Freedom of Education | The state should not intervene in the governance of universities

Academic freedom, also known as academic freedom, is the cornerstone of university life. Over the centuries, this freedom has enabled scholars to question conventional precepts without fear of reprisal or disapproval. It has played a fundamental role in the advancement of knowledge.

Posted at 4:00 PM

Christopher Manfredic

Christopher Manfredic
Executive Vice-Principal and Vice-Principal Academic, McGill University

It goes without saying that academic freedom deserves to be protected against any infringement. But this protection cannot take the form of a law providing for state intervention in university policy.

In April, the Minister of Higher Education introduced Bill 32, entitled Academic Freedom Act in academia† Presented as a measure to ensure freedom of expression on our campuses, the bill gives the minister the power to intervene in the governance structure of universities, which threatens to jeopardize the quality of higher education in Quebec.

First of all, let’s recognize that the current government has been able to protect the interests of universities during the pandemic. By maintaining stable funding for post-secondary institutions, which has not happened in all provinces, the government has enabled students and teachers to succeed despite great challenges.

However, by introducing Bill 32, the government appears to be ignoring the actions it needs to take to support the core mission of universities.

Before the bill was introduced, university leaders from across Quebec urged the government not to legislate on the matter. They rightly recognized the incompatibility of state intervention in university governance with academic freedom. This freedom is based on the autonomy of institutions, an autonomy that is directly undermined by the arbitrariness of this bill.

The government has nevertheless introduced a bill whose two objectives are incompatible. On the one hand, the project would aim to protect academic freedom by obliging all universities in Quebec to adopt a policy to that effect. On the other hand, it would enable the minister to oblige a university to include any element he deems necessary in its policy if he considers the policy insufficient. Such interference in university governance is unprecedented and contrary to the fundamental principles governing the relationship between governments and higher education institutions.

a misconception

The bill again misses the mark in its misconception about academic freedom. This freedom stems from expertise based on clear research experience and academic recognition by peers, which the bill does not take into account. Statements from around the world, including those the Secretary has used as an example in support of Bill 32, restrict academic freedom to those who teach and conduct research in higher education institutions. However, the bill defines academic freedom as “the right of every person” that contributes to a university’s mission. This definition, which is more similar to that of freedom of expression, is inconsistent with the primary objective of freedom of education and threatens to dilute its scope.

While freedom of expression applies to everyone in the public sphere, academic freedom is limited to members of an academic community who conduct research and teaching activities.

Finally, let’s not forget what prompted Bill 32. This initiative arose out of concerns about so-called culture woke up universities in Québec. This discourse implies that social activism, especially in favor of equality, diversity and inclusion, stifles freedom of expression and forces teachers to censor themselves. It further suggests the one-dimensional application of this potential law, which would define threats to academic freedom not on the basis of the risk they pose to research and education, but rather on the basis of their cultural and political orientation.

It is true that many professors today are more concerned about the effect that a sensitive topic or offensive word could have on classroom dynamics and on each student’s experience. However, this sensitivity should not give rise to limitations on the matter, however difficult or controversial it may be.

However, it is also true that as teachers we have a duty to make thoughtful and responsible choices about what knowledge we want to impart and how we should impart it, and those choices should be focused on the learning experience of our students, including those of groups who have long been excluded from or underrepresented in universities. Bill 32 presents this duty, which is essential for good education, as an excessive burden. He tells us that “anyone” can participate in university activities in any way, “without doctrinal, ideological, or moral coercion.” This right is subject to the requirements of ethical standards and scientific rigor, but the bill is based on the principle that when it comes to expression, anything goes. Given the power imbalance between students and teachers, this approach could hinder informed critique in students, and even harm the development of the analytical ability we try to instill in them.

The government has set itself an ambitious legislative program. In June, when the parliamentary session ends, before the elections, some bills will inevitably disappear on the order form. Bill 32 should be one of them.

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