Academic freedom in 2014

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The fallout from TransformUS lingers

Remember when institutions like this stood for something? / Haley Klassen

Remember when institutions like this stood for something? / Haley Klassen

Members of the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) travelled to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon on Oct. 1 to defend academic freedoms.

The event, called “To the Wall: The Last Stand for Academic Freedom” was hosted by the U of S’ Faculty Association (USFA).

USFA invited URFA and all the other faculty associations from Canada. The event had a panel discussion with different professors, and a speech on academic freedom by Dr. James Turk. Turk is the former Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

The event is being hosted at the U of S because of the turbulent shocks the institution experience over the summer. The controversial, and now discontinued program, TransformUS is the source of the discontent. Robert Buckingham, a tenured professor and department head, was fired for his views on the program. The firing rocked the campus even more.

“It’s apparent it’s important to reinforce the value of academic freedom,” says Dr. Sylvain Rheault, associate professor of French at the U of R and URFA’s chair.

He was one of the professors who made the trip to Saskatoon.

Yet, what exactly is academic freedom?

“Academic freedom is the right that every professor teaching in a university is entitled to. It means that you have the right to decide what to teach, and you have the right to criticize, which is important,” Rheault said.

Academic freedom is “the basis of not only collegial exchanges, but also it is the basis of democracy.”

“It’s something you have to protect.”

Other institutions in society don’t have this same freedom. A worker at a newspaper, for example, cannot always publically criticize the paper like a professor could a university. The university’s role as a public institution, and one dedicated to higher learning and democracy, is all built upon the foundations of academic freedom. Without academic freedom, the university as it is known would not exist.

Rheault points out that “universities are one of the few places in a country where this right is protected.”

“It’s important to keep it that way.”

Although it may seem alarmist to say that academic freedom is under attack in general, it can be said with certainty that academic freedom was under siege at the U of S. Buckingham was fired for speaking out against the controversial TransformUS program.

When talking about attacks on academic freedom, Rheault said that “the example that comes to mind right away is Dr. Buckingham. He used his right to criticize, and he was fired.”

“This creates fear.”

If this fear is allowed to spread, less and less professors will stand up for academic freedom. This is exactly when academic freedom is needed most. Yet, there are sentinels guarding sacred academic freedom like Rheault, those who travelled with him to Saskatoon, and those they met there.

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