Given the market fundamentalist ideology (neoliberalism) that has thoroughly pervaded state governance and has been steadily colonizing higher education for decades, Alberta presents an instructive microcosm of the ongoing privatization and corporatization of the university (see Readings), seen in four specific threats to academic freedom now faced by Alberta’s universities:
1. provincial government “Letters of Expectation”
2. provincial government anti-labour legislation: Bill 45
3. university collaborations with private corporations
4. university policies on employee conduct
Before detailing these threats, it is important to understand what academic freedom is and why it is of central importance to the public interest. Academic freedom is related to freedom of speech in general, but is also significantly different. Like freedom of speech more generally, academic freedom is not an excuse to be an asshole: it is not the freedom of “entitlement to one’s opinion,” that reflex reaction of the uninformed to the reasoned critique of unreasonable claims (see Stokes); it is not the freedom to “agree to disagree” that sanctions untenable positions. Academic freedom is a kind of freedom of speech, specific to the social institution of the modern research university: it is also a freedom of research, teaching, and service. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) defines academic freedom as follows:
the term “academic freedom” within the post-secondary education context means the freedom of speech, the freedom to teach, and the freedom to carry out research and publish results thereof. It also means the right to criticize the university and other social, economic, and political institutions without fear of institutional censorship, penalty, or reprisal. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on the search for knowledge.
Academic freedom serves the public interest, then, as the ethos and context for the independent pursuit and publication of research that is not beholden to interests beyond the research community, research that is free to unsettle received wisdom or question authority. As CAUT observes, in its new report on current university partnerships with industry and government, “the integrity of the university is measured by the extent to which it protects this necessary context for scholarly work.” Ensuring academic integrity and protecting academic freedom mean, in practice, insulating researchers from external influences and submitting research proposals and findings to independent peer review (the impartial and sometimes anonymous critique of expert researchers in the field). However, as the CAUT report goes on to say,
Ensuring academic integrity has never been easy for universities as the free pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of conventional wisdom create discomfort in many quarters and among powerful interests. There is a long and disturbing history of efforts to rein in the university and to direct scholars along paths that others want pursued. (1)
For example, drug research is routinely pressured by pharmaceutical corporations, sometimes to suppress findings that thwart a given product’s profitability, sometimes to manipulate findings to enhance profitability. The public interest is not served by research findings manipulated to serve business or the state, it is betrayed by them and the conflict of interest they represent. And such conflicts of interest erode public trust in the university as social institution of advanced teaching and research.
It is important to explain academic freedom and its social importance because both are clearly lost on – or pointedly disregarded by – the most powerful interests today: corporate businesses and the governments that serve them, governments that seem increasingly deaf to any interests except those of corporate business and oblivious to any concerns except that of winning and holding power. Since the hard right turn to market fundamentalism (or neoliberalism) around 1980, “attempts by industry and government to direct scholarly inquiry and teaching have multiplied” (CAUT 1). And such attempts are shown with special vividness right now in the province of Alberta, in four important instances.
1. provincial government “Letters of Expectation”
In the spring of 2013 the Alberta government’s Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education1 announced that each of Alberta’s twenty-six postsecondary institutions (colleges and universities) would be required to write and submit for ministry approval a “Letter of Expectation” that outlines the institution’s mandate, distinctive contribution to Alberta’s postsecondary system, and commitment to the ministry’s stated prioritization of applied research, commercialization of research outcomes, and partnerships with industry and government. This last requirement of the Letter of Expectation was not even its most troubling aspect: what was and remains most troubling, as the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) was quick to recognize and publicly criticize,2 is that the whole exercise of drafting and seeking approval for the Letter simply lends the appearance of consent and legitimacy to the government’s sharp cut to the postsecondary budget, a cut of some 7%. This cut came as a shock to a sector that had been previously assured it could count on three consecutive annual budget increases of 2% in 2013-15 (and to a voting public that had been promised “no service cuts” in the ruling party’s 2012 election campaign).
