A Conversation with Peter McInnis, VP of CAUT on the Past, Present, and Future of Academic Freedom

By Kirk Niergarth (2021-02-04)

Peter McInnis is Chair of the History Department at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and Vice President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers [CAUT].  His research focuses on Canada in the post-Second World War era, but Faculty Forum reached out to him for an interview because of his experience serving on CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure committee.  The below interview has been edited for length and clarity, but a longer version is available as a podcast here.

Kirk Niergarth:  Hello Professor McInnis and thank you for making the time to talk to us. I know you through your work on the history of Canada, but I don’t think this is probably how you came to be an expert in matters of academic freedom. So can you trace for me how you got involved in CAUT and what led you in particular into the area of academic freedom?

Peter McInnis: It came a number of ways. One of the things that when I was doing research years ago was the case of Frank Underhill, an historian at University of Toronto. He was active in the CCF and had made a few comments about the war. He was brought on the carpet and threatened with his job. And at that point you know, guarantees of academic freedom were not entrenched in collective agreements because none of these universities were organized.

And then there’s the Harry Crowe case at what is now the University of Winnipeg. In 1958, Crowe sent a letter to a colleague and it was essentially shopped, it was steamed open. The president of the university found out about this and fired him. Crowe was a little bit of a recalcitrant character, but he was making criticism – what we call intramural academic freedom –  about the direction of the university and he was dismissed without any recourse. And one of the people interested in this was Bora Laskin.  Laskin was professor of law at the University of Toronto. He would later go on to become CAUT president in the 1960s and later in his career, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Laskin was interested in natural justice and how to deal with such cases in terms of process.

There are always people that may break the rules or behave badly.  We do see this amongst our colleagues in academia. We’re a diverse group and we come from a lot of different political perspectives, but it’s about the defense of process and what we, as academics in our professional capacity have recourse to do in terms of talking, not only about our research, but broader definitions of being an engaged public intellectual and citizen.

So I was interested in those cases, but also I became interested in academic activism, union activism.  When I taught at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia, we ended up going on strike in 2000 to get our first collective agreement and were aided by the activism and participation of CAUT, which I didn’t know very much about at that point.  And then I became more formally involved when I was the president of my university faculty association.  I went to CAUT council first about 11 years ago and then I became a member on the Academic Freedom and Tenure committee. I was the chair of that committee for four years and I still sit on it. So I’ve been involved with that committee for seven years and I’ve learned a lot about academic freedom and the various dimensions of it. And it’s actually fairly complex.

Kirk Niergarth: And in terms of what you’ve learned, what is one way that your thinking about academic freedom has changed?

Peter McInnis: I would say a lot of us approach academic freedom with the notion that it’s this very esoteric right about being difficult or challenging to administrators or our colleagues, and we confuse it with our right to freedom of expression, which of course is section two of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The freedom of expression does have its limits, although the bar is set pretty high, but academic freedom is much more diverse and complex. It covers larger issues about questions about governance and political participation, a range of things.  So I guess the short answer is there’s more to academic freedom than I first understood.

Kirk Niergarth: You’ve already mentioned the Harry Crowe case. And this was one famous academic freedom case where a faculty member is disciplined for criticizing their institution. What are some of the other kinds of academic freedom cases?

Peter McInnis:  There’s a number of them and they’ve been increasing in the last 15 or 20 years. Some of them involve medical researchers and practitioners and people involved in drug trials. One of the most famous cases was at the University of Toronto. A professor of medicine, Nancy Oivieri, was involved in trials of a drug put out by the manufacturer Apotex. She thought there were some problems and she wanted to be able to speak out. She was then taken to court by Apotex and she was harassed by some members of the university administration for being a troublemaker. It was a long convoluted case, but eventually she won with the aid of CAUT.  And so part of this is the right to speak and tell the truth about things like medical interventions or processes.  Right now, if you have somebody legitimately saying, well, there may be some problems with one of the vaccines you’d want that person to be able to speak unhindered, but a lot of times [academics are made to] sign agreements muzzling [their] ability to speak.

