Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
John Furedy seems to have been purposely designed to fill the roles that defined his professional and political life. A Jewish child named Füredi János (in Hungarian usage, the family name precedes the given name), known by the diminutive “Jancsi,” he was born in Hungary in 1940, in the middle of the Second World War. At the time, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany on the battlefronts and, uneasily and inconsistently, in domestic legislation. Restrictions on Jewish participation in public life were proliferating, but the government mostly resisted German demands to institute mass deportation and mass murder.
The situation changed early in 1944. Hitler accurately foresaw that the conservative Hungarian government, fearing the defeat of Germany and its allies by Western forces advancing eastward from Normandy and Soviet forces moving westward after Stalingrad, would capitulate and order its troops to lay down their arms. German military occupation and a coup d’etat by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian counterpart of the Nazi Party, followed. That was accompanied by the arrival of Adolf Eichmann to oversee the annihilation of the Jewish population.
During 1944-45, over 75% of Jews then living in Hungary died. Many were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to be immediately gassed or eventually executed, starved, frozen, beaten, infected with typhus and other deadly diseases, or worked to death. Others perished in ghettoes, on the streets, or doing manual labour with the army.
János and his parents survived. He and his mother, Dusi, were in the Budapest ghetto, where she bore twin daughters who soon died of malnutrition. Dusi herself was for a time too weak from starvation to care for her son, and János was temporarily sheltered by the Red Cross. Béla, his father, served as a forced labourer at the Russian front. Many officers assigned to such units were anti-Semites who were profligate in expending the lives of their Jewish subordinates; Béla was lucky that his German commander was a soldier whose goal was to keep his men fit enough to carry out their tasks.
Of course, the boy was too young to understand much of what was going on, but his father, whom he later characterized as a “battler” (J. Furedy, undated), and especially his mother, carried physical and psychological marks of their experiences for the rest of their lives. János at first learned from them, and for a few years himself experienced, what life is like under a repressive, violent, and totalitarian regime. The postwar Soviet-dominated Communist government of Hungary was not friendly toward Jews and was especially hostile toward the bourgeoisie to which the Füredy family belonged.
In 1949, the family managed to escape from Hungary and resettle in Sydney, Australia. In an undated encomium to his parents, János, by then John, described their bumpy adjustment to so different a culture. Béla’s insistence that to avoid anti-Semitism John be brought up as a Christian was not unusual among Holocaust survivors, particularly those who themselves were not very religious. Dusi also voiced an opinion common among refugees: after a particularly painful act of disloyalty by a friend, she reminded the family that compared to their experiences in Hungary, this setback was trivial (J. Furedy, undated).
After years of work, dedication, and innovation, the family did achieve financial success and security, along with a respected status in society. John did very well in school. Graduating from the University of Sydney, he attained first class honours in both psychology and philosophy, and received the university medal in psychology. He characterized his education as emphasizing “disinterested critical thinking and intellectual freedom” (J. Furedy, 2000).
This choice of what constituted the core of his education is telling. The specific contents of what he learned, such as the accumulated knowledge in his field (and the gaps in that knowledge), research design, experimental procedures, rules of data analysis, and so on, were not what he listed. Like many others who had experienced severe oppression, he focused on freedom: freedom of thought, expression and action, a fundamental aspect of life that contemporaries who have never known its absence do not always appreciate.
At the University of Toronto, where John spent almost all of his academic career, these values continued to pervade both his own research and his commitment to the traditional aspirations of academia: devotion to the search for truth wherever that search may lead; the open discussion of opinions, theories, data, and conclusions; and the primary roles of intellectual honesty and scholarly competence in academic matters. He followed, as is only proper for psychologists, the Socratic statement “The unexamined life is not worth living” (C. Furedy, 2022).
His scientific career embodied these principles. He studied basic psychophysiological processes and the laws of learning and conditioning, but he also recognized that his findings had significant implications outside the university. He did not hesitate to voice his disagreement when those applications went against his moral judgment. He was not deterred by their pervasive professional and societal acceptance.
John was forthright in stating his opinions and powerful in arguments about them. At his retirement party, a colleague (and fellow Sydneysider), Robert Lockhart, gave a humorous speech, emphasizing John’s research accomplishments and also his character. He described John as “persistent and consistent...with an enviable capacity to disassociate disagreement in debate with anything personal” (Lockhart, 2005). Related to that capacity was John’s response to an accusation that his negative view of affirmative action hiring of faculty was based on bad motives. As Clive Seligman recalls (2021), John responded: “It doesn’t matter whether my motives are good or bad, but whether my arguments are right or wrong.”
