U of W hosts freedom of speech panel

Profs tackle questions of academic freedom

On March 18 the University of Winnipeg hosted a panel discussion titled “Professors and Politics: Freedom of Speech Inside and Outside the Academy” at Richardson College.

Organized by Alana Lajoie-O’Malley, director of the campus sustainability office, the panel recruited three speakers—Andrew Park, associate professor of biology at the U of W; Diane Orihel, a freshwater activist and ecologist; and Allen Mills, professor of political science at the U of W—to weigh in on the ongoing debate over academics’ freedom of speech. The topic has been of major interest at both the U of W and the University of Manitoba since the narrowly avoided strike that threatened the operations of the latter last fall.

Focusing on the interactions between government and politically active academics, Park began by discussing his early introduction to activism as an undergraduate student.

“This guy came around to give a lecture, and he was an advisor to the federal environment minister. So I went and listened to his talk. I didn’t straight away walk away from that and [decide to become an activist] because as bad as things were, you still got the impression from public discourse that at least there was a social contract where, within the limits of political reality, the politicians were going to try to do the right thing,” said Park.

“When pushed to the limit, politicians appeared to be capable of doing the right thing, and I felt that at least there was still this contract with society where legislation and policy is still based on evidence – even if that evidence is sometimes abused.”

According to Park, this all changed for him with the majority election of the Conservative government in 2011. Park referenced a report compiled by John Dupuis, librarian and head of the Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York University.

The report contains “a brief chronology of the current Conservative Canadian government’s long campaign to undermine evidence-based scientific, environmental, and technical decision-making.”

The report began recording events in 2006, and continued until 2013, where at least 79 anti-science policies and program cuts were noted.

“Within weeks of the Tories getting their majority, it was evident to me that this contract between government and society had been broken, and that it had broken in the most egregious way, because it became evident that empirical data, policy based on evidence, and even policy that was designed to be in service to the Canadian people were not at the top of the agenda anymore,” said Park.

Mills, who spoke next, agreed with Park’s overall assessment of the government’s position on research and academic freedom, pointing out how restrictive attitudes can trickle down into non-governmental institutions, including universities.

“There are all sorts of restraints [ . . . ] because we are still dealing with hierarchies and inequalities very generally that mean that those that have power do not like to hear things said that do not suit them. That will always continue to be until we live in a thoroughly egalitarian society,” said Mills, speaking about the influence of power differentials at academic institutions.

Orihel, a scientist notable for her activism as director of the Coalition to Save ELA—an organization devoted to preserving Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area—agreed.

“I think that the kind of policies that exist within the federal departments don’t exist within universities; however, there is a fear that exists in academics, because of where funding comes from. A lot of science academics fear that there will be negative repercussions to speaking out, such as not getting their next grant, so I think there’s some censorship in terms of criticizing the government,” said Orihel.

Orihel also relayed stories of people applying for jobs being asked whether they thought scientists should be activists, a question that turned out to be an automatic disqualifier if the applicant answered in the affirmative.

“I’ve heard from people that have not yet got tenure that they are careful about expressing their ideas,” she said.

According to Park, “Tenure is an institution of great importance in university because [ . . . ] when you’ve got tenure, you have a freedom to speak that is almost unprecedented in the country. The only person that’s freer than you is someone that’s completely independently wealthy or unemployed – someone who’s got nothing to lose.”