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Talking about the freedom to study what we want to study

By Doug Sweet

Nathalie Cooke, Associate Provost (Academic Staff and Priority Initiatives), has worked with a committee of McGill faculty members and student representatives to organize McGill’s Academic Freedom Conference being held on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 27, and the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 28. She sat down with The Reporter to discuss the issues the conference will address and outlined how McGill’s conference is different than others held this year in Canada. For more information on the Conference, go to here.

 What is the Academic Freedom Conference really all about?

This conference is a chance for the community to have a thoughtful conversation about academic freedom, how to interpret it within the McGill context, and what are the key issues.

Is this about protest and dissent and marches and that kind of thing?

No, absolutely not, since academic freedom is something that faculty members and academic institutions already have in Canada, and we’re very lucky and privileged to have it. It allows individual faculty members to research and teach in the areas that allow them to create knowledge in the best ways they know how.

So, if I want to research “X” I’m allowed to do that?

Exactly. Within the constraints that we, as an academic community establish, including those of the research ethics boards that are instituted in each university and do comply with the regulations of the Tri-Councils and other external bodies.

But are there not, in this day and age, external constraints on academic freedom?

Indeed. That’s one of the things we want to discuss. Certainly there are external constraints on academic freedom. But academics, ultimately, are able to make their own decisions about the research that they pursue, and academic freedom was established to protect academics’ rights to pursue research according to their best judgment. There are both carrots and sticks in the sense that academics are often encouraged, because of the available possibilities, to move the research in a particular direction – so, for example, some areas may have greater funding opportunities than others, and that probably does change the shape of research trajectories.

One of the things that academic freedom protects is research that may be out of favour with the contemporary moment.

There are questions that arise when the people or organizations who pay for research decide that they want to have a greater say in how that research is shaped and what comes out the other end. And this would seem to be one of the core issues you have to confront.

It’s true. Certainly we’ve seen discussion of this in the news lately with reference to Carleton University and the CG and Balsillie School. At McGill, one of the conversations we need to have is how to protect academic freedom as we also leverage the necessary financial resources to support research and teaching at an appropriate level.

The other topic that isn’t emerging at the other conferences on academic freedom – and we as a research institution really need to think about – is the question of satellite campuses. As North American universities expand to establish campuses in other parts of the world, especially where the academic values and objectives may be slightly different from those front and centre at home, we need to determine how to protect academic freedom.

McGill has had field semesters abroad for quite some time now, and there are collaborations abroad in the far reaches of the world. So we have invited a number of international speakers who can bring perspective about the different interpretations of academic freedom that we might perceive in other parts of the world. Prof. Pericles Lewis is the new President of Yale-National University of Singapore College. He will speak about some of the issues that arose when Yale began thinking about setting up that campus. And we have a speaker coming from Cuba, Vilma Paez, who will be talking about some of the challenges about being an academic in Cuba.

And that’s actually one of the key distinctions of our conference; we realized that we needed to bring a global perspective to the table that we weren’t seeing that in the other academic freedom conferences being held this year.

McGill has a wide and deep network of collaborators that includes institutions abroad. Each of the Faculties has worked in partnerships with programs abroad. Arts, for example, had a CIDA-funded project in Indonesia; Management offers an MBA in Japan. So collaborations function at the level of individual faculty members, but they also function at the level of the Faculties, which deliver their programs in collaboration with other institutions. We are, that is, on a very practical basis, already partnering with other institutions abroad.

How to you address the question of political influence, or government influence, on where research is directed? We’ve heard a lot in the last few years about the current federal government being much more interested in applied research than pure research; they want to see an economic turnaround on research, perhaps faster than their predecessors did, or they’re putting more emphasis on that. Is that OK with researchers, or do researchers push back?

The way we’ve organized the afternoon is to have two panels: one on academic freedom and the individual, and second on academic freedom and the institution. Your question is really going to be front and centre with that second panel.

Michael Hawes, the CEO of Fullbright Canada, will talk about pressure in Canada and the U.S. on researchers to provide accountability and how that’s influencing the shape of research north and south of the border.

Jim Archibald, from Continuing Studies, will speak about the institution in the Quebec context, and the particular pressures that we’re feeling in this moment in time, in the province of Quebec and in the country of Canada.

The last piece of this puzzle has to do with the professional accreditation bodies, and Annette Majnemer, who is interim Director of Physical and Occupational Therapy, is going to talk about the pros and cons of the accreditation boards; at some level they are actually very helpful in supporting and promoting a particular kind of program delivery, but they do also impose constraints and exert influence on universities in terms of their program delivery.

How are you going to get through all this in an afternoon?

It’s a good question. The conversation isn’t going to conclude at the end of the afternoon. The whole point of this conference is really to open this discussion. So what we are trying to do is to introduce the topic, we are trying to bring together experts from McGill and abroad who can offer very brief pointers on some of the key things to remember. And then, following the panel presentations, the Conference discussion will begin with breakout sessions, where we will have table groups with discussion leaders; we will gather the comments and information. We’re already receiving comments from faculty members in the form of emails and letters. We will then set up a website where we’ll post the comments that are gathered at the end of the afternoon and we’ll invite further comments.

So the answer is that there’s no way we’re going to finish this conversation in the afternoon, but we hope to start it.

Conferences like this often come away with some kind of plenary statement or overarching message that is driven by the contents of the discussion. Are expecting to have some kind of statement like that for McGill coming out of this conference, or is this a first step toward creating that kind of a statement?

It’s a first step toward hearing from the McGill community about whether they would like a statement, and if so, what form that statement might take, and how they would like to see the process unfold.

To what extent is this process being driven from the top down?

The role of the Provost’s Office is to create a space for the conversation to take place. We’re creating a forum; the conversation itself will be shaped by those who participate.

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