But there’ve been other cases. There’s a case ongoing right now at the University of British Columbia at what is called the “Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies” connected to an agreement privately entered by a donor family and the university. And we’re just investigating this right now, but some of the details of it are quite fundamental: who belongs in this Institute, what are they, what they’re going to teach, how much money can be used… We’re saying that in an era where a lot of universities are saying, please, please donate, there’s a limit to what donors can do. You can name the Institute after yourself and stipulate some things as a donor, but when it gets down to who can be hired or fired, what could be taught or not taught, that’s a breach of academic freedom.

Academic freedom also involves governance. I’ll give you a couple really quick other examples. Some universities in this country, private universities, Trinity Western is one in BC are faith based and you can’t get a job unless you sign this codicil to follow a certain code of behavior.  Now we’ve made an issue of that at CAUT.   It’s a limit on the faculty’s academic freedom and their ability to really function as fully fledged academics. This came up in a case when Trinity Western were trying to set up a law school and there was a legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court about whether this was religious freedom and the court ruled that it wasn’t, that there were limitations. And just recently as December Ontario decided that they would give the right to offer degrees to the Canada Christian College run by a man named Charles McVety who is pretty notorious for saying anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ things.  And so CAUT and other organizations have said these kind of  faith-based organizations that really, on the face of it, spark intolerance, shouldn’t be granted university status and the people who work there should have the right to be able to speak their mind opposing this and not lose their jobs. So that’s another way the issue of academic freedom is broader.

Another example I would give briefly is at the University of Calgary where we did an investigation into what was called the Enbridge Center for Corporate Sustainability.  This was a case where the university president, Elizabeth Cannon, was involved and there was a real questions about whether people were able to speak out against  where the money was going. So, what academic freedom also defends is to make sure that the universities are not overly influenced by corporate money or by outside donors and that they retain the ability for people inside to talk about their jobs without fear of repercussions.

So those are a couple of examples of the broader understanding of academic freedom.

Kirk Niergarth: It’s interesting to me that among the many calls for more freedom of expression on campus, there has been less commentary on the role of corporations on campus in terms of shaping curriculum and hiring as in the cases that you mention.  But, in the issue of Faculty Forum we are about to publish, there is a piece on the relationship between freedom of expression and academic freedom.  What do you think about that relationship in terms of the context of faculty life on campus?

Peter McInnis: Well it’s interesting. The employers’ group, Universities Canada, came out with a statement in the fall of 2011 that had a much more defined and limited understanding of academic freedom. It said, well, you have academic freedom, but it can only be in your area of research. So you could speak to your expertise, but that’s all.  They didn’t really want you to be a public intellectual.  And what you say also needs to fit with  the administrative strategic plan or whatever their mission statement is.

Well, I may or may not want to agree with our mission statement and what’s happening in the province of Alberta recently would make me as a faculty member want to speak out against that. Would I lose my job if I did that?

So we’re now talking about intramural and extramural expression. So extramural expression is making a statement beyond the confines of campus.  What if I make a statement on a carbon tax  or something like that?  I may or may not be an expert in that area. I may not be a geologist, but perhaps if I’m asked to make a statement as an academic and maybe I’m knowledgeable enough to make a comment. Some would say, you’re going out of your field. You gotta narrow it down and be very limited what you can say. And here it is impinging on this issue of free speech. Free speech is fairly broadly defined by the Supreme Court in this country. Hate speech is not allowed but you can say a lot of noxious things. Academic freedom doesn’t mean that we always have to agree or state our positions in a very courteous manner.

The main difference is academic freedom is contained within the collective agreement.  It’s a special right exercised by professional academics.  There are some times that it coalesces with broader definitions of freedom of expression and others that it’s more about our profession.  If we don’t have academic freedom as academics, then we can’t really do our job.

