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New statement on academic freedom sparks debate in Canada

In late October, Canada’s universities adopted a new Statement on Academic Freedom that clarifies the notion of academic freedom on campuses across the country and replaces the old statement dating back to 1988. The new language was adopted unanimously by university presidents at the centennial meetings of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) in Montreal. Affirmation of this statement is expected to become part of AUCC’s criteria for membership. Specifically, the new statement provides answers to the following fundamental questions 

  • What is academic freedom? 
  • Why is it important to Canada? 
  • What are the responsibilities of academic freedom? 
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of university leadership and faculty?

While the attempt to strengthen public support for academic freedom has generally been welcomed by academics in Canada, controversy has also accompanied this development. On the one hand, concerns have been expressed about certain formulations, particularly with regard to “institutional boundaries” of, and other exceptions and limitations to, academic freedom. Others have been unhappy with omissions in the statement. For example, the role of tenure for academic freedom is mentioned in the 1988 statement but not in the new document. Thus, in its open letter to the AUCC, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the country’s main faculty union, described the statement as “undo(ing) many of the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of academic freedom over the past 100 years”. In particular, it points out that the statement makes no mention of extramural speech rights or the right to criticise the institution where a professor teaches or conducts research. It further reproaches the AUCC for the “conflation of academic freedom with institutional autonomy”. Finally, the fact that the statement has been endorsed exclusively by institutional presidents represents yet another sore point, adding fuel to the perennial debate about complex relations between university leadership and the faculty.

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Canadian Association of University Teachers Inside Higher Ed