From the spring to the fall, university administrations drafted their Letters of Expectation; AU’s administration provided university faculty and staff with periodic updates and opportunities for consultation and feedback on the drafts in progress. Understanding the idea for the Letters to have originated with the British Columbia government, AUFA noted that the BC sector’s Letters all opened with a legal disclaimer, to the effect that the Letter is not legally binding on the parties signing it. The inclusion of such a legal disclaimer became AUFA’s main recommendation for AU’s draft Letter. While AUFA continued to maintain that participation in the Letter-writing represented a problematic legitimizing of the Ministry’s hurtful governance of Alberta postsecondary education (an invitation to participate in the political punishment of a sector seen as a soft target, under pretences of financial “austerity”), the Association also maintained that the inclusion of a legal disclaimer reduced the Letter-writing to an essentially meaningless bureaucratic exercise. Successive drafts of the AU Letter did include that disclaimer: the version submitted for the review and feedback of AU’s General Faculties Council in October included that disclaimer. However, the version that the AU administration and the Ministry ultimately both signed and put on file in November has not retained the legal disclaimer. The disclaimer was also dropped from the Letters of other Alberta institutions that had previously included it. (See AU’s finalized Letter of Expectation at http://eae.alberta.ca/media/letters/Athabasca.pdf.)
The disclaimer stating that the Letter of Expectation is not legally binding is important, because of other disturbing details in the Letter that show the ministry’s interest in aligning postsecondary education much more closely with the interests of industry and government. At first glance, the Letter appears to be a variation on the Mandate & Role document that’s been on file with the Ministry since 2009, and many clauses drafted by the university administration articulate very well the university’s open educational mission (e.g. in serving students who “face barriers to access and success in university-level study”), its commitment to academic freedom and integrity (e.g. in “foster[ing] research and creative activity in both pure and applied fields”), and its expectations for progressive governance (e.g. in making outcomes contingent on “sufficient funding” and government commitment to fostering a “supportive and attractive” postsecondary environment). But it’s the details of the Letter that harbour the devilry. Of particular concern, first and foremost, is the deletion of the “not legally binding” disclaimer. There is also the neoliberal language of partnership, entrepreneurship, and collaboration with industry and government that features prominently and pervasively throughout the Letter. And of special concern is the clause that describes AU’s responsibility “to operate within its approved mandate, as set out in its approved mandate statement and mandate and roles document, and in accordance with any additional direction provided by the minister” (2, my emphasis). This clause is significant – and disturbing – in that it basically gives the Ministry a free hand to direct the university to do whatever it asks. Whether or not the Ministry would in practice exercise this extraordinary infringement on university autonomy and academic freedom is not the point; the point is that the permission for this extraordinary infringement is now enshrined in the language of a document to which the university administration and the Ministry have signed agreement.
Furthermore, the fact that the university administration has taken up (rather than, say, rejected) the endeavour of writing and signing this Letter constitutes an act of complicity with a Ministry that clearly sees higher education not as a public good and social service in its own right, but as an instrument of economic growth, to be managed (or, as the mere fact of the Letters suggests, even micromanaged) according to narrowly neoliberal, business-based metrics of profitability, performance, and efficiency – which are (as CUFA BC’s Rick Kool has pointed out) not the right metrics to use for measuring university excellence.
2. provincial government anti-labour legislation: Bill 45
By the end of November 2013, the Redford government passed two pieces of legislation, Bills 45 and 46, that generated considerable criticism and commentary from Alberta workers, labour organizations, and their allies. Bill 45 imposes harsh new penalties for public sector work actions like strikes; Bill 46 imposes wage limits on public sector workers. Of particular interest here is Bill 45, which, as labour studies researcher Bob Barnetson argues, is symptomatic of a fascist tendency in the provincial government, given the well documented, close historical relationship between corporate business and fascist governments, and the equally well documented, historical practices of fascist governments to attack labour ideologically, to legislate against organized labour, and to use democratic mechanisms to undermine democratic rule (“Is Bill 45 fascist?”). Yes, this fascist tendency does therefore apply with equal precision to Canada’s current federal government.
Among its measures for suppressing organized labour, Bill 45 imposes an extraordinary chill on freedom of speech, and thus on academic freedom as a kind of freedom of speech. Barnetson’s analysis is worth quoting at length here, because it explains how this chill effect works:
Here is an example … that affects all Albertans (not just public sector union members).
Section 4(4) of the Bill says:
(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).
Sections 4(1) and (2) are basically prohibitions on illegal strikes or threats of strikes:
4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.
(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.
Strike and strike threat are pretty broadly defined in ss.1(1)(j) and (k) of the Bill. I won’t list all of the possible definitions here (you can read Bill 45 yourself). The key issue here is that if someone uninvolved with a union (say a newspaper editor or an academic) says “The workers’ only recourse is an illegal strike” that could well be construed as counseling workers or trade unionists to violate ss.4(1-2), which is a violation of s.4(4).