Kirk Niergarth: So just to drill down a little bit there.  I think about some of the famous cases in the past. So Phillippe Rushton, for example.   His research was questionable research, research that was critiqued by others in the Academy.  And then we have other instances where faculty members will speak about things that are not just slightly outside their area, but far outside their area and in some cases in ways that are demonstrably wrong and cause controversy.  So are there any differences, from your perspective, between those two types of  extramural speech?  And also, is there a point at which questionable research that is not meeting any of the disciplinary standards  is not defended under an academic freedom clause in a collective agreement?

Peter McInnis: I think when we’re talking about academic freedom in the classroom… As a historian, I can speak about historical events and sometimes I talk about current events. So last term, I did speak about what was going on in the United States, around the debate around the so-called 1619 educational project and the Trumpian 1776 project. It wasn’t directly what I was teaching, but it was a useful comparison. That’s okay. But, say, you were a physicist and you want to suddenly talk about Anti-Vax in the classroom?  That’s a problem. This would not be protected by academic freedom.

If you want to post anti-vaxxer positions on Twitter on your own time, as long as it doesn’t impinge upon your research and teaching? That’s not a problem [that you could be disciplined for under the collective agreement]. We’re seeing on social media, a lot of trolling around looking for material that would incriminate or cause problems for people. And so a tweet can get you fired and that’s happened in the United States and in the UK.  Less so here because of our protections.

With the case of  Phillippe Rushton – notorious white supremacist supported by various dubious groups back in the day when he was publishing really dubious research — there were calls for his dismissal from the University of Western Ontario. To the credit of the university, they said, he’s wrong and we think he needs to be refuted, but we’re not going to get rid of him because that process is so problematic. That not only will get rid of the Rushtons of the world  — to which some of us would say good –  but would get rid of a whole bunch of other people that are actually progressive or are arguing for an inclusive and much more broader definition of social justice.

Academic freedom defends equity-seeking groups.  Critical race theory or other areas that have been developed over the years could not have developed in academia if it wasn’t for academic freedom and sometimes that’s lost in the debate of the current day.

Kirk Niergarth: That is a nice segue to thinking about the relationship between academic freedom and issues of equity and inclusion.  I was reading an essay by Anver Saloojee who writes that academic freedom needs to be weighed against competing freedoms, notably freedom from discrimination and that there needs to be a nuanced understanding of the public good when assessing academic freedom claims. I’m wondering how you feel academic freedom and discriminatory statements made on campus relate or what the relationship is?

Peter McInnis:  I’ve heard Anver Saloojee, who’s a professor at Ryerson University, present his opinions personally and I have respect for Professor Saloojee’s positions.  However, I would say that sometimes people make a bit of an essentialist argument about how this sorts out.

We don’t want to conceive of academic freedom as simply defending the kind of obdurate, maybe even racist, disaffected faculty member. Those people are there and they have their positions that should be refuted. However, if you want to limit academic freedom by people taking offence, that is, I would argue, too much of a circumscribed definition. It needs to be fundamental.

So part of the issue, I think, right now is that if you say “I’m defending academic freedom,” it sounds like you’re defending people like Professor [Jordan] Peterson at the University of Toronto and we are  — in terms of process. I don’t agree with Peterson’s position at all and I think it’s quite offensive. But if the university tried to get rid of him without due process that would be a breach of academic freedom.

If we allow a process to be made up ad hoc or whatever the administration of the day likes to do, then in the long run equity-seeking groups would be disadvantaged because that’s the way the university used to be and we’ve hinged all of this  progress on the definition of academic freedom.

So I don’t see these freedoms as conflictual but as mutually reinforcing. And I would resist in the present debate, limiting academic freedom just to these things, because as we’ve discussed, it’s a much broader and more encompassing concept than just that.

Kirk Niergarth: One of the broader considerations is the way faculty are employed and contingent academic staff or contract faculty, as we call them at Mount Royal, have a very constrained amount of academic freedom.  What are the things that associations could do to try and mitigate this structural constraint on academic freedom?

Peter McInnis: I would certainly agree that contract academic staff don’t really have functional academic freedom.  I mean, they should, and we extend it to them. But in reality because of the precarious nature of their contracts, they could simply find themselves out of a job if they anger some administrators or say something controversial, not only in the classroom or on campus, but politically and on social media.  It’s very inhibiting.

