Just doing their job: why we all need professors to exercise their academic freedom in Premier Kenney’s Alberta

Posted May 11, 2020
By Carolyn Sale

Academic freedom, the “cornerstone” of the academy, is always under threat, often in subtle and invidious ways. But sometimes it is under threat in explicit ways, in the form of full-throated calls from members of the public demanding that academics who have publicly taken positions with which they disagree ought to be either disciplined or fired. A strange brew of subtle and explicit threats is occurring in Alberta right now — sadly, without academic leaders at Alberta’s universities taking action to mitigate the threats. Their inaction, puzzling, gives this Alberta story national significance.

On March 25th, the National Observer published an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau signed by 265 academics across Canada calling for the government to refuse to “bail out” Alberta’s oil and gas industry. The lead authors of the letter were two professors at the University of Alberta, Laurie Adkin (Political Science) and Debra Davidson (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology). Two Alberta groups which opposed the letter’s views, Friends of Science and Action Alberta, swiftly took action by publishing online materials which called upon their members to contact the professors (with a full list of their names provided) to let them know what they thought of them. To be clear, Friends of Science and Action Alberta have every right to object to the content of the letter, but no right to encourage aggression against the professors. 

Their claim, that any professor in Alberta who expressed any view not supportive of Alberta’s oil and gas industry was “biting the hand that feeds them,” resulted in letters and phone messages to the two professors and to the President of the University of Alberta, David Turpin, calling for Professors Adkin and Davidson to be punished for their “Ivory Tower insubordination.” As “treasonous academics,” Adkin and Davidson should, for example, be kept from teaching students. There have also been calls for the University and/or the professors’ departments to be “defunded.”

This rhetorical storm got further wind under its sails when Rebel Media invited a Friends of Science member to share her views on a program called “Makers vs. Takers.” These tactics all smack of McCarthyism, with a certain segment of the public believing they had the right to call for professors to be disciplined for failing to uphold a “party” line.

While the Association of Academic Staff at the University issued a public statement standing up for the right of all faculty to use their academic freedom to express views on controversial social matters, there was silence from the University administration, with neither president David Turpin nor provost Steven Dew issuing a statement. Behind-the-scenes Professors Adkin and Davidson have been told they have academic freedom and may say what they want, but that is insufficient. The public needs to understand that such attacks on faculty are an attack on a principle important to us all, academic freedom.

In Turpin’s case, the silence is especially perplexing, given that just two years ago, in the spring of 2018, he had issued such a strong statement in relation to the public hue and cry over the University Senate’s decision to award an honorary degree to Canada’s most famous environmental activist, David Suzuki. That year, Turpin had to deal not just with some public outrage, but also internal dissent, most prominently from the new Dean of Engineering, Fraser Forbes. Dean Forbes had taken the baton from the long-serving David Lynch, whose seventeen-year tenure as Dean of Engineering had witnessed the Faculty grow its connections to the oil and gas industry so extensively and unabashedly that Lynch starred in a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) video promoting the University’s industry ties. In a public statement, Dean Forbes went so far as to claim that by bestowing an honorary degree on Suzuki the University had “betrayed” its “fundamental values.” The point was clear enough. At least one of the University’s senior administrators was prepared to put industry connections and financial investment in his Faculty ahead of the core values of the academy, which do not involve fealty to Oil and Gas.

Turpin’s 2018 statement dealt with this by declaring that it was “the university’s special role” in society to “tolerate the discord that comes along with freedom of inquiry.” To meet that responsibility, he wrote, “we must allow our people, and honour others, who pursue ideas that sometimes trouble us, shock our sense of the true and right, and even provoke our anger.” In this very blog, James Turk commended Turpin for remaining firm in his defense of academic decision-making in the face of threatened withdrawal of donor funds to the University.

Fast forward two years, and Professor Adkin found herself asking, what was different about the two situations? Why was President Turpin outspoken in the one, and silent in the other? If the University could do the right thing in the Suzuki affair, why couldn’t it do the same now — especially when two of its professors were being subject to almost daily harassment, sometimes by anonymous callers using misogynistic expletives to condemn their views?

The difference between the two episodes almost certainly lies in the conjunction of two factors — a change in government and the new government’s commitment to suppressing any critique of the centrality of the oil and gas industry to its economic agenda. 

In 2018, Jason Kenney, the leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP), had distributed a video in which he declared how “disappointed” he was in the University of Alberta for bestowing an honorary degree on David Suzuki. Taking exactly the line now being pursued by Friends of Science and Action Alberta in relation to the National Observer letter, in the video Kenney declares “Frankly, the University of Alberta couldn’t operate without the wealth and revenues of the industry that David Suzuki wants to shut down right now.” He characterized the University’s decision as pitting it against “good, hard-working Albertans,” or what Rebel Media is now calling “makers” being “betrayed” by academic “takers.” Kenney’s 2018 video ends with an appeal to Albertans to sign a petition for the University of Alberta Senate to revoke Suzuki’s honorary degree. 

