A fundamentalist, literalist, absolutist theology cannot work in religion, and it cannot work in the area of academic freedom. And this notwithstanding the blind trust in a mythic absolute academic freedom on the part of University of Toronto officialdom.
The problem is that all such absolutisms can be put on paper but can never be practiced with acceptable results.
Here is a recent discussion in Times Higher Education of London. Constantine Sandis, a professor of philosophy, explained why academic freedom cannot be an absolute:
Suppose a history lecturer systematically maintains that the Second World War never happened or that the Crusades took place in 1986, and responds with coarse verbal abuse to anybody who dares to challenge her. It would be plain silly to suggest that her union and/or employer ought to protect her right to do so in the name of free speech.
But there was a counter-argument, by Alastair Fraser, a political scientist at Cambridge:
What would happen in the case you cite of the false date (why would anyone do this?) is that the students, having a range of sources and not relying, zombie-like, on their lecturers, would laugh the guy out of town. … In terms of the academy, we put our faith in core processes of collective reasoning, such as peer review. Most of us are susceptible to a combination of peer review, peer pressure and reason. Where we aren’t, putting up with the odd nut is a price worth paying to secure the possibility of disagreement and prevent any form of endorsed, official knowledge holding sway. This is the only process by which we can proceed towards knowledge.
Both Sandis and Fraser posit a hypothetical case. Fraser, to make his absolutist argument, posits that Sandis’s strange professor could only be an “odd nut,” quickly isolated by what would surely be, in Fraser’s view, self-correcting activity on the part of his colleagues. It’s easy enough to win an argument if you posit circumstances to fit your theology. But suppose, in real life, Fraser were confronted not with a single “odd nut” of a professor but rather with a sizable group of academics, all in the same department, all maintaining in their teachings and writings that the Second World War never happened, that the Crusades took place in 1986 ? And suppose further that these professors had recruited a sizable number of students, all busily producing learned theses proving either that WWII never happened and/or that the Crusades occurred in 1986 ? I would say that any such university would soon lose all credibility and would, in fact if not on paper, cease to exist as an academic institution. It would have committed the very suicide that courts have always warned would result from an absolutist view of our constitutional freedoms. It is, in fact, what is in the process of happening at the University of Toronto.
As we have seen in previous postings, the U. of T. has imprimatured at least two MA theses that maintain, and here I exaggerate only slightly, that all Jews are oppressive racists. And we have seen that these theses were not the work of single “odd nut” but rather the work of at least a preponderance of the teaching staff at the Department of Sociology and Equity in Education (SESE) at the U. of T.’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Apparently the U. of T. officials are embarrassed in private, but they won’t let on to any discomfiture in public. In replying to critics of the SESE theses, these officials quote again and again, without further comment, the absolutist U. of T. 1992 Statement of Freedom of Speech which holds, very broadly, that there are just about no limits to freedom of expression on campus. (The only exception would be “when members of the University use speech as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing the lawful exercise of speech by members or invited guests, or interfering with the conduct of authorized University business.”) There is no mention in this Statement of any possible scholarly limits on the absolute freedom of speech at the University, and that, of course, as far as this document goes, leaves the door open to the practice of voodoo scholarship. Which is what goes on at the University of Toronto.
The problem is not academic freedom at all. The problem is that any provision for academic freedom must, to be meaningful, go beyond an abstract statement of “freedom” to a specification of how a regime of freedom can operate in an academic setting. This has been done, for example, by the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (UNESCO, 1997).
The UNESCO document speaks at some length for the rights of professors to conduct their teaching and research without hindrance or restriction; its call for freedom is at least as ringing as that of the U. of T. Statement. Nevertheless, UNESCO here is also careful to specify that academic freedom, to be academic, cannot be in violation of the canons of scholarship and science:
Considering that the right to education, teaching and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for institutions of higher education and that the open communication of findings, hypotheses and opinions lies at the very heart of higher education and provides the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research ….
Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching.
A congruent statement has just recently been made by Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors; he may have had the U. of T. situation in mind:
Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.
Statements about academic freedom, including that by the U. of T., generally include the observation that a diversity of views is desirable and conducive to the free exercise of academic work. But as we have seen, the U. of T. practices, under flag of academic freedom, have resulted in at least one SESE department being dominated by a single political dogma, to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. Not only did the academic freedom absolutism lead to voodo scholarship, it also abolished, in at least one department, the very freedom it ostensibly protects.
Finally, a word about what formal statements can and cannot do for academic freedom.
As in the related (but not identical) area of freedom of speech, there are at least two ways in which general statements of principle can work. The first is the American way, in which there is an absolutist First Amendment which is then modified by court decisions and in actual practice so as to allow for the necessary limitations that make a free society work. The second is the Canadian way, which allows in its very Charter of Rights and Freedoms for deviations from absolutist interpretation through the “notwithstanding clause” (Section 33 of the Charter). (As a matter of fact, the Canadian Charter has been held not to be applicable to universities.) The University of Toronto, surprising for a Canadian university, has gone the American way in its verbal absolutism, but without the American practical provisions for limitation.
The upshot is this: The University of Toronto has a creeping problem of voodoo scholarship that invades its precincts. Its response so far has been: no problem, no problem ! freedom of speech ! outsiders: mind your own business ! But the fact is that there is a problem. And the public, which pays for this university, has a right to be involved. The officials need to take a close look at the voodoo in its ranks and need to take steps to restore public confidence.
Like most areas of democratic governance, an authentic regime of academic freedom needs to be responsive to the complexities and nuances and grey areas of a vibrant academic culture. And it needs to respectful of the core value of academic life: the pursuit of truth.
For a thoughtful defense and analysis of academic freedom, including its complexities, see the article by Terence Karran
Also: read the important analysis of academic freedom by Arthur Gross-Schaefer: Academic Freedom; Moving Away from the Faculty-Only Paradigm