Brief to the Comité d'experts sur la reconnaissance de la liberté académique

September 2021


Universities are places at which intellectually and morally autonomous people gather to investigate those aspects of the world that intrigue them. As an expression of their intellectual and moral autonomy, they will leave each other free to make up their own minds about things. That is, they will not attempt to change minds by applying social or psychological pressures or threatening penalties. That is why university people will encourage and protect wide freedom of expression on campus and academic freedom. Universities are valued in their societies mainly for two reasons. The first is the production of research that people can trust. The second is the graduating of knowledgeable young people who can think for themselves. People could not trust the research emanating from universities if they suspected that that research had to arrive at prescribed conclusions. Only from universities known to be places of academic freedom, then, can trustworthy research emanate. Young people graduating from universities would not be able to think for themselves if in order to get good grades they had to conform their beliefs and values to those of their professors or their institution. Only from universities marked by wide freedom of expression, then, will knowledgeable young people able to think for themselves emerge. In short, wide freedom of expression and academic freedom are valuable to the members of a university community because they express their values as academics and they are valuable to society generally for they enable people to trust both research and the next generation of the society’s professional and managerial class.

Dear Comité d’experts sur la reconnaissance de la liberté académique:

While it might be true in a technical sense that academic freedom is held by professors alone, for only professors (and librarians) have their academic freedom protected by enforceable collective agreements, the basic principles of academic freedom should apply to postdoctoral fellows, visiting scholars, students and other members of an academic community. That is, all members of a university community should be free from the threat of institutional sanction or censorship to conduct the research they would like, to disseminate that research how they would like, to maintain collections of books or artifacts, to speak their opinions and express their emotions and commitments, to create and display works of the imagination, to engage in political demonstrations and activities, to organize events and invite guests to campus to speak, to apply to serve their institution and to have their applications to serve be judged fairly, and to criticize their fellows, colleagues or institution.

Members of a university community prize academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus because of the relation these freedoms bear to their identity as intellectually and morally autonomous agents who have gathered together to investigate aspects of the world. It is an academic’s pleasure to generate, discuss and criticize ideas and to follow the arguments wherever they go. For a professor, student or other academic, it is an offence of the first order to be told not to speak or to defend a particular view or not to broach a particular topic. It is an offence of the first order to discover that others are sparing you their candid views out of their concern for your emotions, safety or heritage.

Academics want to be left free to exercise their intellectual and moral autonomy and will leave their colleagues and students free out of respect for their intellectual and moral autonomy. It is part of who an academic is to refuse to try to change people’s minds or values through applying any pressures save those of evidence and argument.

Academic freedom is valued for its own sake, then, by members of a university community. But why should it also be valued by those outside the university, by those in the wider community, including, of course, Quebeckers who support universities with their tax dollars? There are, in the main, two reasons. First, only if the research emanating from a university was produced by scholars, intellectuals or scientists who were free to investigate as they wished and free to arrive at and speak the conclusions they will, can that research be trusted by governments, industry or members of the general public. Should the public believe that the researchers were constrained to come to the results they did through fear of sanction or hope of personal benefit, the public will rightly hold the research to be tainted, to be untrustworthy. If, for instance, researchers are expected to say the correct things about the residential schools, or about ocean acidification, or about the integrity of Quebec society, they might as well be on payroll of a business trying to sell us something, as far as their credibility goes.

The second reason Quebeckers should be concerned that the universities in their province be places of academic freedom is that only when students are free to speak their minds without fear of sanction can they develop into independent thinkers who value candid discussion and who demand reasons and evidence. That is, if universities are to produce young adults able to think for themselves, they must not seek to shape minds through the pressures of fear or favour.

A university community can sustain its mission through critical discussion alone, without policing inquiry or discussion and without requiring fealty to any particular values apart from those of inquiry and learning. All members of a university community should take it upon themselves to uphold academic freedom, freedom of expression and collegial relations. Academic officers such as deans, provosts and university presidents have explicit obligations to maintain an ethos of free and critical inquiry and discussion. Whenever an academic senate makes a decision, its members should consider how the new policy would affect academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus. Academic senates should dismiss any initiative that would restrict or threaten academic freedom.

Unfortunately, academic freedom is today under threat in Quebec. The threats come from a variety of sources.

