We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Academic Freedom and the Inclusive University

By Dennis Pavlich

Review By Gordon Shrimpton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 148-9

THIS BOOK SUCCEEDS in exemplifying what it fails to define. It contains seventeen chapters written by academics from the United States and Canada – academics who occupy a variety of positions: college teacher, university administrator, philosopher, lawyer, student, historian, sociologist, professors of English, and so on. Each author brings a unique perspective; all argue with persuasive eloquence; few listen to the others.

The book begins with Stanley Fish’s “What’s Sauce for One Goose.” An essay that challenges what he sees as the underpinning of academic freedom by the application of Kant’s categorical imperative. Fish seems to attribute to academics the belief that, in order to have free debate and inquiry, the academy must tolerate new ideas and examine them in an atmosphere of reciprocal respect. But this procedure ignores the fact that geese and ganders are not the same (11). Fish’s “sauce” sounds peculiarly like Jennifer Bankier’s “reciprocity” (Chapter 15), which Bankier advocates not to animate academic freedom but, rather, to permit it to accommodate inclusivity. Will Bankier’s reciprocity work? Does inclusivity necessarily restrict academic freedom? If so, then does academic freedom only remain pure in an “old boys club”? 

In our use of academic freedom, do we have the right to offend? A right of free speech, for example, “keeps good people from doing good things,” remarks Frederick Schauer (19); that is, because it requires them to respect another’s right of free expression, a universal right of free speech actually restrains good people from inhibiting bad people from saying bad things. So does academic freedom inhibit? “The problem we are facing is that a program of taking offence is wreaking havoc in the university,” says John Fekete (82, emphasis in original). So if its very existence as a communal right demands self-restraint, and if it must also be constrained (by people who may “take offence” from time to time), then can we ever have academic freedom? 

No one doubts the inevitability of change. So the question is how to preserve the best of the old while embracing the new. In many chapters in this book, the problem comes down to freedom – what it is and how we exercise it. Do we have freedom as individuals in an absolute sense, a sense developed in the nineteenth century (see Jennie Hornosty, Chapter 5)? In other words, do we have the individual right to express ourselves as we think fit without regard for others’ sensibilities? If I truly have freedom, should I have to be concerned if someone takes offence at what I say? 

Lynn Smith sketches a response to this dilemma early on in Academic Freedom (24): “Should academic freedom take priority over subjective discomfort? Yes. Should promotion of equality take priority over unfettered expression of whatever may occur to an individual scholar, even when irrelevant to the subject matter, simply because it flows from his or her personal creativity? Yes. Will there be difficult, disputatious cases that don’t fall clearly on one side of the line or the other? Yes.” 

Bankier reminds us that Canadians are not in a vacuum when it comes to dealing with these “disputatious cases” because we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The Supreme court of Canada,” she reminds us, “has made it absolutely clear in the context of both human rights codes and the Charter, discrimination is not restricted to situations where there is intent to injure on the basis of group membership. Discrimination can be found in situations where people act on the basis of unconscious stereotypes, and discrimination includes neutral practices that have discriminatory impacts” (144). I read this to mean that it is proper for people to “take offence” and that we all must take notice when they do. 

The question is how to respond/That is the subject of many chapters in this book (e.g., Stan Persky and Diane Dyson in Chapters 8 and 13, respectively). The debate is difficult but worth the effort. On the other side, the supporters of inclusivity have their own challenges. As “new kids” it is perhaps natural for women’s studies or ethnic studies to be protectionist regarding their identities, especially in the face of an entrenched establishment (Graham Good and Harvey Shulman, Chapters 10 and 11, respectively). “Reciprocity” requires, however, that, to the extent that they ask the establishment to open itself to them, they must do the same for it. But can they trust the establishment to protect the integrity of their programs and not to swallow them up? 

It is evident Academic Freedom covers a wide range of perspectives. There are two things that an informed reader might miss, however. First, there is no attention paid to the issue of external pressure on universities to capitulate to an agenda that has more to do with money or political ideology than good scholarship. When this book was being produced, the Nancy Olivieri case was making headlines. The report of that case (The Olivieri Report [Toronto: Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2001]) left little doubt of the determination of well-funded corporations to stifle scholarly output when it suited them, and of the willingness of universities to comply. That side of academic freedom is not the topic of this book. 

The second omission is closer to the heart of the subject. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has a standing committee on academic freedom and tenure as well as a committee on the status of women. It deals with these policy issues on a regular basis. Granted, Jennifer Bankier has chaired the Status of Women Committee, but there is surely an argument for including a chapter by someone with experience on the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee. These two committees work steadily at facing and resolving the issues raised in Academic Freedom both on a policy level (where they work together at the executive committee level) and on a case-by-case basis.