As universities become more controlling of their public images and more insistent on making professors “play nice,” they’re threatening the academic freedom that has traditionally been the hallmark of institutions of higher learning, says Dr. James L. Turk, an expert on academic freedom in Canada.
“Universities have become very concerned about the ‘brand,’” Turk said during a Brock University Faculty Association event on campus Oct. 30. “What their biggest worry is, is that faculty members will somehow sully the brand.”
BUFA President Dr. Linda Rose-Krasnor called Turk’s speech “timely” because some universities are becoming increasingly intrusive and asking faculty members to sign confidentiality agreements and statements vowing not to damage the university’s reputation.
Academic freedom is in danger on campuses in Canada and the United States, says Turk, a Visiting Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University and a former Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
In the interest of protecting the university’s image, administrators are increasingly imposing restrictions such as Brock’s Respectful Workplace and Learning Environment policy, social media codes, codes of conduct, and confidentiality agreements to prevent professors from making public comments administrators fear would bring the school into disrepute.
“It’s all outrageous and fundamentally undermining the role of faculty in the university and the role of the university in society,” he said during a speech entitled, “Civility, Precarity and the Demise of Academic Freedom.”
According to Turk, three elements make universities different from other workplaces: they exist to advance knowledge; collegial governance gives faculty a say in how the university is run; and professors have the freedom to pursue their own ideas.
“Academic freedom is the foundation for the other two,” Turk said, calling it the “heart” of a university. “You can’t have collegial governance unless you have the freedom to speak critically about what’s going on in the institution. And you certainly can’t advance knowledge in your classroom or in your research if you don’t have the academic freedom to pursue ideas that may be controversial, that may be unpopular, that may threaten some vested interest.”
Professors need to be free to pursue their own ideas in their teaching and research, to speak critically about matters within the university, and to speak out in public without being sanctioned by their employer, Turk said.
The “casualization” of teaching faculty has weakened academic freedom, Turk said.
In the United States in 1975, 37 per cent of faculty were full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors. In 2011, that percentage had dropped to 20 percent. Part-time, untenured, and sessional professors are less likely to exercise their academic freedom, fearing that being too controversial might hurt their chances of getting tenure, Turk said, lamenting the lack of good data about Canadian professors.
There are growing trends to try to prevent professors from taking on controversial issues and from clashing with each other. Universities now spend tens of thousands of dollars on full-page newspaper ads to project a particular image of their university to Canadians.
In the spirit of protecting their brand, some university administrations have begun to use anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies to try to enforce civility among professors. There should be no tolerance for harassment or discrimination at a university, but the idea of forcing professors to be nice threatens the way they do their work.
Some of the work academics do, such as satire, polemic, anger and outrage, naturally requires them to be less than civil, Turk said. “(With enforced civility,) we can’t be passionate. We can’t be angry about things going on in our world, or in our discipline or in our department,” Turk said. University professors shouldn’t necessarily be expected to be “nice” to each other. What’s more important than being nice is that they speak their mind, Turk said.
Universities are different from other workplaces because loyalty to the institution shouldn’t be expected of professors. Most workplaces insist their employees remain loyal to the company and they can be punished for actions that bring the company into disrepute.
“The thing ‘branders’ worry about most is unpredictability by employees,” Turk told a crowd of approximately 60 faculty members and student representatives. “Loyalty is the death of the university.”
Turk encouraged professors to stand up for academic freedom at the bargaining table. Enshrining academic freedom in a collective agreement is the best way to ensure it because it makes it enforceable, Turk said. While universities have policies on academic freedom, they’re toothless because they’re not enforceable.
“In Canada, academic freedom exists only because of what’s in your collective agreement,” he said. In the United States, professors have tried unsuccessfully to rely on First Amendment rights to guarantee their academic freedom rights, but it hasn’t been successful, Turk said.
“The best way to defend it is to exercise it,” Turk said, quoting late University of Toronto Political Science professor Frank H. Underhill.