The fight about academic freedom in Canada is whitewashed

Hill Times February 22, 2021

Quebec Premier François Legault used social media on Facebook last week to share his belief that “a handful of radical activists who are trying to censor certain words and works” are the problem, in reference to the recent use of the N-word by university professors in Ottawa and Montreal and those tyrannical students. It’s ironic when only six per cent of professors in Quebec universities are visible minorities, including only 0.3 per cent Indigenous (2019 Loi sur l’accès à l’égalité en emploi dans des organismes publics). But the average across Canada is somewhere between one and 1.5 per cent Indigenous, so academia everywhere is quite white.

First off, there’s no good reason to use offensive words in the classroom. The only reason one might do this is for shock value, and that’s not real teaching.

The basis of academic freedom is about reducing the risk of private funding or the state itself interfering with the pursuit of knowledge. We don’t want the government or a corporation to pay for the results it wants because that would be corruption. So let’s enshrine in legislation that the state must keep an arm’s-length away from academia and then fund enough so that universities don’t have to beg for corporate money. That’s how we protect knowledge from corruption.  Easy.

About this Legault fight against “wokeness” and social advocacy—this isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about a small group of white people refusing to change or hear about any other lived experience. Might as well call it Karen University.

Academia is not about the freedom to speak any dumb idea or thought that one might have. Academia was intended to play the role of “critic and conscience of society” and that’s a serious responsibility. So where were the universities and colleges in the 2020 summer of protest against racism and fight for equal rights? Have universities and colleges lost their voice of conscience?

Academic freedom is infected by the belief that science is the only god of knowledge. Quick point: there are many knowledge systems, and Indigenous knowledge systems are eons older than “science.” When academic freedom is jealously guarded by white professors who only know one knowledge system, Indigenous knowledge is dismissed. Have you heard of the university demanding academic freedom to protect Anishnaabe knowledge systems for future generations?

Academic freedom is sometimes used as the weapon against those disruptive students who dare question the teacher.  Academia is hierarchical, very Catholic actually, the priest/professor is the gatekeeper to the god of science. The thing is that societies change and we do actually want to evolve, do we not? Often it is the younger generations that champions change. Am I the disruptive one in class if I ask that we correct the history textbooks to include Indigenous experiences?   Have we allowed universities and the mistaken fight of academic freedom to be the walls against change?

In contrast, Indigenous knowledge holders operate in a circle of accountability to each other, never alone. There is no hierarchy. There is significant responsibility to each other, to the community and to the land. We are learning from each other and with each other.

About the “social advocacy” and “wokeness” that offends a few professors and white politicians. Get over yourselves. If professors can’t support difficult conversations so students can learn in safety (adult education theory and practice), perhaps this isn’t the job for you. If politicians can’t empathize with the cry for change from BIPOC students and your voters, this is definitely not the job for you.

We want academic responsibility for professors to share knowledges in a good way, to gently critique society with the goal to help us do better, and to help us learn more to avoid the mistakes of the past. The responsibility is to knowledge, student learning, and society. Without responsibility, freedom is a weapon.