Could you give us your recollection of the factors that led to the decision to establish SAFS?
A number of us at the University of Western Ontario had become concerned at the intimidation of professors by both students and the administration in several Ontario universities. Besides myself, I recall Professors Ian Hunter from Law, Kenneth Hilborn from History, Douglas Jackson from Psychology, and from outside Western there were Professor John Furedy from Toronto, and Professor Judy Wubnig from Waterloo, to name only a few.
Examples of such intimidation included a professor at University of Toronto who had been hounded out of the university after an exhibit she had done on life in colonial Africa. The exhibit was deemed to be offensive to black students, though she intended it simply as an accurate pictorial portrayal of the times.
Another professor at York University had an official observer stationed in a class he was teaching on behavioural differences between men and women - the aim presumably being to ensure that women were not being offended.
At the University of Western Ontario, a professor who studied race differences was harassed by students, was not allowed to teach his classes live, and was singled out for proposed "firing" by then Ontario Premier Peterson.
These and other examples were clearly incompatible with the values of academic freedom. Other worrisome developments were the establishment at many universities of extra-legal tribunals concerned ostensibly with curbing sexual and racial harassment. However, the policies guiding these tribunals were so broadly worded that if taken literally, many traditional academic courses could not have been taught. As it happened, these policies were precursors to the infamous "Frameworks" document later promulgated by the NDP government, originating from Stephen Lewis' 1992 recommendations. The latter urged "zero tolerance" of many activities in the academy, including the creation of a nebulous "negative environment", which could be done by "comments" or "remarks", largely unspecified. Almost any controversial statement could have been so interpreted according to that document.
Did the NAS play a role in getting SAFS going? What is the relationship between the two organizations?
Yes, the US-based National Association of Scholars was very helpful to SAFS in its fledgling stages, giving both useful advice, and financial help. Many of the original organizers of SAFS were already members of NAS. NAS, along with the Fraser Institute, helped us sponsor the 1993 "University in Jeopardy" conference in Toronto, which gave us the needed publicity to enlarge our membership and further our aims. There were no ties attached to this help by either organization. NAS has also helped organize sessions on academic freedom and the merit principle at other meetings, such as the Society for Neuroscience. SAFS and NAS are independent organizations with similar goals. SAFS, unlike NAS, has followed John Furedy's advice and welcomed non-academics to our organization.
How easy – or difficult – was it to attract members to the society?
At the beginning, while the academic freedom issues were foremost, it was relatively easy to recruit members. There were, nevertheless, many faculty who told us they sympathized with our views, but were uneasy about joining because they felt there might be negative repercussions for them. Most of these were tenured faculty! We initially had a surprising number of non-university members, who seemed to understand the importance of these issues somewhat better than many faculty did. Over the years our membership has waxed and waned. Whenever there is a critical issue, we get some new members, but between crises, people tend to become complacent. An added factor may be that some faculty are willing to endorse our goal of supporting academic freedom but, although again secretly agreeing with the merit principle, are uncomfortable about taking a stand on it. Unfortunately, I think too many university faculty have become part of what Furedy called "the culture of comfort" and fail to see the long-term consequences of academic decisions based on group identity.
How do you think the issues facing SAFS have changed over the past 10 years? What was its initial major focus?
Although the importance of academic freedom is no less than it was originally, some of the most flagrant threats have been defeated, in part I do believe because SAFS was often the first, and sometimes the only, organization to raise the alarm. In recent years, we have focussed on maintaining the merit principle, in the face of employment equity or affirmative action campaigns. However, recent world events have again underlined the necessity for defence of free discussion in universities. We now hear of instances in classrooms and in campus writings, where criticism of repressive Islamic fundamentalism is effectively not allowed, in case it offend some people. In the early years of SAFS, I gave a talk on the occasion of receiving an honourary degree, in which I emphasized that offending students in an academic sense was part of the learning experience at a university. We need to be constantly reminded of that.
What do you think is the most important area of concern today?
I think that our two goals are of equal importance, but their salience will vary with the occasion. We cannot have excellence in the academy without academic freedom, nor can we have it without excellence being the primary goal.
In what areas do you feel that SAFS has been most effective?
It is very difficult to judge one's own performance. Some members may become discouraged by the size of the mountain we have to climb, but we should not judge our impact by the immediate results. It takes time for ideas to circulate and become openly discussed, and I believe SAFS has been instrumental in initiating many of those discussions in this country. We simply must be willing to engage in the rational critique of objectionable practices, in the hope that a seed will be sown that ultimately will bear fruit. But there will never be an end to the battle - eternal vigilance is indeed the price we must pay.
How was the name for the society determined?
Originally, we called ourselves the Ontario Association of Scholars, but when in 1992 we incorporated as a non-profit organization, the term "association" could not be used because it had certain legal connotations. So we chose Society. Since at that point we thought we should indicate the aims of the organization, and our purpose went beyond the boundaries of Ontario, we finally came up with the name Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, naming both our major goals.
Do you have any suggestions for the future development of SAFS?
I don't have any specific suggestions, but I think that the Society is in good hands, judging by the present Board.