Submission to the Committee of Experts on the Recognition of Academic Freedom

September 2021


In the first section a brief attempt is made to define academic freedom in the context of the fundamental freedoms recognized by liberal constitutions. In the second section it is affirmed and illustrated that academic freedom is under threat. In the third section recommendations are endorsed and elaborated.

Dear Members of the Committee:

Sincere thanks for undertaking this vitally important work. Since you have many submissions to read, I will be brief in this attempt to elaborate my own views.

What is academic freedom?

Academic freedom is a particular form or application of a more fundamental freedom that belongs to all human beings by natural law and natural right. Put simply, creatures able to think for themselves and to govern their own actions through rational deliberation, enjoy both a freedom and a responsibility that other creatures do not. They should as far as possible be encouraged and aided in doing so, not hindered in doing so, notwithstanding the rights of societies and states to constrain their freedom of action at various points for the sake of the common good.

This fundamental freedom must be jealously guarded in the academic milieu, precisely because that milieu exists for the sake of further developing the capacity for rational deliberation and for diligently supporting reason in its work of understanding the world in which we live. When society is uncertain of its individual and collective vocation to freedom, or of its moral obligation to respect this vocation, academic freedom is also in jeopardy. Conversely, when academic freedom flourishes, it is much more likely that freedom will continue to flourish in society at large.

In Canada, section 2 of the Constitution Act (1982) identifies the following interdependent aspects of the fundamental freedom to which I refer:

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

The Constitution Act does not grant these freedoms, but recognizes them as indispensable forms of human freedom; which is also to say, of human autonomy rightly understood. Every state institution and constitution ought indeed to recognize them, just because they are natural and fundamental, bequeathed (per the preamble to the Charter) by the Creator, not by the state itself.

Where the state, as presently here in Québec, considers the operation of these freedoms in the academies that enjoy state patronage, it is considering how to enhance and protect them against those who would deny or falsely restrict them. Academic freedom means no more and no less than the operation of these freedoms within the academy or in partnership with the academy.

Is academic freedom in jeopardy?

That there are many efforts today to deny or falsely restrict basic freedoms, both inside and outside the academy, is evident enough; that is why your commission has been struck. These efforts are operative across disciplinary boundaries and some have even become systemic and bureaucratic in nature. Far too often, some official narrative or meme is what is jealously guarded, deviation from which is punished by denial of funding, tenure and promotion, or even by summary dismissal. Forces commercial, governmental, administrative, or union-based operate, sometimes in concert, to suppress freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, assembly, or even association.

To offer an example from another jurisdiction, a surgeon and clinical professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr Francis Christian, was recently terminated by that university (and in a related capacity by the Saskatchewan Health Authority) because he dared to question publicly the medical wisdom and ethics of using the new mRNA vaccines on young people. If universities do not exist for the sake of such questioning, for what do they exist? Merely to reinforce the prevailing narrative? This and a host of other illustrations will be well known to you.

It should be noted that this suppression of enquiry and argument happens most often where there are commercial interests at play (especially in STEM) or where there are moral and ideological conflicts occurring (these often begin in the Humanities before being extended to STEM). The combination of commercial and ideological factors is especially dangerous to academic freedom. Still more dangerous is the possibility that political forces will also become engaged, aiding and abetting suppression of unwanted enquiry or argument through institutional means: biased funding mechanisms, for example, or mandatory indoctrination modules, or prejudicial hiring procedures, or bureaucratically manipulated deference to student, staff, or faculty activism.

Even methods for dispute resolution often become highly politicized. At many universities (my own included, as I have pointed out to the administration, without response) the same offices and bureaucrats are responsible for deciding what is actionable, what procedures shall be followed in any action, conducting or overseeing those procedures, and adjudicating the results. The system lacks checks and balances or even ordinary accountability, since much of this takes place in camera. Is that not fertile ground for the bias and harassment and hindrance of academic liberty it claims to guard against? This growing bureaucracy, which generally operates under the EDI umbrella, tends to attract like-minded people with shared goals for institutional change favouring their own understanding of human beings and human economies. Other activists, especially among the students, have begun to grasp the usefulness of this bureaucracy for furthering their agendas and are openly encouraged by it to do so. The relationship is a symbiotic one, and its growth chokes out academic freedom.

