Academic Freedom Key to Social Interest

Article excerpt

University of Manitoba professors were ready to strike over academic freedom. Manitoba very narrowly dodged a strike that would have disrupted the lives of 29,000 students when, after many months of negotiations, the university compromised on its original refusal to include new language protecting academic freedom.

Throughout the bargaining process, the president's office insisted it had no intention of limiting academic freedom by restricting professors' right to speak publicly, including the right to criticize the university, or by imposing performance-management systems that would allow administrators to dictate criteria for research and publishing.

Yet its refusal to agree to enshrine those rights in a collective agreement, as most Canadian universities have already done, and its efforts to actually impose performance management in at least two faculties raise questions about how sincere those promises were.

What is academic freedom? It sounds more like an 'ivory tower' privilege than a legitimate reason for a strike. But in reality, it's not only central to the mission of the university; it matters to the whole community.

Academic freedom protects individual faculty members' right to pursue research of their own choosing, to speak openly about their research and even to criticize their own institution when it threatens to restrict those choices or demand that research be tailored to meet corporate or other external objectives. Academic freedom ensures universities continue to contribute to the public good.

One of the ways it does that is to give young people the tools they will need as workers and citizens by learning how to evaluate their ideas critically, test common-sense beliefs against evidence and acquire the intellectual skills and self-confidence to exchange ideas in a respectful way in a democratic society. These essential aspects of the university are undermined when teaching and research agendas are dictated by university administrators rather than freely chosen by faculty. …