Matching Rights with Growing Responsibilities: Academic Freedom in Canadian Colleges

September 2019

“If we [college employers] directed [a college faculty member] to stand in the corner of the room and repeat his name over and over again, we have the right to do so”. (Said by a lawyer from Hicks Morley when representing Centennial College during a grievance, as quoted by Darryl Bedford, local union president at Fanshawe College.)

Academic Freedom means quite different things to college and university professors. For most university professors, it’s the freedom to teach controversial content without facing punitive responses from administrators. College professors, even though many of them nowadays have PhDs, seek simpler, more basic freedoms: they want a say in how their courses are designed and delivered. They want a role in governance, a balance between rights and responsibilities.

For example, should a multi-sectioned remedial writing course be taught in a face-to-face classroom or online? This type of decision may well be made unilaterally by a college department chair. Often, the resolution involves moving all or some of the course online, even though some content is clearly better delivered in class, where students can interact with the professor and be monitored during writing activities. College Professors—even those who developed the curriculum and have successfully taught the course for many years—will probably not even be consulted on such a change. Should they not at least have a right of veto?

Another example: A college professor hands students a course outline (CO) at the beginning of the course but later discovers that more time is needed to flesh out a particular module. Students are not prepared to move on. Can the professor make outline changes mid-way through a term? The course outline, college educators are told, is a binding “contract” between teacher and student. If a student complains about an assignment because its original date was changed or the student didn’t “see it” on the new CO, will the chair direct the instructor to extend the assignment deadline or drop the assignment altogether? In many cases, the answer is “yes”; the chair will/can override the professor.

One more scenario: A student repeatedly misses opportunities to submit assignments and decides to submit the entire term’s worth of assignments during the last week of the course. Can a college professor refuse to accept it? Yes, but sometimes, the chair invokes Article 6 of the Ontario Colleges Collective Agreement (on management rights) in order to A) overrule the professor, B) accept the student’s late assignment on the professor’s behalf, C) mark it, and then D) unilaterally change the final grade given by the professor.

These are all issues of governance and teachers’ rights to make academic decisions.

Ontario colleges are changing, and so must their treatment of faculty: “Colleges and institutes are now offering… bachelor’s and master’s degrees and engaging in applied research activities—the traditional domain of the university. This changing role has elevated the issue of academic freedom in colleges and institutes, particularly among faculty unions as it relates to workload, teaching assignments, and curriculum” (Hogan and Trotter, p. 69). Even though Ontario colleges are offering more and more Bachelor and Honours Bachelor degrees, as well as occasional post-graduate programs, and even though colleges are increasingly hiring faculty with PhDs, the view that college professors are nothing more than amateur functionaries is still entrenched.

This dismissive view is what prompted a lawyer for an Ontario college, about fifteen years ago, to make the remark quoted above.

During the 2017 Ontario college teachers’ strike, an article published in The Star on Nov. 8, 2017, contended that college teachers don’t actually deserve Academic Freedom:

“[T]he rhetoric took over, with both sides digging in on the more vexing issue of academic freedom. OPSEU sought what amounts to a power-sharing arrangement that would effectively give teachers veto rights over what and how they teach. Under the guise of academic freedom, such lofty demands disguise more mundane workplace disputes. Employees in all workplaces are sometimes subject to seemingly arbitrary demands and capricious interventions by employers. But management rights (right or wrong) are normally vested in management — with disagreements resolved in the grievance process or human rights tribunals. For college instructors to elevate their disputes to the realm of academic freedom is a conceit borrowed from cutting-edge professors in the rarefied world of research universities.”

So college educators who seek Academic Freedom safeguards are, in Martin Regg Cohn’s view, getting above themselves. Has Mr. Cohn visited an Ontario college in the last ten years? Today’s colleges are becoming research centres, with their own original publications in applied research and their own Research Ethics Boards. The old axiom insisted that universities teach theory while colleges teach practice, and colleges certainly do still teach specific vocational skills. Canadian colleges offer one-year certificates and two-year diplomas in practical fields like computer programming, city planning, construction, project management, auto mechanics, aviation, etc.

However, today’s Ontario colleges also offer Honours Bachelor degrees in Applied Science, Biotechnology, Business, Commerce, Environmental Design…Bachelor of Arts degrees in Journalism and Game Design… and Bachelor of Science degrees in Nursing and Information Technology, just to name a few. Educators at a college meet the criteria for academic freedom because they teach post-secondary courses at institutions that offer Bachelor degrees and they publish original research.

