Academic freedom | Quebec draws the ire of the university world

(Quebec) In rare unanimity, professors, faculty, students and university principals consider entire portions of the bill introduced by Secretary of Higher Education Danielle McCann to protect academic freedom “unacceptable.” Some even want the minister to let him die on the promissory note.

Posted at 5:00am

Hugo Pilon Larose

Hugo Pilon Larose
The press

Bill 32 is the Legault government’s response to the report of the commission chaired by the former minister and vice-rector of the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi Alexandre Cloutier, which examined the protection of the “liberty academic”. This mandate was entrusted to him by Quebec in response to articles citing the sometimes explosive climate on campuses when it comes time to teach sensitive concepts, such as the use of the “word beginning with N.”

According to the president of the Quebec Federation of University Professors (FQPPU), Jean Portuguese, the proposed bill contains “truncated and dangerous” information for the functioning of universities. For example, it states that “university academic freedom” is defined as “the right of every person to freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral coercion engage in any activity by which, in his field of activity, he contributes to the achievement of the mission of a educational institution.

For Mr. Portuguese, misunderstanding the functioning of universities is to limit a professor’s academic freedom to his ‘field of work’.

It is as if we are basing ourselves on an understanding of the XIXand century of academic freedom, when everyone was in their own field and you couldn’t watch what was happening next door. Interdisciplinarity has been the basis of the functioning of universities for 30 years.

Jean Portuguese, President of the FQPPU

The FQPPU, which wants the bill to be widely amended and passed by June, believes the government is currently giving “exceptional and completely new” powers to the minister, who could “order establishments to provide for any item it designates for academic freedom.

Teachers also want Quebec to clearly protect their right to criticize their educational institution. They also want universities to protect them from SLAPP lawsuits, while professors are sometimes prosecuted for statements they make while exercising their academic freedom.

A government attack

The Quebec Student Union (UEQ) believes Bill 32 is “an attack on the autonomy of universities, and therefore on academic freedom”. The interim president of this federation of student associations, Jonathan Desroches, says no more and no less that “if the bill is not passed, it will meet our main requirement”.

Likewise, the rectors of Quebec universities — who are opposing the passage of a law governing academic freedom — want Quebec to let Bill 32 die on the promissory note. The president of the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire and rector of the Université de Sherbrooke, Pierre Cossette, is concerned that Quebec is imposing the creation of councils to monitor academic freedom and deal with complaints, when existing bodies already are. “It won’t solve the problem, it will only make it worse,” he said.

Mr. Cossette also denounced the powers conferred on Quebec in Section 6 of the bill, which provides that the Minister “if she deems it necessary to protect the academic freedom of the university, may order an educational institution to change its policy.” to include any element that it specifies ”.

We are talking about a bill that writes in the preamble that academic freedom implies the autonomy of institutions and which subsequently introduces measures to circumvent the autonomy of institutions in the management of academic affairs.

Pierre Cossette, President of the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire and Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke

Indeed, for Christine Gauthier, Vice-President of the National Federation of Teachers of Quebec (FNEEQ-CSN), it is necessary to “revoke this state intervention in institutional policy”.

A complex problem

mme Gauthier, whose association represents teachers, recalls that “problems have arisen in connection with academic freedom for a long time” [et qu’il] we need to make sure the bill covers the whole problem.” But to the Federation, the bill is “not acceptable in its current form”.

The teachers, she recalls, feel the government should have gone with a statement rather than a bill. They also demanded that academic freedom be enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And to avoid self-censorship, a phenomenon that worries Secretary Danielle McCann, we need to better protect university teachers, who make up a significant proportion of the teaching staff but often have precarious employment status.

“The government must listen to our recommendations. Our amendments are not trivial. They are adults,” says Gautier.

The Legault government will start special consultations on bill 32 in parliament on Tuesday. Quebec will then have to proceed to the detailed study in the parliamentary committee if it wants to adopt it by the end of the parliamentary session, in a month’s time.

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