Some Thoughts on Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges (Part One)

Okay, well, sports fans, we’re getting ready for the puck to be dropped on this season’s round of Collective Agreement negotiations between the College Employer Council Wheat Kings and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology [Academic] Division) Dynamo.  Undoubtedly, I’ll have the chance to provide some colour commentary on the storied rivalry between these two teams before the final buzzer sounds, but for now, while the anthem-singer is sucking back one last G+T, let’s jump to a previously-filmed report on the state of the game.

Specifically, that report is a paper that I presented at the Symposium on Quality Education and Academic Freedom, last Friday.  It was an impressively-attended event, including faculty from about 17 Ontario colleges, plus representatives from at least two other provinces’ college systems.  And, well, let me just point out that I started as an Ontario college prof in 2005, and if anybody had told me at that time that within seven years OPSEU and the Canadian Association of University Teachers would be sponsoring conferences on academic freedom in Ontario colleges, well, let’s just say that it would have been quite a shock, albeit not an unpleasant one.

So anyway, for those few of you who missed my presentation, the following is Part One of it — Parts Two and possibly Three will follow soon thereafter (and may possibly end up as a fixed page on the site), at which point I’ll talk a bit about the process of negotiations and their context, if events haven’t already outstripped me.

As well, I’ll just drop a reminder that you can subscribe to this blog (and get e-mail notices of all updates) by clicking on the button on the right-hand column.  Don’t miss a single moment of unauthorized, uncensored negotiation punditry — a must for all of your contract negotiations office pools and rotisserie leagues!

On with the ponderous musings…

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Part One: What Does Academic Freedom Mean in the Context of Ontario’s Colleges?

Conventionally, academic freedom has been understood as an intellectual freedom – a freedom for faculty to think, and to introduce their thoughts into the classroom, without outside interference.  According to that understanding, it’s primarily understood as a function of the professor’s role as a researcher and knowledge-producer.  And largely, the role of academic freedom in the classroom is understood as being a byproduct of that model of professor as researcher – her consequent right to introduce the results of that research into the classroom.

We see that model informing The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Policy Statement on Academic Freedom, which argues that “Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students.”  I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, particularly its extension of that right to students and academic staff, but I do believe that the primary model that underpins that underpins the sentiment is a concept of the professor as independent truth-seeker – it’s a model that sees the professor as an independent researcher first and foremost.

Well, whatever your opinion about what the role of Ontario college faculty ought to be, you might agree with me that college profs aren’t generally seen as independent researchers first and foremost.  Most of the research undertaken by the Colleges is founded upon the support of corporate partners; the independent research undertaken by faculty often falls under the category of professional development, for which faculty are allocated as few as 10 scheduled days in a year.

So applying the principles of academic freedom to Ontario’s college faculty would require either a radical change in the understanding of their role and labour, or a shift in the definition of academic freedom, to better reflect the actual work currently assigned to professors.  I’m here to discuss the latter – a way of understanding academic freedom that is rooted primarily in the college professor’s role as a teacher of students.

I think academic freedom is distinguished from other freedoms not simply because it is an intellectual freedom, but rather because it implies a very specific, corollary responsibility: A responsibility to the subject matter being taught; a responsibility to uphold the standards and principles of a discipline, whether it be an academic or a professional field.  In the context of the classroom, I’d add a second, essential responsibility: The responsibility to teach to teach these fields to students appropriately, focusing on the material that is essential to the field, communicating it to students in way that upholds disciplinary standards, and ultimately evaluating students according to standards that are upheld by the professional communities of that discipline

In short, I understand Academic Freedom to be, first and foremost, the freedom to be academics: To ensure the quality of education – not simply in the name of excellence, but in the name of necessity. If I were to define academic freedom personally, within the context of Ontario colleges, I would understand it as the freedom to determine appropriate subject matter and the means by which it is delivered and evaluated, according to the needs of our students.  And without that freedom, professors effectively have no power to ensure that academic decisions are made on academic reasons, as opposed to financial ones.

Academic freedom would therefore give college profs an effective voice in ensuring that course curriculum addresses the student needs that they identify.  In the fields of professional disciplines, this voice helps to ensure that students receive the training that they will need, to appropriately participate into the many fields into which our graduates enter – fields like medicine, law, journalism, engineering, and public health and safety.  (Remember: The simplest way to highlight the importance of the work that College professors do is to highlight the importance of the work that College graduates do.) 

Even in my own field of English and General Education, academic freedom would ensure professors’ right to address important topics that students may find controversial, when teaching such skills as critical thinking or cross-cultural communication to our diverse student population. Perhaps no less importantly, academic freedom would give faculty a measure of actual power to decide collectively what we mean when we talk about Critical Thinking or Cultural Awareness, and what is actually needed to teach – or to learn – those skills.




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