Ontario colleges hire PhDs to teach in these degree programs, and college hiring committees find that they can choose among many applicants possessing those credentials. PhDs are also preferred hires to teach first-year writing, mathematics, science, communications, social sciences, and Humanities courses at both the certificate and diploma levels. Today, a candidate with only a Master’s is not at all certain to land a teaching position at a college because so many PhDs are applying. Meanwhile, today’s universities deign to roll up their sleeves, as it were, and market themselves as more than places to learn theory, but also as centres that prepare students for careers. In short, the demarcation between Canadian colleges and universities is not nearly as clear as it used to be.

Thankfully, due to the 2017 Ontario college teachers’ strike, the union (OPSEU) and Arbitrator William Kaplan added language securing Academic Freedom in the current collective agreement. Article 13 is a new win. Here are relevant passages from article 13:

13.02 Academic freedom is fundamental to the realization and preservation of the Colleges’ commitment to academic excellence. The purpose of this article is to define the rights and obligations related to academic freedom…

13.04 Every faculty member is able to exercise academic freedom in the performance of his/her duties. Academic freedom at the College includes the right to enquire about, investigate, pursue, teach and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.

13.05 The exercise of academic freedom is subject to the following responsibilities: (i) In exercising academic freedom, employees shall be responsible for adhering to legal parameters (such as but not limited to The Human Rights Code, Criminal Code of Canada, civil liability, collective agreement obligations), institutional regulations, Ministry Directives, requirements of accrediting bodies, and program and curriculum requirements. (ii) Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligations to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge. (Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts And Technology Academic Employees Collective Agreement, 2017-2021.)

Arguably, 13.02 and 13.04 are undercut by 13.05, which seeks to limit academic freedom via subjectively-determined conditions.

Article 13 places the carriage before the horse. College professors achieved safeguards for the freedom to speak, but they did not win any language regarding collegial governance, a much more fundamental aspect of Academic Freedom. After the 2017 strike, the issue of governance was referred to a Task Force, but the newly elected conservative government has disbanded it. As things stand, college professors face the strange situation of being able to speak more freely, without the ability to make simple decisions about their courses. Professors still have no say about whether a course should go online, and the department chair can still overrule a professor’s decision to reject a student’s late assignment. College administrators jealously guard their ability to make unilateral decisions about courses, and they see the desire by college professors to be consulted as meddlesome. From the college professors’ point of view, until they are able to make fundamental academic judgements, Academic Freedom will continue to be a sticking point at every contract renewal.

In terms of Academic free speech in Canada, colleges are undoubtedly even worse off than universities because unlike universities, colleges do not have a tradition of defending academic freedom for its own sake. Yet colleges are, increasingly, running into friction related to this issue. Now that college teachers have some protection to speak freely, there is increased pressure not to—and it is coming from the ranks.

Perhaps because today’s colleges, like universities, teach subjects such as (and employ faculty who themselves recently achieved PhDs in) sociology, women’s studies, indigenous studies and the like, there is an expectation that college faculty will be sufficiently “woke” to teach against colonialism, capitalism, heteronormativity, the wage gap, rigid notions of gender, toxic masculinity, etc. Often, these outrages are all swept up as various manifestations of that single original sin, Patriarchy (a viewpoint that should not surprise university professors—it was, after all, in their studies at university that the college professors were exposed to this dark truth).

Preferred pronouns may themselves be optional, but supporting their use, supporting even the compulsion to use them, is not. Usually, this pressure does not come explicitly from the college administration—it is exerted almost entirely by one’s colleagues. Because this is so, an enormous amount of self-censorship takes place at the colleges (just as it must at the universities). One quickly learns, for example, that it is best not to utter Jordan Peterson’s or Lindsay Shepherd’s name, unless it is to give a grim polemic against their views. College students are probably about as easily triggered as university students, and progressive college professors take a back seat to no one when it comes to censoriousness.

Many college professors believe that there’s only one valid point of view (theirs, of course), and that’s the sole point of view to which students should be exposed. Anyone who wishes to present two or more sides of an issue is, the argument goes, immorally hiding behind free speech in order to spread, or excuse, bigotry. Since most college teachers prefer not to be branded as bigots, they avoid controversial subjects as best they can.

Who can blame them? Recognizing that many university professors have been disciplined, investigated, demoted/threatened with demotion, denied tenure, de-platformed, or outright fired for the content of their speech at Canadian universities, one must ask oneself: how much more likely is it that a college professor would be sanctioned for the same speech?