace academic freedom is to search for the widest possible parameters of legitimate debate. It is useful to note that employment equity practices remain a matter of controversy among policy-makers, academics, and a very large percentage of Canadians. To suggest, as Brock University does, that mere disagreement with employment equity policies is an “irresponsible” use of academic freedom, and is anathema to civil dialogue, is to narrow the parameters of legitimate debate so as to leave virtually no room for contestation over sensitive but important topics. Moreover, to lend the researcher’s comments on the supervisory relationship the harshest possible interpretation and then to use that as the basis to publicly undermine their position among graduate students, is chilling.
John Stuart Mill, whose pivotal work “On Liberty” offers the classical understanding of the importance of “dissent” from popular views, held that unless popular views were consistently challenged those holding them would lose the understanding as to why they were true, and hold them only as “dead matter.” In his view, it was dissent, and the corresponding ability to respond to dissent, that made genuine commitment to the true view possible. In this regard, dissent is not only a service, it is an imperative.
While BUFA’s Executive Committee affirms its commitment to employment equity principles and practices, we cannot condone Brock University’s characterization of disagreement with these principles and practices as “uncivil”, “irresponsible”, or as a “disservice”, and that having done so, Brock University has demonstrated that while it recognizes the fact of academic freedom, it does not value it in any meaningful sense.