So what happens to the editor or academic? Well, s.18(1) says that if you violate s.4(4) you are guilty of an offence. Under s.18(1)(d), the editor or academic would be liable for a fine of $500 a day per day of the contravention. Section 20(a) says that prosecution may occur within 1 year of the last day the offense occurred. (“Initial thoughts,” my emphasis)
As many other commentators observe, Bill 46 amounts to censorship of just talking about strikes. In this instance, the impact of government policy is not restricted to academics (though it may acutely felt by labour studies experts like Barnetson), but actually extends to all citizens of Alberta; for instance, journalists and bloggers, especially those sympathetic to labour, have taken this as a direct threat to their commentary (see Climenhaga, “If” and “Who”). “It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of free speech,” writes Don Braid in the Calgary Herald,
a right that always implies a certain social anarchy to function usefully.
People are not allowed to break laws, but they are permitted, except in obvious cases of threatening harm, to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking them. The offence is in the breaking, not the talking.
But not for Alberta’s public unions. Talking is now pretty much illegal.
3. university collaborations with private corporations
As mentioned above, CAUT has recently published Open For Business: On What Terms? This report analyzes twelve existing Canadian university collaborations with corporations and governments. The analysis applies CAUT’s Guiding Principles for University Collaborations in order to assess each collaboration according to the following seven criteria:
- protection of academic freedom
- protection of academic integrity
- protection of “academic knowledge sharing” – i.e., protection of university and researcher autonomy in communicating and publishing findings
- conflict of interest
- role of academic staff – i.e., in the governance of the collaboration
- structure of employment – i.e., does the collaboration employ university students and faculty or non-tenured, contract, or external employees
Of the twelve CAUT analyzed, seven are research collaborations (not academic program collaborations); of the seven research collaborations, four involve Alberta’s comprehensive research academic institutions, or CARIs.
The Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In-Situ Energy (AICISE) involves the Universities of Alberta and Calgary, the provincial government, and five corporations, including Shell, Nexen, and ConocoPhillips. CAUT’s analysis of AICISE argues that this collaboration meets none of the seven criteria listed above.
The Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) has conducted projects at universities elsewhere in Canada, but currently is housed at the University of Alberta, and involves the Imperial Oil corporation and the provincial agency Alberta Innovates. CAUT’s analysis of COSI argues that this collaboration meets none of the seven criteria of academic freedom, integrity, governance, and employment.
The Consortium for Heavy Oil Research by University Scientists (CHORUS) is based at the University of Calgary and its key industry partners are major oil corporations like Nexen, ConocoPhillips, and Husky. CAUT’s analysis of CHORUS argues that this collaboration meets only the last two of the seven criteria: the industry sponsors are not allowed a role in academic governance, and the research is to be conducted by U of Calgary faculty and students.
The Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability partners the U of Calgary with the energy firm Enbridge. CAUT’s analysis of this partnership argues that it protects most of the criteria: academic freedom, integrity, knowledge sharing, role of academic staff, and structure of employment.
These collaborations may represent models for the Alberta government’s narrowly neoliberal, instrumentalist view of postsecondary education as job training for oil workers, the production of patentable technologies, and the discovery of other ways to keep oil revenues flowing. The Ministry has repeatedly stated this view of postsecondary education, and has indicated that applied, commercializable research and industry partnerships should be the main priorities for postsecondary institutions. However, these collaborations also show a troubling if unsurprising congruity between the provincial government’s aggressively neoliberal approach to exploiting universities and that of the federal government, which has drastically restructured and restricted the allocation of research funding – for instance, by “prioritizing” certain, economically rationalized areas of investigation (see “Priority Areas”), and by earmarking all new research funding strictly for university-industry partnerships (see “Get Science Right”). The Alberta university partnerships also harbour provincial counterparts to the kinds of suppressive attacks on university research and teaching that are taking place at the federal level, as have been seen in the Canadian government’s blatant and heavy-handed suppression of research findings concerning climate change. The COSI collaboration at the U of Alberta in particular has become controversial – and the postsecondary Ministry along with it – for the amount of control that it cedes to the Ministry over the communication and publicization of research findings.
The agreement … indicates that the Alberta Minister of Advanced Education must be notified of any breakthrough discovery. The minister must be consulted regarding “the desirability of and content of a public announcement or press release” and that the university will refrain from making any public announcement without the approval of the minister “as to the contents of the announcement or press release.” (CAUT 22)
The government minister gets to control what the university can tell the public about the research done in this partnership. This control constitutes an extraordinary surrender of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. “How can this minister claim that she values academic freedom,” asked NDP opposition MLA David Eggen, “when this office is increasing its political control over any information released from our public universities? (Eggen qtd. in “Report”).
