Academic Freedom Unbound (With Apologies to P.B. Shelley)

January 2018

If you have mutual respect you don’t need academic freedom. We can’t be sure if it was a series of happy accidents or an inevitable culmination of good post-secondary educational planning, but Sheridan became the one college with collegial governance policies worth replicating across the twenty-four publicly funded institutions within the Ontario College System. These policies include the most expansive Academic Freedom Policy, the most progressive Intellectual Property Policies, and the most formative course evaluation questionnaire in the province.

And to date, Sheridan is the only college with a functional Academic Senate, with a majority Faculty membership. Our collegial governance became the model for the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Bargaining Team’s fight to enshrine faculty academic leadership in our Collective Agreement (CA) 2017-2021. The newly named Article 13 in our agreement, changed from ‘Copyright’ to ‘Copyright and Academic Freedom,’ now enshrines the goals of mutual respect amongst all levels of teaching and administrating when it comes to Academic matters. However, if any college faculty member needs to file a grievance to enforce academic freedom, the battle is already lost.

It would be difficult to separate the growth of our Academic Freedom Policy from the long-standing mutual respect on academic matters that has been maturing at Sheridan College since its inception. When our sixth President set the college on its journey to becoming a university, with faculty members already chairing the Academic Council and Academic Quality Assurance Committee, and its predecessor the Educational Planning and Program Review Committee, the Faculty at Sheridan was well poised to assume the responsibilities of an Academic Senate.

Was it administrative inertia or respect for Faculty leadership that gave the Faculty the chairmanship of the academic governance committees prescribed in our CA? Was it an administrator’s political ambition or institutional evolution that set us on the journey to becoming a university? Was it to satisfy University Canada standards or to enact the PhD Thesis of our then Vice-President Academic, now President, that gave Sheridan the most progressive Formative Course Evaluation Policy and tool of any similar academic institution? Each of these three steps towards collegial academic governance embodied both administrative and Faculty aspirations. Thus was forged Sheridan’s leadership in collegial governance in Ontario’s colleges.

The academic collaborations at Sheridan blossomed into our Academic Freedom and Intellectual Property and Formative Faculty Evaluation Policies. The final policies are still evolving, with each iteration better capturing the spirit of cooperative pedagogical work that preceded the policies. Our new rights and responsibilities are best served by academic co-governance based on mutual respect. Arbitrational enforcement is a last resort to gain collegial governance. Its use might be a sign that an institution lacks the mutual respect co-leadership requires.

Before we take a closer look at our Academic Freedom and Intellectual Property Policies, let us examine the formative nature of our Course Evaluation Tool. This questionnaire captures Sheridan’s essence as a reflective institution, invested in curricula excellence as developed from the faculty member from the needs of the students, moving upwards more than downwards from the administrative bottom-line. It might be the result of luck that our Vice President Academic researched summative and formative evaluations in her PhD Thesis and, then, found herself in a college that aspires to become a university. However it came about, this is how our Formative Course Evaluation tool is shaped.

There are three sections of approximately five questions each. The first five are college wide and focus on the college as the setting for the course being evaluated. These five appear on all Course Evaluations and were created by a cross-college committee. The next five questions are determined by each of the six Faculties and so are unique to the courses in that Faculty. The last five questions are chosen by the individual faculty member and they remain confidential to that professor unless the professor decides to share the results. That’s what makes the Sheridan Course Evaluation tool formative – professors do not need to fear asking the tough questions about their own courses. This makes our Course Evaluation procedures a reflective exercise, where the individual’s self-reflection is valued over administrative enforcement of generalized pedagogy. There is nothing summative in a confidential survey.

And now to our two policies, given our context of being the first progressive college in Ontario which has taken collegial governance into its infrastructure – the Sheridan Academic Senate. On October 26th, 2006, Sheridan made effective the Academic Freedom Policy and Procedure; it was reviewed in 2009 and an ongoing review began in 2016. The Academic Freedom policy is intricately tied to three other policies, the Intellectual Property Policy, the Ethical Research Practices Policy, and the Human Subjects Policy. The opening paragraph of the Policy Statement encapsulates the essential tenets of the policy,

Sheridan recognizes the right of faculty and staff to carry out their teaching and learning activities; to pursue research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; to produce and perform creative works; to engage in service to the institution and the community; and to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration and society at large, within the parameters established by the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act (2002), College policies, ethical guidelines and all applicable legislation. (2009, Para 1.)

The first principle is about independence, empowering faculty and staff (part-time and full-time) to be leaders and experts in the classroom, lab, studio, library, etc. The second and third tenets aim to cultivate a culture of inquiry, investigation, and creation. Sheridan has, in fact, developed a number of research centres and has established the Sheridan Research and Creative Activities Growth Grants program, which now funds special projects outside the scope of the classroom.

The fourth tenet is focused on service, providing faculty and staff the opportunity to participate in governance. This principle is essential because it encourages and empowers faculty to take a leadership role in collegial decision-making; Sheridan is the only college with a Senate, two-thirds of which are faculty. Faculty and staff are to be released from other duties like teaching to serve on Senate. Senate is where the Academic Freedom and Intellectual Property policies are written, approved and reviewed. Many contributing authors are still actively involved in Senate and Local Academic Councils, including the president and other members of the union local.

The final tenet focuses on freedom of expression, albeit with some limits; these limits “protect the reputation of Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.” Including a clause which allows for faculty and staff to express their opinions and beliefs “without fear of reprisal” establishes a democratic and tolerant culture that celebrates agency and respect.

Sheridan has proven that academic freedom policies work very well at the college level, and that is very relevant in 2018. Though colleges across the province celebrated their 50th anniversary this past year, the college system of 2018 is very different from the one of 1967. The key difference is that colleges now offer Honours Degree programs, with the aims of opening doors to further academic studies or to better prepare students for a workplace that not only demands hands-on practical experience and professional behaviour, but also critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. These later skills have been traditionally taught in universities. Sheridan identifies as “an institution dedicated to learning, teaching and service,” with aspirations to be an undergraduate teaching university or at least like one. Therefore, it makes sense that the policy statement opens with four tenets that engender independence, a culture of inquiry and investigation, as well as freedom of expression and free speech.

During the Ontario college strike of 2017, one of the key asks by OPSEU’s college faculty bargaining team was for specific language about academic freedom, language that both protected and empowered faculty. Although the demand was not a monetary one, it proved to be the major sticking point in the embittered negotiations between OPSEU and the College Employer Council (CEC). The negotiations reached a deadlock on Nov. 19th, resulting in back-to-work legislation and arbitration. Though the CEC had generally agreed to the idea of academic freedom, they refused to address it directly in the CA, wilfully and suspiciously rendering it a peripheral issue to be sorted out at the local policy level. This was concerning because outside of Sheridan, colleges do not give more than a perfunctory nod to academic freedom. They have no binding language, and no faculty-led Senates whose domain is academic policy. This meant college faculty would have to sit and wait for management to get around to taking academic freedom policies seriously; moreover, management is not obliged to collaborate or consult with faculty.

After arbitrator William Kaplan’s judgement, the CA now ensures that all faculty members working across all twenty-four colleges have “the right to enquire about, investigate, pursue, teach and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal” (College Faculty Collective Agreement, Article 13.04, 2017). Sheridan, where collaboration and mutual respect have engendered a successful working model of collegial governance, will turn out to be the exception that proved the ‘arbitrator’s’ ruling.