Exhibit One: A Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) briefing note on outsourcing of IT services at universities contains the phrase “Academic staff can challenge access to their professional and personal data by providers of cloud services based on their academic freedom and privacy rights…”
Exhibit Two: A CAUT “investigation” shows that at the University of Manitoba, one group of economics profs doesn’t like another group of economics profs, and the majority sometimes uses its democratic rights to make decisions that the minority dislikes. This was called “a violation of academic freedom”.
Exhibit Three: Another CAUT investigation released just this month, this time with respect to certain events in the Laurentian University Faculty of Arts, related to hiring, selection of chairs, changing of students’ marks, and “failure to maintain a faculty complement” (i.e. not hire as many people as the Faculty Union would like). According to the report’s conclusion, “the overall effect of these actions has been to create a feeling, at least among some portion of the faculty, that their academic freedom is under threat”.
Exhibit Four: This article in The Guardian entitled, “The Murder of My Friend Giulio in Egypt Was an Attack on Academic Freedom”. ’Nuff said.
Let’s take these one by one:
Is it reasonable to suggest that outsourcing of some IT functions might have privacy implications? Sure. Might those implications violate the terms of a collective agreement? Possibly; depends on the wording of the CBA. But academic freedom? No, that’s ridiculous. Whatever other rights might be at risk, one’s freedom to write and teach are not affected here.
Is it reasonable to suggest that the University of Manitoba’s Economics department might have been the scene of insalubrious sniping and score-settling among academics? Maybe. But that happens. People within a discipline disagree within one another. But does a department have to continue to behave democratically? And what if your “side” loses? Tough: that’s how self-governance works. It’s no breach of academic freedom. The freedom to write and teach were not affected.
Is it reasonable to suggest that there might be a management problem – even a violation of a collective agreement – if a Dean tries to stop a department from democratically selecting its own chair? Of course (although one should note here that CAUT effectively argued the EXACT OPPOSITE in the Manitoba Economics case, demanding that majorities shouldn’t have the right to determine policy and selection). Should one be worried about stories of (seemingly) capricious management, especially with regard to changing of student grades? Yes. But even if the worst of these stories is true, it amounts to bad managers, not a violation of academic freedom. No one’s freedom to write or teach was ever in doubt.
Finally, is it reasonable to suggest that a grad student being murdered in Egypt is an attack on academic freedom? No, that’s just deranged. It’s an attack on life, part and parcel of a general attack on democratic freedom.
Allow me to gently suggest that if a particular concept of “freedom” stretches all the way from “not being murdered by a brutal military regime”, to “not having one’s university’s IT services outsourced”, it’s probably not a very useful concept. If it encompasses everything, then it means nothing.
Not everything has to be about academic freedom. Let’s save that term for the important stuff, shall we?