That comment confronts the core of the motive mongering in which today’s extremists chronically indulge. They do so in two ways to malign opponents without addressing the substance of their arguments. One is to accuse dissenters of using the cloak of free expression merely to camouflage their racism, sexism, etc., sometimes inextricably linked to the person’s “identity” (i.e., demographic category). The other is to dismiss professions of unintentional offence by claiming that intent (i.e., motive) is irrelevant when a statement “hurts” (i.e., discomforts) a third party. Thus, speaking “the N word” when quoting Mark Twain or Joseph Conrad is to be punished in the same way as using it to demean a colleague, student, or athletic rival.
One of John’s scientific controversies arose from his research-based criticisms regarding the use of polygraphy to infer deception based on psychophysiological changes. John insisted that the polygraph is too likely to produce misleading results, which in legal contexts may jeopardize innocent suspects. He particularly criticized the Control Question Technique (CQT), the standard method at the time, which in summary compares autonomic nervous system reactions to questions about the suspected crime with reactions to questions that might arouse anxiety but are unrelated to the crime (J. Furedy & Liss, 1986). The controversy also demonstrated John’s penchant for the vivid phrase, as he referred to the use of polygraphy in securing confessions as a “psychological rubber hose.”
The scientific supporters of the CQT method, and the many practitioners who used it in judging guilt or innocence, rejected John’s arguments and research. He was persistent, consistent, and evidence-focused, with the result that the data accumulated until methodological improvements became a new standard. As John recommended, the low reliability of polygraph tests still leads to their being barred as evidence in Canadian and U.S. courts.
Persistence and consistency are at least equally obvious in John’s accomplishments as President of SAFS. He was a member of the original Board of Directors when the Society was formed in 1992 and served as president from 1993 to 1998. With help from Laurie Mackay, John managed to draft a set of by-laws which were adopted by the membership. He and his wife, Christine, were a team: two dedicated and articulate advocates for the ideals of the Society, John as president and a director and Chris as editor of the SAFS Newsletter.
During this time, the Society’s priorities and procedures evolved and its personality jelled. John was eloquent in the verbal battles that followed. His phrase, “velvet totalitarianism,” vividly catches the aura of the politically correct campus (J. Furedy, 1997), and has been widely used ever since. He saw the attempts to limit freedom of thought and expression as sharing the oppressive goals, if not wielding the iron fist, of the dictators who ruled his early life. The sanctions do not reach the levels of organized, legalized violence: no militias beating up dissenters or gendarmes taking them to concentration camps; but ostracism, defamation, mobbing, deplatforming, demotion and firing, are of the same ilk.
So is the hypocrisy. Totalitarian dictatorships call themselves “The People’s Republic of ...” or “The Democratic Republic of ...” and boast of ensuring constitutional human rights, while suppressing opposition parties and media, and jailing or murdering their adherents. Similarly, universities issue proclamations of fealty to academic freedom. These are followed by “but...” and then by speech codes and the declaration that academic freedom does not confer the right to disagree with someone’s or some group’s cherished dogma or self-image. Faculty and students are required to attend sessions of self-criticism and indoctrination and to write what amount to loyalty oaths to currently prevailing biases. The right to freedom of assembly is lauded, but a group that wants to invite a controversial speaker may be required to guarantee unaffordable thousands of dollars in “security costs” —an insidious method of censorship that is coming under increasing scrutiny and legal challenge, and has been ruled unacceptable by courts in both Canada (the University of Alberta; see Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, 2020) and the U.S. (the University of Washington; see Hsieh, 2018).
John was foresighted in his support for including “Scholarship,” not only Academic Freedom, in the name and purview of the organization. Broader issues, such as the merit principle in academic employment, promotion, and tenure, are vigorously defended by SAFS. University administrators may vociferously defend the principle and then systematically violate it by administrative interference and by explicit restrictions on candidacy (Furedy, 2007). They may try in different ways to ensure the desired representation of various demographic groups and the monopoly of one ideology concerning a range of controversial topics. In some cases, politically correct hiring decisions have been made in blatant disregard of even the most basic academic criteria.
Following the precedent of Doreen Kimura, the Society’s founding president, John and his cohort rose to defend both faculty members and, departing from narrow guild concerns, students who ran afoul of censorious administrative overreach, social media trolls, cancel culture disruptors, and virtue signalers. The specific opinions or personality quirks that brought down wrath were irrelevant. If academic freedom did not protect the unpopular, then who needed it? Our communications also took issue when administrations adopted policies favouring people with specified characteristics unrelated to academic accomplishment.
