The essential academic freedom

The commission on university freedom, chaired by Alexandre Cloutier, has just submitted its report.

I waited for him with mixed impatience, I will not hide it, of a certain concern. The subject, of capital importance, preoccupies me for a long time already, as one will see it by consulting my publications and my numerous public interventions on the subject.

Were we going to tackle head-on these difficult but unavoidable controversial subjects that the question of academic freedom imperatively requires us to face? Were we going to take the full measure of the intellectual and political issues that these questions involve? Were we going to offer solutions to meet these challenges?

I say it bluntly: the report produced by Mr Cloutier and the members of the committee is, in my opinion, remarkable.

We clearly recognized the importance of the question of university freedom, in particular for the accomplishment of the university’s mission, as well as the urgency with which current events impose it on us; one has obviously read, and one cites with relevance, books, articles and essential documents; we consulted, we listened and we investigated.

All in all, we clearly define academic freedom and recall its importance; we do not give in to dangerous fashions that sometimes threaten it (safe spaces, “traumatic warnings”, for example); and the importance of protecting academic freedom against both external and internal threats was recognized.

We must therefore thank the whole team for this precious work. But don’t take my word for it and go read this rich document.

Having said that, I want to say two things that I think are important. The first concerns an objection made to this work which seems to me weak and totally inadmissible.

The question of university autonomy and the law requested

The report calls for the government to adopt an ambitious law which will define in particular the mission of the university, university freedom and its beneficiaries and which will oblige the universities to set up a committee with important powers on the issue.

This request is not well received by some, who see it as a threat to the autonomy of the institution. In my opinion, this objection is not valid.

First, because universities have recently too often failed in their task of defending the institution and the freedom that should exist there; secondly, because our universities, public establishments, are financed by the population, which has, de facto and de jure, a right of oversight over them, which must moreover comply with the general legal framework and therefore, in particular, with the Quebec Charter, the Criminal Code and the Civil Code.

The report quotes in this regard the Parent commission, which already evoked this delicate balance to be established and “in which the university will not feel enslaved to the State nor the State dependent only on the good will of the universities”. I think, like Pierre Trudel, much more knowledgeable than me on all this, that what will be required by law from universities is in line with other laws in which no one has so far seen “a limit to the ‘autonomy of universities’. In this sense, we do not in any way upset the delicate balance mentioned here.

The second thing I want to say is trickier.

A blind spot

Among the threats to university life and freedom, we find at this time certain fashions which lie at the border between intellectual and political life and which sometimes exert, in certain sectors, an enormous influence on the life of the university. spirit.

This could mean that the refusal to comply with them and their demands, to comply with them, or even to adhere at least to certain positions with regard to them, makes a professor the victim of restrictions on his academic freedom that would be caused … by other professors and by a certain ideological conformism.

I know of a few disturbing cases of this kind at this very moment and it is hardly difficult to imagine others around controversial subjects.

Imagine this researcher, in such an institutional place, who would like to show the limits of the concept of systemic racism, which she rejects; another who challenges the concept of gender; yet another who maintains that what is presented here as credible research is pseudoscience; or someone who thinks diversity, inclusion and equity policies are wrong; and so on… Censorship and self-censorship are likely to combine here…

All this is not really addressed in this report and I was particularly surprised that we did not retain, in the survey that we carried out on the current sources of limitations to university freedom, in addition to the management, the unions, students, businesses and government, certain professors or certain modes. I submit that it is not unreasonable to think that, on subjects such as those I have just named, the future will bring us troubling cases.

I also think, however, that the tools that the report recommends to set up, correctly thought out and used, could very well make it possible to make visible and correct what seems to me to be hidden.

This column will come back to you on January 8.

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