And so that’s why the CAUT committee is academic freedom and tenure because we see those two going together. We’re now seeing over 50% of university courses taught nationally by contingent precarious academic staff and that is an erosion of tenure. We’ve all experienced in the last number of years retirements that are not replaced and we’re given if anything, just people hired per course.  That kind of just-in-time delivery of precarious workers is really problematic.  It’s certainly bad for academic freedom.

We need to approach this at a larger level. Part of it is that federal and provincial funding to post-secondary education has dropped very markedly over the last 20 or 30 years.  And the administrators of course turn to contract people because they cost less and there’s no longer-term guarantees. So we need to argue, and this has been part of a CAUT policy, that we don’t want to support the creation of positions that aren’t accompanied by some form of tenure or some type of conversion. Some universities convert people after a number of years in contract to a tenure track position as a way of achieving some form of permanency. That’s a better solution than creating this mass population of underemployed, underpaid academics. I mean, we’re seeing this in the United States.  There it’s over 75% and we’re seeing almost the dissolution of tenure.

It’s worth remembering that in countries like the United Kingdom under the Thatcher government they did away with tenure in the so-called Educational Reform Act of 1988.  They simply removed it. So all of the fairly substantial changes to the nature of the academic job in the UK – work intensification, all of these types of things – were brought about by the elimination of tenure. I mean, it just makes it that much easier.

Kirk Niergarth: So in terms of this strange year, there’s been obviously a (hopefully temporary) transition in the way universities are running. I’m wondering what, in the current environment, are the threats that you see or foresee to academic freedom in Canada?

Peter McInnis: There are two issues. One is the fairly significant transformation in post-secondary education. So in the case of Alberta, you’re of course familiar with Jason Kenney and the very profound changes that are being proposed by that government. And you can see this happening in jurisdictions with neoliberal governments.  In Australia, they proposed charging double and triple tuition rates to people in arts and social science courses and less tuition for STEM courses. One of the interesting things that was pointed out was that the entire  current Liberal government in Australia were all arts graduates!

So that’s a really major thing. All types of issues around the academic job, we need to look at more holistically. Performance-based funding is spreading not only from Alberta to Saskatchewan to Ontario. We’ll probably see it right across the country because one of the aftereffects of the pandemic will be calls for economic austerity. Our universities are running deficits and they’re going to have to look to different ways of recovering that money. So a lack of funding is indirectly affecting our academic freedom.

The other thing to come back to some points that we discussed earlier was the way that sometimes academic freedom is conflated with issues of identity politics.  And so it is suggested “you just want academic freedom so you can say obnoxious and racist comments on campus or in the classroom.” That’s a really limited notion of academic freedom and is of course not what CAUT supports. We don’t support those sorts of things, but some people say that they want CAUT to be a kind of, I don’t know, purification committee: to list breaches of etiquette and that if somebody says something, they would be sanctioned. That’s not what we do and people want prescriptive solutions to what is an ongoing conversation. So that’s a problem.

So on the macro level, we’re worried about the changing nature of post-secondary education with neoliberal universities and governments.  On the smaller level, maybe you and I would agree that we need to take a historical perspective.  We need to take the longer view and we get caught up in the moment. In the 1950s in the US, they fired everybody from universities if they were branded a communist, which was kind of a generic term for anybody that was a troublemaker.  We have to be careful too.  I’m not excusing or rationalizing intolerance or racism, but it’s a debate we have to have.

Kirk Niergarth: Thank you so much for making the time, Peter.

Peter McInnis: You’re welcome. I wish you good luck in discussing these issues. It’s an ongoing conversation.  It’s worth noting in a conclusion that Canadians, even though this is a difficult time during the pandemic, still enjoy amongst the best definitions of academic freedom and definition of academic job more broadly.  I certainly wouldn’t trade my rights as a Canadian academic for the American rights or the UK rights or New Zealand or Australia or France or Spain.  We do pretty well. And so we need to be appreciative of those rights and defend them because they are worth defending.