  1. Safe-and-respectful campus policies and other rules and regulations that enjoin civility. These policies are easy to abuse, no matter how carefully crafted. The notion of respect found in them is often interpreted to mean solicitude for feelings or heritage. The fear of being the target of a complaint under these policies can stifle open and candid expression and discussion on campus.
  2. Overly broad anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies. University officials and, particularly, senior non-academic staff often associated with human resources departments and conflict resolution, tend to believe that simply by being outspoken, professors and students can harass others or create a hostile university environment. Knowing that someone holds a view of which one disapproves, or hearing that view spoken, cannot constitute harassment and should not be confused with harassment.
  3. The growing tendency for students, staff and professors at universities to launch complaints to initiate disciplinary proceedings. Disciplinary procedures against students and professors are confidential and, so, it is difficult to know how often they are initiated, for what reasons, and with what outcomes, but it appears that they are being used, with the support of academic administrators, to suppress unfavoured views and ideas. Academic administrators who receive such complaints will often pass them on just so as not to be criticized for insensitivity. But all those empowered to receive complaints should be concerned to turn away any that construe the expression of a view as a matter for discipline or confuse being offended with being wronged.
  4. The decline of collegiality in the managed university. As the ranks of staff and administrators grows, collegiality—the willingness of members of the campus community to deal with each other themselves—declines. A managed university is one that places intermediaries between colleagues, between fellows or between professor and students, and this prevents members of the campus community from working out their differences themselves. It replaces relations between people with institutional relations. It forces a retreat from openness and candour.
  5. The growth of administrative and non-academic staff. The percentage of people at universities in managerial or staff positions is growing. Many of them are employed to oversee and meddle in campus life and to enforce Diversity, Inclusion and Equity policies, attitudes and initiatives. Not only does supporting this bureaucracy waste money, but it puts academic endeavours and the academic ethos of universities at risk.
  6. Statements of support for various social causes. Universities should not be stating support for Black Lives Matter or issuing statements about unmarked graves. By doing so, they tend to suppress discussion. Professors and students can be intimidated by the thought of going against their university’s own official policy. Also, because statements of support are declarations, they are contrary to university practices of evidence-based discussion and debate. Universities should not issue statements but provide students and professors with resources to investigate and discuss matters themselves.
  7. The culture of celebration. A campus culture should be a culture of academic disputation, in which different ideas, criticisms and responses to criticism compete. But campus culture is rapidly becoming one of celebration, the celebration of diversity, of identities, of struggles. Academic effort goes toward finding items in cultures to celebrate and to communicate to others as worthy. True academic engagement, though, takes cultures and identities and holds them at arm’s length to understand and critically evaluate them. Students and professors socialized into a culture of celebration cannot but think of the critical evaluation of that which is dear to them as anything but an attack on their identities and themselves. At a university, all cultures and all identities are fair game for investigation and frank appraisal.
  8. Requiring job applicants to affirm a commitment to Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. This is a political test for office that has no place in a community of scholars and intellectuals. Candidates for professorships should be evaluated on academic grounds alone and not on their adherence to an ideology. Candidates who have their doubts about the ends and means of official DIE policies are forced either to remain silent, as no academic should be, or to lie. As well, testing candidates for their commitment will likely have the result of making the university even more ideologically homogenous and timorous about voicing doubts.
  9. Removing extramural utterance from academic freedom protections. Traditionally, Collective Agreement protections of academic freedom have included what professors say publicly outside their official areas of expertise. Recently, though, Universities Canada and other organizations and individuals have been lobbying for removing this protection. Without it, professors will be guarded rather than candid in their speech and will hesitate to write opinion pieces or give their views on the matters of the day.
  10. Reluctant journals and other venues. Academic journals, academic conferences and academic meetings do not wish to be subject to mob pressures and, so, have begun to turn down controversial papers and unpopular speakers or authors, regardless of their academic quality. The lack of nerve and integrity of editors and publishers is disconcerting and troubling. If academics who hold views unpopular with the mob cannot find academic venues to engage the issues in their fields, knowledge will suffer and universities will be unable to fulfil their function.
  11. Instituting policies of correct speech. Students and professors should be left free to determine for themselves the language in which they will couch their discussions and the ways in which they will refer to each other. It is not for the university to prescribe forms of description and address. University administrators and staff should take no interest in whether campus language is sensitive or appropriate.
  12. The retreat of unions and faculty associations. Executive members of faculty unions and faculty associations are not always stalwart defenders of academic freedom or the academic mission of their universities. This is a terrible shame, for no matter how good the language in a collective agreement is, if the people charged to enforce the agreement won’t enforce it, academic freedom will suffer.
  13. Taking courses and programs and hirings from departments and placing them under the control of deans. Academic departments at universities create courses and programs for students and they staff courses on the basis of what they hold students to need for their education. Universities that favour social justice ends over educational or academic ends can find their ideals thwarted by the values of the academic departments. Because academic departments can hinder a university’s social justice ends, universities have begun to place more power in the hands of deans and provosts, thereby bypassing the departments. University senates and faculty associations seldomly object to these shifts in power and prerogatives from departments to higher administrative levels, sometimes because they (the senates and associations) themselves favour social justice objectives over academic ones.
  14. Directed research funding. Ideally, research funds would be distributed through a fair process to applicants, “fair” involving evaluations only on academic criteria. Of course, the distribution of resources has never proceeded entirely according to academic value. Always there have been funders looking to particular fields and looking for particular results. One traditional function of the institution of the university has been to counterbalance the tendency to favour hot topics and useful (to the funders) projects so that neglected areas and controversial research could also be pursued. Universities are abandoning this tradition, though, and instead actively channeling researchers into areas attractive to funders and encouraging researchers to understand the problem at hand as the funders do.
  15. Research ethics review. Researchers studying people must get their projects approved by ethics review committees. Ethics review was instituted to ensure that subjects in experiments were not abused and that people’s legal and moral rights were not violated. Decades ago, that began to change so that now research that would be perfectly legal and ethical if undertaken outside a university (by a journalist, for instance) would be turned down at a university. Contemporary ethics review is flawed in many ways, but one recent addition threatens even the research project itself. This is the requirement that the study be helpful to the people themselves, which might amount to not casting them in a bad light. Not only is this frustrating for researchers but it produces one-sided if not inaccurate research.
  16. Security fees. Universities have begun to require that university groups wanting to use campus facilities for events pay security costs that the university determines. If an event is likely to be protested, the cost to the organizers increases. (Occasionally universities will inflate costs hoping to deter the group from hosting the event.) Imposing high security fees awards disruptive protestors with a heckler’s veto over events. It also tends to restrict discussion to non-controversial topics or to the side that doesn’t draw protests. Universities should budget for security just as they do for electricity, water and maintenance, as part of the general cost of being a university, and not shift expenses onto groups.
  17. Vetting committees. In order supposedly to ensure that campus events meet high academic standards, some universities are striking committees to vet proposals for events, such as bringing guest speakers onto campus. This practice restricts the viewpoints that will get heard. In any case, part of learning at a university is to come to high academic standards by oneself rather than by being forced to accept the views of others. Members of groups that sponsor what turn out to be academically impoverished events should have the opportunity to learn from their experience.


