On Academic Freedom at Queen’s

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The subject of academic freedom has come up at Queen’s lately, particularly following a controversial report from CAUT that has gained some attention in the media. Since academic freedom has been in the forefront of conversations of late, I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject.

Privacy rules prevent me from discussing the specific matter at issue in the CAUT report, save only to say that the report’s conclusions are both incorrect and based on incomplete information.  We can, however, debate academic freedom itself. In fact, we should. While we would all agree that it is a core value of any university, there is not universal agreement as to its definition and scope, let alone how to apply it.

Let me be unequivocal: I believe in academic freedom, meaning the freedom to debate, discuss and argue (collegially and with sound evidence) difficult, controversial and, yes, sometimes uncomfortable topics. I do not believe that doing so is incompatible with inclusiveness and the principles of equity. I do believe that both faculty members and students (and for that matter, staff) can engage in difficult conversations and debate about complex matters, and that they can indeed use language that may not be “politically correct” (to use a phrase I do not find helpful) in our current climate.

That is what being at university is all about. It is about learning; learning about the past, the present, and the future. It is about learning about advances and new technologies and how our world is changing. It is about unraveling, deconstructing, testing and proving everything from a scientific theorem to a philosophical proposition. Academic freedom gives all of us the right to express our views in a safe environment without fear of sanction.

However, academic freedom does not occur in a vacuum. Our world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and our families, neighbourhoods and campuses reflect these changes. Queen’s strives to be an inclusive environment where everyone is welcome no matter their background. This is what makes us a destination for exceptional people. It is thus important that in having tough conversations about tough topics that they be appropriately contextualized.

The diversity of our classrooms and lecture halls does not mean that we cannot have those difficult discussions; it does not mean we should not discuss issues that make some members of our community uncomfortable because their views have been challenged. It does mean that we need to be aware of our surroundings and our audience, and ensure our comments, even when made for reasons of provoking discussion, are being made for sound academic, scholarly and pedagogical purposes.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression are enshrined in our way of thinking at Queen’s, and will continue to be. I encourage you to continue the debate.

One thought on “On Academic Freedom at Queen’s

  1. Chris

    Dear Principal Woolf,

    I appreciated your statement on academic freedom. As an alumnus and donor, I would like to see Queen’s take concrete steps to ensure that academic freedom is protected.

    Would you consider adopting the recent report released by the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression? The full document can be found here: http://provost.uchicago.edu/FOECommitteeReport.pdf

    Princeton University has already done so: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/04/princeton-votes-for-academic-freedom

    The report is quite brief and would probably need to be fleshed out with details and stipulations in order to be implemented effectively and safely. For example, the report states that the administration may limit expression that is ‘directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.’ As stated, this gives considerable leeway to the administration and could potentially be abused without the necessary provisions.

    Nevertheless, I believe the report offers a good start and some important guidelines on this critical issue.

    I would very much appreciate your consideration and response. Thank you.


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