Freedom requires balance

Professors’ academic freedom in the classroom must allow for students to voice their own opinions and criticisms

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David Parker

Students have occasionally voiced concern about professors who express ideas in the classroom that seem to go beyond the curriculum. They aren’t alone. Politicians and self-appointed watchdog groups — such as Accuracy in Academia and Students for Academic Freedom in the United States — have denounced the university professorate as tenured radicals protected by absolute job security, who indoctrinate their students rather than permitting independent thought.

Queen’s has seen its own controversies about what may or may not be said in the classroom — controversies not always handled as deftly as they might have been, because applying general rules to specific circumstances can be tough, particularly when equally-held values conflict.

Can we preserve an academy where professors are free to be candid in their analyses of the world’s modern problems, yet students experience the classroom as a safe place, not feeling that they must follow a “party line” or keep quiet? I believe that we can and must. Doing so requires unwavering adherence to three core principles — academic freedom, professional responsibility and respect for students — and careful, judicious thought when those principles work at cross-purposes, as they sometimes inevitably will.

Academic freedom

Professors’ liberty to say and write what they want, protected by tenure, is a unique and essential benefit to society. I can already hear the jeering: a privileged professor trying to sell his self-interest in lifelong job security as some great public good.

But where else, other than in universities, do you find highly-trained experts free to describe the world as they see it, without fear of consequences for telling truths people may not want to hear? Politicians?

Corporate spokespersons?

Government employees in Canada, including scientists, have faced gag orders. Even journalists need to be mindful of covering stories that may displease their employers or anger people in power.

This isn’t to deny the brave truth-tellers in all of these professions who defy the risks. But that’s the point: they must defy risks, while the institution of tenure protects university professors from retribution for what they say.

Newly hired and contract faculty are unprotected by tenure, because a probationary period prior to receiving lifetime job security only makes sense. But their ability to teach and research with something approaching the freedom of tenure brings the same benefit to society. Universities would do well always to keep that in mind.

Professional responsibility

With the unique protection of tenure comes the duty to adhere to the professional norms of professors’ academic disciplines. Plagiarism, data falsification or failure to disclose a conflict of interest rightly deserves sanction.

Professional responsibility equally requires that professors subject their ideas to the scrutiny — even the withering criticism — of peers, the general public and their own students. Academic freedom protects us from being fired or disciplined for what we say, but it doesn’t protect us from challenge or ridicule in academic journals or on Twitter. Professors understand that criticism comes with the territory and is a tiny price to pay for the freedom tenure affords. Time, one hopes, will prove whether iconoclastic ideas were revolutionary or delusional.

Respect for students

How do you balance a professor’s responsibility to the truth as they see it, against their responsibility to treat fairly and respectfully those students who disagree with them? This is always a potential problem because professors have another unique and awesome power: the grade book.

The answer isn’t avoiding controversial subjects or always walking the middle of the road. I don’t want a classroom where I feel I have to censor myself when I have strong and — I think — well-founded opinions. At the same time, nothing annoys me more than Queen’s students’ adeptness at parroting my political biases back to me in essays and exams.

As a specialist in Latin American history, I want the freedom to call Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet a murderer and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez a demagogue. But I equally want a class where students impressed by Pinochet’s economic achievements or Chávez’s grassroots social policies feel empowered to push back. I want a classroom free of speech that marginalizes or stigmatizes, but unafraid to discuss sensitive, even troubling issues.

This safe balance can be hard to find. First, everyone has a different comfort level for controversy in the classroom.

Second, correcting a student who fails to master disciplinary standards of evidence isn’t the same as imposing the professor’s opinion, but the line between the two often appears quite blurry.

Navigating these waters takes trust, good will and careful reflection on all sides.

Surely, all my colleagues agree — at least in the abstract — with the principles of academic freedom, professional responsibility and respect for students. But in the difficult cases, we may not always practice perfectly what we preach.

Outside the University, these values are under attack, and inside the University, administrators have occasionally been too quick to abandon them for fear of negative public relations.

Nobody wants to see bad stories about Queen’s on the cover of the Toronto Star, and sometimes, mollifying critics to make a scandal go away is the path of least resistance.

But it’s precisely the difficult cases that force all of us to think more clearly about the values and principles that nurture a University community, and that benefit society as a whole.

David Parker is an associate professor in the Department of History.

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