Posted in Academic Freedom, Universities, York University

Academic freedom is really about political beliefs

University politics is like politics everywhere. It can be very divisive and it can be vicious — which is why I have said in the past that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s background actually prepared him well for Ottawa. Mind you, whether he has been able to generalize what he learned is another question altogether.

In any event, there is a current battle brewing at York University and what happens there, I suspect, will affect all Canadian universities. It’s about what is or isn’t academic freedom. Regarding the York situation, of course you have people on opposing sides making allegations and claims. And, just like federal, provincial or municipal politics, people take sides.

In my opinion, it will only get worse with the release of the report by Justice Frank Iacobucci last Friday (yes, the same judge recently asked by PM Harper to examine the detainee documents issue) and why the issue of academic freedom is back in the media (h/t Jack’s Newswatch).

What is this all about? Well, last year, a group of professors at York University put on a conference with the politically correct title — Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to PeaceHowever, complaints at that time, by York officials and others, were that the title aside, the conference was simply going to be an opportunity to criticize Israel.

Of course, the organizers cried foul and York’s President then had to call in the retired judge to look at the issue of academic freedom in the context of the conference.

Well, it seems that Justice Iacobucci agrees that academic freedom does not mean you can say or write whatever you want — that there needs to be some kind of consensus. In his report, for example, he suggests that the York University community have a meaningful discussion about the “core values” of academic freedom and the best practices that would follow from those values. 

I certainly will make no claim here to have any answers. Far from it. But, I do offer readers a challenge. Take a look at the roster of speakers at the York conference in question and then scroll down the page and read some of the titles of the various presentations. 

Was that conference about providing paths to peace in the Middle East through an open debate or was it simply an opportunity to bash the only democratic country in that neighbourhood — Israel?

Remember, when you are looking at the titles and even the content of some of the papers, keep in mind, not only academic freedom, but the concepts of a free society and free speech. Meaning, that when considering my challenge, it wouldn’t hurt if you also had the wisdom of Solomon.