With John, SAFS grew accustomed to reminding the powers that be about individual cases as well as about overarching tenets. Different viewpoints were discussed and thrashed out. John established a tradition of vigour and forthrightness, but with courtesy and collegial openness to opposing views. The Society continues to press the point that academic decisions are to be made on academic grounds: personnel and educational matters must be based on judgments of intellectual merit, ethics, and productivity, unbiased by demography, politics, popularity, or orthodoxy. We consistently remind officialdom that faculty and students must be free to study, think, and report their ideas and findings—and equally, to hear and read the ideas and findings of others, regardless of popular or official disapproval.
During his presidency, John also confronted authorities beyond university administrations. The promulgation of the first Tri-Council Policy Statement (1998), attempting to define guidelines for ethical research, has continued through several years and versions. For psychologists, the early versions constituted serious and pointless limitations. The principles were based on the medical research model, geared toward experimental medication or surgery that could potentially kill or otherwise injure participants. Such fears are totally irrelevant to most of psychological (personality, social psychology, developmental, memory, perception, etc.) research. The guidelines also threatened the individual rights of potential research participants in some Canadian groups, requiring the approval of community “leaders” before studies could take place. These and various other provisions impinged upon academic freedom and professional and institutional autonomy.
The politicization, bureaucratic interference, delay, secretiveness, and arbitrariness of the proposed ethics approval process alarmed the scientific community. SAFS, represented by John (J. Furedy, 2008), joined by the Canadian Psychological Association and the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science, plus a number of academic departments of psychology and individual psychologists, issued strongly worded critiques. Over the years, the Tri-Council agencies have responded by producing several improved (although still flawed) revisions.
SAFS still takes on the defence of even the most controversial people and procedures, those attacked or pushed not only within the university community but also by politicians, the media, and the public at large. Left or Right, right or wrong, or somewhere in between (on either dimension), our turf is the right to express views and study topics.
The Furedy Academic Freedom Award, founded by John and Chris in memory of Béla and Dusi, honoured those who take risky and demonized public positions in defence of those values. The Chris and John Furedy Lecture on the Contemporary University, initiated in 2019, is an annual public lecture on relevant current issues by an invited speaker, who is usually also the keynote speaker at the annual general meeting of the Society.
During his career, John received numerous marks of recognition and honour for his scientific and educational contributions. He deserved them all, and more; but the legacy that we cherish most is his leadership in the struggle to make Canadian universities bastions of academic freedom and unbiased scholarship. The devotion, eloquence, and wit that he and Chris showed to that cause have set a model for the Society.
I am grateful for the help of Christine P. Furedy, John Mueller, Mark Mercer, Laurie Mackay, and others in finding source materials for this paper, and to Phyllis J. Johnson for assistance with the preparation of the manuscript.
Ben-Shakhar, G. (2016). In memoriam: John J. Furedy, 30 June 1940—24 August 2016. International Journal of Psychophysiology, doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho/2016.10.005. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021 from
Furedy, C. (2022). Personal communication, 25 Jan. 2022.
Furedy, J. (undated). To my father, Bela, a Hungarian-Australian battler: Thank you for my freedom. Accessed 20 March 2022 from http://www2.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/index.htm (at a link near the bottom of the page).
Furedy, J., & Liss, J. (1986). Countering confession induced by the polygraph: Of confessionals and psychological rubber hoses. Criminal Law Quarterly, 29(1), 91-114.
Furedy, J. (1997). Academic freedom versus the velvet totalitarian culture of comfort on current Canadian campuses: Some fundamental terms and distinctions. Interchange, 28, 331-350. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1007487501100
Furedy, J. (2000). Gantt Memorial Lecture to the Pavlovian Society, accessed 20 March 2022 from https://campus.albion.edu/pavlovian/awards/ (scroll down to “Earlier Award Winners”).
Furedy, J. (2007, 9 Jan.). Dubious partnership: Equity and excellence are not equivalent. University of Toronto Bulletin, 10.
Furedy, J. (2008, 31 Jan.). The North American bioethics industry. Accessed 20 Jan. 2022 from http://www2.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/bioethic.htm
Hsieh, S. (2018). Settlement blocks UW from charging security fees to student groups. For now. The Stranger. Accessed 22 January, 2022, from
Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (2020). Free speech victory as court rules against University of Alberta $17,500 security fee. Accessed 22 Jan. 2022 from https://www.jccf.ca/free-speech-victory-as-court-rules-against-university-of-alberta-17500-security-fee/
Lockhart, R.S. (2005). Remarks at John’s retirement gathering 2005. Personal communication.
Seligman, C. (2021). Personal communication.
Tri-Council Policy Statement (1998). Ethical conduct for research involving humans.