The central responsibility for being a good university, a university that conceives itself as a place at which professors and students can come together as intellectually and morally autonomous agents to investigate the things of the world, has to be left to the university. Professors should take the lead in reforming their institutions, particularly in criticizing and dismantling Diversity, Inclusion and Equity bureaucracies and on insisting on high academic standards and freedom of expression on campus. Students should play their part, as well.

Government and other outside agencies can do much to encourage universities to live up to their calling – but they must be careful not to interfere with the academic business of the university. Governments lack the requisite knowledge to do a good job by imposing on universities and, anyway, impositions will be resisted and resented by university people just because their source is the government.

It is important that people, including the general public, exercise their voice to call universities back to their proper mission when they stray. Newspapers and the news media should report on what happens at universities more frequently and with more insight.

One area in which government has both the mandate and wisdom to speak is with regard to hiring practices. Quebec should not force or encourage universities to use race, sex, ethnicity or heritage in hiring. Universities should not be restricting jobs to members of certain groups or listing as a qualification membership in a certain group but instead hiring and promoting only according to merit.

Because unions do not always vigorously defend professors whose outspokenness has drawn a complaint, professors have an interest in being able to involve outside legal counsel and to sue their unions for failure of fair representation when the union does not live up to its responsibility to enforce the collective agreement. Enabling professors to defend themselves would, though, require changes to labour laws.

Politicians and others should not hesitate to question universities when universities issue statements on social matters or otherwise act in ways contrary to preserving and extending freedom of speech on campus. It is not an infringement on the autonomy of universities for outside parties to ask universities to explain themselves publicly when they appear to be violating academic standards or putting academic values at risk.