The agreements thus also represent the failure of university administrations to protect basic principles of university research and teaching (a failure we are witnessing on a global scale, as university administrations become increasingly colonized by business approaches and litigation jitters that result in astonishing moves like the U of London’s recent ban on student protests).
Moreover, all four of the above industry and government collaborations with Alberta universities allow for the very real possibility of conflict of interest; the COSI agreement goes so far as to indicate that such conflicts are “unavoidable” and are merely to be minimized, at best (CAUT 23). The potential and the tacit allowances for conflicts of interest in these university partnerships with industry and government are ironic in light of the government’s stated concern for public sector conflicts of interest and its recent
4. university policies on employee conduct
University policies on employee conduct are a constant focus of attention for CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee, which monitors how such policies infringe – whether actively or potentially – on academic freedom. While conduct policies are not uncommon among Canadian universities, two Alberta universities – Athabasca University and Grant MacEwan University – have recently implemented conduct policies whose terms pose a more specific kind of threat to the academic freedom of these universities’ employees.
In 2013, these two universities implemented “code of conduct” policies that differ significantly from conduct policies at other universities in the following ways: they require the employee to sign a form indicating that she or he has read and understands the policy; and they state that failure to comply with the policy may result in employee discipline. MacEwan’s new conduct policy and accompanying signing form are presumably the university’s response to the February 2013 Alberta Auditor General’s report, which recommended the university inplement a policy on conflict of interest and code of conduct in language almost identical to that which the MacEwan policy and form now use.3 Athabasca’s administration told AUFA that its new conflict of interest and code of conduct policy, implemented in early July 2013, is, similarly, a response to government directives. MacEwan’s form is for new employees to sign on hiring, although the conduct policy is in force for all employees; Athabasca’s form is for all employees to sign.
Athabasca’s policy was no sooner announced than AUFA began to critique and oppose it. We immediately advised all our members not to sign the conduct policy form, and continue to advise our members not to sign it. The form initially stated that an employee, by signing, would agree to having read and understood the policy, and to abide by it “in perpetuity.” AUFA criticized these stipulations, and sought a legal opinion on the necessity to sign at all. The administration has since twice revised the form, first to delete the “in perpetuity” clause and next to delete the more subtle but still legally problematic “understanding” clause. However, AUFA continues to question the push to sign any form, and continues to advise members not to sign. As AUFA has communicated to the administration:
AUFA’s argument against the conduct policy signing form is twofold: the signing request is both redundant and exorbitant.
Redundancy: The employer has the right to adopt reasonable policies or codes like this, and to bring them to the attention of staff with a view to compliance. That may be accomplished by making an announcement, as HR did in its email of July 5, 2013, and putting them on the website, which has also been done. AUFA therefore holds that all staff have received notice that they are expected to comply with the Code, and nothing more legally needs to be done by the employer to make the Code applicable to staff. The policy is binding on our members without their signatures.
Exorbitance: While completing and signing a disclosure form to fulfill Conflict of Interest policy requirements is fairly standard among Canadian universities (I myself have completed and submitted the disclosure form), the requirement that an employee sign one’s receipt or acknowledgment of a Conduct code is unheard of. For the as-yet unknown implications of signing, especially in terms of possible discipline (which the Code mentions in section 16) and possible curtailment of academic or professional freedoms, AUFA advises its members not to sign the form.
The signing requirement is especially egregious, but the conduct policy itself is still problematic. Although its second article acknowledges academic freedom, this article also suggests specific limits on that freedom:
At the same time, this Code emphasizes that academic freedom imposes responsibilities upon the University community; members are expected to use this freedom in a manner consistent with a responsible and honest search for and dissemination of knowledge and truth. (“Code”)
Article 11 goes somewhat further:
Honest and accurate recording and reporting of information is critical to the ability of the University to fulfill its mandate and are relied upon to produce various reports. Members of the community must understand that, because the University is a publicly-funded institution, its records and communications of all types are subject to Freedom of Information requests and may become public through legal, regulatory or media investigation. Exaggeration, derogatory remarks, legal conclusions or inappropriate characterizations of people and organizations shall be avoided. This applies to communications of all kinds, including email and informal notes or interoffice memos. Records are to be retained and destroyed in accordance with the University’s Records Management Policy. (“Code,” my emphasis)
This article basically warns employees against communicating anything that could be construed as defamatory or libelous. The exhortation to avoid “legal conclusions or inappropriate characterizations” is especially vague and vast. The university’s law scholars might be surprised to find their academic freedom so specifically curtailed, to say nothing of the possibility that sound legal conclusions may well be reached by scholars who are versed but not expert in law. And how does the administration define “inappropriate characterization”? The advisory against this could be levered particularly against feminist, Marxist, anti-racist, and queer characterizations of any number of “people and organizations.” In short, this article chills criticism; and yet as Stuart Hall has stated, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing” (qtd. in Giroux).