It is not uncommon these days to see a two-pronged strategy employed for the suppression of unwanted or “off-narrative” lines of research and teaching or the public dissemination thereof; and for punishing those who take such lines, whether inside or outside the sphere of their work in the academy. A pincer movement is conducted by means of a public protest, perhaps an open letter, which (being extra-curricular) is subject to no rules of fairness or justice but which concludes by inviting use of the institution’s own complaints system against the objects of the protest. The former action, though public, may be more or less anonymous, while the latter is always conducted confidentially. It is crucial to note that there is no penalty attached to misrepresentation or false accusations at either end of this pincer movement. If it succeeds, it succeeds. If it fails, there are no consequences for those who undertook it. The advantage thus lies entirely with the plaintiffs, not with the accused. Where the accused is exonerated, the process has nevertheless become the punishment.

The regularity with which this manoeuvre is now being performed, replete with calls for the scaling down or even disallowance of “academic freedom” defences, testifies to the growing atmosphere of suppression in the academy. So does the ever-expanding investment in EDI or EDI-like bureaucracies, with are now pressing for unit-based “values” statements designed to entrench their views locally as well as globally, so to say. The vital energies of faculty, staff, students and administrators alike are increasingly being absorbed in or even lost to this ideological quicksand, such that the academy looks and feels more and more like a merely political establishment, less and less like an institution of genuine learning.

From my more than two decades of service at McGill, I can attest to this change personally. When I first arrived I did not perceive it as a problem, though no doubt its seeds were already being planted. Later I began to document what I was discovering or encountering. (A record of my public musings on this can be found on my Academia pages; other documentation is available upon request, though some of it is confidential.) In the last decade I have watched this change become more and more pronounced, and have myself experienced to my harm and detriment its abusive potential. I do not wish to dwell further on this, however, but will turn in conclusion to recommendations for constructive change.

What changes are required?

In keeping with what I have said here, I will underline just three things, adding a few distinctive elements to each.

The solution does not lie ultimately in more government intervention. The secular academy, insofar as it enjoys government funding, cannot hope to enjoy complete autonomy from such intervention. The government should realize, however, that it is in everyone’s best interests if there is an arm’s-length relationship in which the academy’s use of public funds is measured the way a charity’s use of funds, say, ought to be measured by its donors: namely, by evidence of efficient application of those funds to the relevant mandate. In this case, the mandate is to produce high quality research and teaching that other qualified parties can recognize as such. The mandate is not to produce a certain ideological cast among its members or constituents, to please anyone in particular in that respect, or to produce research and disseminate results that fit a particular narrative or set of interests, be they philosophical or anthropological or medical or economic or political or whatever. The secular academy should be informed that solid evidence that it is using its resources for the latter rather than the former will result in cuts to state funding. This of course would require some means of extending the commission’s own mandate into a body capable of affording ongoing scrutiny of this matter and of offering relevant guidance to funding agencies. Great care would have to be taken that this exercise not be commandeered in such a way as to become self-defeating.

Second, all attempts to water down or relativize academic freedom provisions, or to countenance ad hominem attacks on professors, lecturers, students or staff in violation of either their academic freedom or their fundamental freedoms as acknowledged by the Constitution, should be rejected as incompatible with direct government funding. Room must be left for secular institutions, as for religious institutions or charities, to receive targeted government funding for particular purposes (in this case academic purposes) that do not implicate either party in the extraneous goals of the other; but where the shared goals involve academic labour, conducted with its own proper disciplinary integrity, funding should be conditional on full respect for that integrity. In the case of secular academic institutions, this must entail the freedom of all parties to express their own views in appropriate fashion in any and all contexts. The government should signal to universities that it expects, in exchange for support, a more robust commitment to such freedom.

Third, academic institutions should be told that their own procedures for scrutinizing violations or complaints must have the requisite internal checks and balances. Bureaucratized conflicts of interest cannot be tolerated either in the academy or in the government itself. The same offices and/or bureaucrats cannot with integrity determine the procedures for investigation, oversee the investigation, and adjudicate the results of the investigation. Just as there is separation in government of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, so in our public colleges and universities there ought to be an analogous separation. There ought also to be condign penalties for those who abuse the complaints system, as there are for those guilty of well-founded complaints. Improvements here will help calm the waters. They may also (for that reason) tend to the reduction rather than the expansion of the offending and very expensive bureaucracies currently pushing practices that undermine academic freedom and academic peace.