Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Academic Freedoms

Strange things are afoot at my beloved tiny university. I've already discussed the whole honorary degree debacle at length, but it just keeps getting stranger and stranger. The university quietly released a new policy this morning on protests, disruptions, and demonstrations on campus; this policy outlines the administration's new policy on how to deal with potentially "disruptive" behaviour. The policy itself is quite brief, so I'd recommend reading it if you're interested. Essentially, the university is giving itself the right to shut down demonstrations, protests, and any other behaviours that it deems "disruptive" or not "consistent with the University's mission." (I think it means "mission statement," but this policy is poorly written on many levels.)

The policy claims that its reach is applicable "where there is a material disruption of, or interference with, instructional activities, other University business and campus events." There are two curious things about this: first, the policy's title implies it only addresses "Public Events", which instructional activities are clearly not; second, the phrase "material disruption" is vague. What is a material disruption as opposed to other kinds of disruption? Material to me implies something physical or tangible. My assumption is reinforced by the third type of improper action: "material interference free entry to or exit from the university," which absolutely makes sense, but again begs the question of "what is a material disruption?"

The more troubling part of the policy is the second part of the guidelines:

2. Demonstrations are limited to appropriate areas or public forums that do not
include, among other locations, faculty and administrative offices, classrooms
and other instructional facilities. The University will designate areas for
speeches and demonstrations. These areas will be designated as "Free Expression
Areas". Use of these areas for speaking, demonstrating and other forms of
expression will be scheduled through the Vice-President, Academic and Research
Office to best accommodate all interested users.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the use of the term "Free Expression Areas," which I find problematic for two reasons: first, it differs from the "Free Speech Areas" identified in the document's title1, and second, the use of a term like "Free Expression Areas" implies that all areas not designated as such are thus not places of free expression? That troubles me greatly.2 It is absolutely an attack on academic freedom, but it is also an attack on personal freedoms. It is also, in my opinion, a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

There has been quite a lot of commentary on the policy through the school email, all of it excellent. The best response, I think, is the one that points out the policy itself is totally unnecessary, since the things that it outlines as "improper actions" are actually considered, you know, offences under Canadian law. It's also worth noting that this move to "Free Expression Areas" parallels what's being done for the upcoming G8 summit in Huntsville, scarcely 150 kilometres from our doorsteps. Interestingly, the administration has responded

I know that not everyone shares my ire at the idea of giving Harris anything more prestigious than a membership in the IGA cookie club, and that's fine. I'm choosing to protest the degree by not attending the ceremony.3 I think--I hope--I believe, though, that the policy as outlined is not something that anyone should be in favour of, for a variety of reasons. Is a policy necessary? Perhaps--but not this policy. It's quite telling that the VP-AR's office responded to the concerns by saying that the policy "needs work" and its current form does lend itself to authoritarian reading. He did, however, agree with the numerous recommendations to refer the policy to the Academic Senate.4

Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

1 See what I mean about the quality of the writing?
2 A lot of the response to the policy thus far has focused on ideas about what people feel the roles of the university and of a university education are, in terms of critical thinking and critical discourse. I'm not quite convinced that this is the role of a university education any more, but that is another entry for another time.

3 This is a change from when I wrote "The Subtle Knife": while it's true that I probably would skip the APS grad, I now feel strongly enough about this whole thing that I want to emphasize that my non-attendance is out of principle, not laziness.
4 I actually like the VP-AR. I don't agree with all of his decisions, obviously, and I don't think that he spends enough time trying to understand our university as distinct from other schools in the province, but I think that he could/would be a good administrator somewhere else.

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