Report on the SAFS Annual Meeting, May 19, 2001

September 2001

The annual general meeting, held at the University of Western Ontario, was attended by 31 people, including a representative from the National Association of Scholars. Twenty-three members stayed for the business meeting. We thank Daniella Chirila, our SAFS secretary, for coordinating the conference, including arranging morning coffee and lunch, and booking the meeting rooms.

A) In my opening remarks, I noted that SAFS had a very good year. First, we received a grant from the Donner Canadian Foundation for a legal defence fund. Subsequently, we engaged Lerner and Associates, a London, Ontario law firm, to investigate the legal issues in pursuing cases involving preferential hiring. We hope that we will be able to bring a test case forward in the near future. We are grateful to the Donner Canadian Foundation for their support.

Second, we took action in six cases by writing to university presidents and other senior administrators, when we believed that an individual’s academic freedom or the merit principle was violated. Copies of our letters, and responses to them, are posted on our website, and several of these have also been published in our Newsletters. It’s always hard to gauge the effect of our involvement, but we do make our concerns known to university administrators and publicize the (possible) offenses on our website, Newsletter, and sometimes in the media.

Third, shortly before the annual meeting, the Ontario Human Rights Commission turned down my final appeal of their earlier decision not to hear my complaint against Wilfrid Laurier University for sex discrimination against men in faculty hiring. Recall that WLU’s psychology department had advertised in July 1999 for a woman-only position. The Commission decided that I did not have legal standing to make the complaint. Their ruling explicitly did not comment on the substance of my complaint that WLU had acted illegally. Though the WLU incident did not achieve the desired legal end, the publicity surrounding the case led to extensive media coverage throughout Canada, and WLU’s psychology department voted to end woman-only advertising.

Fourth, we have completely revamped the SAFS website. Members are encouraged to examine the site for the latest information on our activities. We welcome your comments. We are considering developing the capability to allow new or renewing members to pay their dues by credit card on the website.

B) The winner of this year’s Furedy Award for Academic Freedom was Julie Bosman, editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald, the student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Because Julie was graduating from university on the same day as our AGM, Doreen Kimura accepted the award for her. Christine Furedy made the presentation of the award. (See her remarks while presenting the award on page 6).

C) The formal morning session was a lively panel discussion entitled "SAFS’ role in defending academic freedom" consisting of brief presentations by John Furedy, Clive Seligman, Murray Miles, and Chris Furedy, followed by comments and questions from the audience. The purpose of the panel session was to highlight the factors that board members consider (or ought to consider) in deciding whether SAFS should intervene in particular cases. Given that SAFS’ resources of people, time, and money are limited, how can we best defend our principles, recognizing that we can’t get involved with every potentially appropriate case?

In his presentation, John Furedy tried to categorize the types of reasons that board members offered when debating whether SAFS should intervene in a case. He suggested three classes of criteria were frequently mentioned, varying in persuasiveness and legitimacy: 1) Absolute criteria, e.g., violation of one of SAFS’ principles, and institutional wrongdoing; 2) Continua of considerations, e.g., clarity and understandability of the issue to laypeople, whether the case is Canadian, generality of implications, gravity of harm, and what other academic bodies are doing; 3) Irrelevant factors, e.g., validity of opinions being advanced, academic eminence of the individual seeking help, and whether the individual is active in his/her own defence.

Clive Seligman approached the problem from the opposite direction. Instead of setting out criteria for involvement ahead of time, he tried to infer, from the characteristics of the recent cases SAFS has taken on, what criteria seemed to be relevant. Two dimensions seemed plausible to describe the cases. The first dimension dealt with leadership. For some cases, SAFS was the first (or only) group to defend the individual, but at other times SAFS added its voice to the ongoing efforts of others. The second dimension dealt with justice. In some cases, it seemed that SAFS’ actions could lead to a restoration of justice. However, in other cases, it seemed unlikely that SAFS could affect the individual’s outcome, but that our efforts to publicize the case could have an educative function that might deter future abuses. Murray Miles then focused on two cases that the board discussed at length, one that was taken up and one that was not. The first case reviewed concerned Simon Fraser University, which ultimately turned down a recommendation from its Humanities Faculty to award a distinguished chair to David Noble. There were charges that the appointment was denied because of Dr. Noble’s political views. The university denied the charge and claimed there were serious problems with the hiring process. The second case reviewed concerned Denise Reaume, a law professor at the University of Toronto, who was publicly named as a subject of an investigation by the Law School. The incident involved the presentation of inflated grades by some first year law students to law firms for potential summer employment. It was alleged that Professor Reaume might have played a role in the students’ actions. Ultimately, the university exonerated, compensated, and apol-ogized to her.

In both cases, opinion on the board was split as to whether we had enough information to make an informed decision on the main charges. In Reaume’s case, we decided to wait for the outcome of the U of T investigation. However, we sent a letter to SFU expressing concern that agents of the university were inquiring of Noble’s referees whether he could be counted on to represent the university's views. Clearly this was wrong, regardless of the main allegations.

Chris Furedy commented briefly on the panel discussion so far, and pointed out that SAFS does not involve itself in curriculum issues as does the National Association of Scholars, for example. We have tended to concern ourselves with abuses of scholarship that involve preferential hiring or questionable learning disability programs, but have not focused on the scholarly merit of particular courses or programs. Though several members of the audience felt we should address these latter issues, the position of the board has been that questions of academic content should be decided by experts in the relevant discipline and that SAFS’ focus should remain on process. However, individuals with relevant expertise who wanted to pursue projects relating to academic standards were encouraged to do so.

D) Nancy Innis introduced our featured speaker, Margaret Wente, columnist for the Globe and Mail. Wente gave an interesting talk on the media’s role in fueling moral panics. She demonstrated her points by providing blow by blow descriptions of two specific incidents: The accusations of child abuse at the Shelbourne Boys School in Nova Scotia, and the Chun case at the University of Toronto. She was able to show how the media’s interest in a ‘good’ story took precedent over critical examination of the truth of allegations. Though much of what she had to say was not a credit to journalism, in general, she did show that the media were also a force for good. For example, it was ultimately a journalist in Nova Scotia who demonstrated that the Shelbourne child abuse allegations were fiction, and it was Wente herself who first wrote the Chun story from the perspective of members of the physics department.

E) The Annual Business Meeting was held at the end of the day. The minutes are circulated to the members with this issue.