A letter to Queen’s faculty

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Dear Queen’s community member. Below please find the text of a letter emailed earlier this morning to all Queen’s faculty members with respect to the recent discussions, in media and on-campus, re the recent CAUT report involving the University’s response to an incident in the Department of History. While the letter is directed to members of our academic staff, the matter is of interest to the wider Queen’s community, so I share it here.

I wanted to write a personal note to you and share my perspective on an issue related to our university that is currently the subject of significant attention, both internally and in the media. While I have addressed this issue in letters to some of you and in a recent blog, I thought it important that I continue to keep you informed on this issue.

As some of you know, a recent report issued by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) criticized the university’s response to incidents involving a term adjunct professor. The report also called for a number of actions from Queen’s, including an apology.

Let me begin by saying that I believe the report’s findings to be incomplete, inaccurate, and based on a portion of the facts in this case. As a result, subsequent media coverage has portrayed this as an issue regarding academic freedom. I can assure you that the principles of academic freedom are central to this university’s values and are at the heart of everything we do. This particular case, however, is fundamentally not about academic freedom. It is about behaviour in the classroom that was reported to have created a hostile and unsafe learning environment for students. As a result, students expressed concerns, and the university took those concerns seriously and raised them with the faculty member in question.

As I stated to the Globe and Mail when asked for comment on this subject earlier this week, this is a complex issue and, for many reasons, it is not appropriate to discuss all of the facts of the case in a public forum at this time. As an employer, the university has been placed in a difficult situation when asked to respond to the CAUT report and concerns by faculty, students and alumni, because we must take care not to violate any privacy or confidentiality concerns.

It’s important to emphasize that the CAUT is not an impartial investigatory body, and that while its jurisdiction – or, in this case, lack thereof – in this matter is an important component of the university’s position on the report’s findings, it is by no means the only factor.

Any issue of concern regarding faculty should be a matter between the university and the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) – the sole legal representative of Queen’s faculty. Provisions related to academic freedom are set out in the Queen’s-QUFA Collective Agreement. While the university was prepared to conduct an investigation after the complaints were made, QUFA discouraged it from doing so. Weeks later, however, QUFA proceeded to ask the CAUT to investigate. Similarly, instead of using the grievance and arbitration procedure in the collective agreement, which would have allowed an independent third party arbitrator to assess the validity of the university’s actions, QUFA contacted the CAUT, whose mandate is to represent faculty associations and unions representing academic staff, to conduct the investigation. I ask you to consider why QUFA would prefer the CAUT instead of an independent third party arbitrator to consider this matter.

This matter is now currently in litigation between a member of the Faculty Association named in the CAUT report versus the Faculty Association, a matter in which Queen’s is an intervenor. Because of this, more details about the matter may emerge in the coming weeks.

Please know that as not only the principal of this great university, but also as a former student, practicing historian, and now a professor in Queen’s Department of History I believe in the protection of academic freedom. I also believe, however, that students and teaching assistants should be able to study and work in a safe environment in which they may raise concerns without fear of hostility and retaliation. This matter is about much more than academic freedom, and I hope you will take that into account when reflecting on the issues at hand.

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