Finally, Article 16 outlines the consequences of failure to abide by this code of conduct: “Conduct which falls below the standards outlined in the policy may result in discipline or, in the event of serious violation, dismissal. Any disciplinary action including dismissal shall be taken in accordance with and be subject to the provisions of the relevant collective agreement, where applicable” (“Code”).
This article clarifies that conduct is tied to discipline, and thus infringes on precisely those provisions the collective agreement sets out for disciplinary action. The linking of conduct to discipline adds a further chill to employees’ – and by extension the university’s – capacity to criticize both the institution and persons and organizations outside it.
MacEwan’s conduct policy is similar in that it requires the employee to sign her or his agreement; that signing, however, is requested on a form presented to newly hired employees. The form includes one article on conduct, four on confidentiality, two on disclosure, and a handful of other general articles (e.g. acknowledgment of consequences of failure to comply). The conduct article cross-refers to MacEwan’s “Code of Conduct – Employees.”
MacEwan’s Code of Conduct is not as detailed as AU’s: on the one hand, it doesn’t mention academic freedom at all; on the other, it doesn’t meticulously itemize communication modes and transgressions as AU’s does.
Like MacEwan, AU has folded acknowledgment of its new Conduct policy into the form to be signed by newly hired employees of the university. New hires are put in a particularly difficult position at both these institutions, since they are being asked to sign agreement to problematic conduct policies presented amidst an array of other university policies.
The administrations of AU and McEwan argue that these conduct policies and signing forms simply follow new government directives for conflict of interest policies and procedures. Given the government’s own massive facilitation of conflicts of interest in the aforementioned university-government-industry collaborations, the government’s directives impose a farcical double standard in which conflicts of interest arising from industry and government involvement in university research are only to be expected, while conflicts of interest – and, according to some associative assumption, breaches of conduct related to them – arising among university employees are to be regulated with unprecedented severity.
The four issues detailed here are not the only threats to academic freedom in the province, or for that matter in the pressurized and fast-changing global context of postsecondary education (see Coetzee, Giroux, Schuman). Other similarly institutional threats appear in the targeted closure of research projects and teaching programs that produce knowledge inconvenient or challenging to specific states or companies, or to neoliberal hegemony more generally (see “Silence”); they appear in the ramped-up destruction of Canadian research resources (the long census) and archives (see Nikiforuk); they appear in initiatives to move university IT to cloud-based services that expose faculty research and teaching files and communications to surveillance and law enforcement (whether covertly via intelligence organizations or overtly via legal provisions like the Patriot Act) – these initiatives not only compromise privacy but amplify the chill on freedom of digital communications. But in Alberta these four particular threats to academic freedom – emerging both externally, via government and industry, and internally, via administration – vividly encapsulate related global trends and dramatize, in their convergence, the ways in which neoliberal governments, and the corporations that direct them, both view the modern university as an ideological problem and exploit it as an entrepreneurial opportunity. And neither that view nor that exploitation serve anything close to the public interest in the way that it is advanced by the principled, critical practice of academic freedom.
1. Note the symptomatic pairing of industry and education in the ministry’s very title. Following the government’s cabinet shuffle of November 2013, this ministry has been re-named Innovation and Advanced Education.
2. See AUFA’s open letter to the AU Board of Governors, which details our concerns with the Letters of Expectation: http://www.aufa.ab.ca/uploads/1/3/9/9/13991368/aufa-cupe_lettertoauboard_reeaeletterofexpectation.pdf
See also the Edmonton Journal’s coverage of this letter and AUFA’s further statements on the Letters of Expectation: http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=4a0d569d-7cae-457b-9240-571d6bfe5f7d
3. Compare the title of MacEwan’s “Employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy to the February 2013 report of Alberta’s Auditor General, which recommended that MacEwan U implement an “employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy: http://www.oag.ab.ca/webfiles/reports/OAGPublicReport-Feb2013.pdf
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—. “Is Bill 45 fascist?” Labour & Employment in Alberta 29 Nov. 2013 http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2013/11/is-bill-45-fascist.html
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—. “Who gets muzzled next by unconstitutional Redford government laws? Environmentalists?” Alberta Diary 6 Dec. 2013 http://albertadiary.ca/2013/12/who-gets-muzzled-next-by-unconstitutional-redford-government-laws-environmentalists.html
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