With his party’s defeat of Rachel Notley’s NDP government in the spring of 2019, Jason Kenney no longer needs to petition the University of Alberta to do anything. Amongst other things, Premier Kenney can now directly criticize academics, which he has done even in legislative sessions. So can his Ministers and their staff, as the Alberta Minister of Energy did on April 16th, when her senior press secretary, Kavi Bal, emailed the press with a statement describing the National Observer letter as “rich,” coming as it does from “Alberta-based signatories [who] benefit from generous salaries, in part, because of the very oil and gas that they denounce.” More importantly, the Kenney government now controls the University’s budget. More on that below.

The similarity between the rhetoric of Friends of Science and Action Alberta and that of the Kenney government is no coincidence: it is also the rhetoric of the Canadian Energy Centre, or what Kenney calls his “War Room,” which has an annual budget of thirty million dollars to defend oil and gas in Alberta by targeting anyone who dares criticize Alberta’s “energy sector.” In the wake of the June 2019 press conference announcing the “War Room’s” creation and mandate, environmental activist Tzeporah Berman, an adjunct professor at York University who was named during the press conference, received death threats. When Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, issued a statement declaring Amnesty’s concerns that the “War Room” risked “violat[ing] a range of Alberta’s human rights obligations, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, the rights of Indigenous peoples and gender equality,” Kenney engaged in the unusual act of issuing his own, lengthy open letter justifying the “War Room” and accusing Neve of “fighting on the side of foreign billionaires trying to shut down an industry on which hundreds of thousands of hard-working men and women depend.” Neve was accused, in short, of being exactly the kind of person the “War Room” was designed to target.

Within a month of that exchange, the Kenney government exempted the “War Room” from Alberta’s Freedom of Information legislation, so that Albertans could not know what actions were being taking against its “enemies.” For this, the Canadian Association of Journalists, News Media Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression honoured the Kenney government with its “Code of Silence” award as the most secretive provincial government in Canada in 2019. 

In one way or another, then, the Kenney government has been busy cultivating a climate in Alberta in which Albertans may be reluctant to say anything that opposes the Kenney government’s choice to make oil and gas the linchpin of its economic agenda even as it keeps Albertans in the dark about what it is up to. Arguably, the Kenney government’s savage cuts to the postsecondary education system in Alberta, which are of a magnitude unseen before in Alberta history, are another tactic to achieve the same ends: with radical defunding of Alberta postsecondary education, Alberta’s universities will find it difficult, if not impossible, to hire young professors to replenish the ranks of those who are retiring — except in those disciplines that the government perceives as supporting oil and gas, first and foremost amongst them Dean Forbes’ Faculty of Engineering. The ranks of the professoriate in those fields that might give rise to “Ivory Tower insubordination” have already been radically depleted by the cuts delivered to the postsecondary education in 2013, by Kenney’s predecessors, the Progressive Conservatives. The government’s capacity to cut even more from postsecondary education budgets with the introduction of “performance based funding” puts the government’s hand on a whip it can use to create a chill over the entire sector. In Kenney’s Alberta, the message that academics are receiving is that they are to keep their heads down, doing their best to perform according to the Kenney government’s new “performance indicators” — and keep their voices out of the public sphere unless they want to cheer on the government’s energy policies.

At a time like this, when there is so much widespread distress in Alberta about the province’s future and so much increasing government control over what can and cannot be said, Albertans need to hear the views of academics prepared to use their academic freedom to put their expertise and knowledge to work for collective, long-term interests of all rather than the interests of any one industry. 

The excuse being offered for the University of Alberta’s non-response to attacks on its faculty is that it does not want to give groups like Friends of Science and Action Alberta “oxygen.” Give them no airtime, the argument goes, and the little fires that they are trying to set in the public sphere will go out, and there will be no need for University leadership to say anything in defence of the faculty.

But university leaders should take decisions that rest on principles, not on calculations of risk. The voices attempting to silence anyone offering a different vision for Canada’s economic future than one centered on oil and gas are not simply going to go away, especially when the Premier and the Government are expressing similar views. 

On April 29th, a third group, the Buffalo Project, offered a fresh attack on the signatories of the letter in an Op-Ed published in the British Columbia paper The Province. They called for the University of Regina, some of whose faculty had signed the National Observer letter, to “issue a public statement indicating the ideological views of their professors DO NOT represent those of their institution.” Like Friends of Science and Action Alberta, the Buffalo Project claimed that the professors who had signed the letter “misunderstand how their salaries, benefits, sabbaticals and leave are paid primarily from provincial government revenues, supported largely by oil and gas,” an error that universities must address by publicly declaring “the importance of our oil and gas sector to Saskatchewan, Canada and the world.” (The University of Regina’s public policy professor Dale Eisler has written about connections between the Buffalo Project and the Kenney government here.) 

It is true that academics do not speak for their institutions, but in the face of the kind of misunderstanding and attack being promulgated by Friends of Science, Action Alberta, and the Buffalo Project, it is essential that their institutions speak for them — by defending their right to share their views on social and political matters. As Professor Adkin has put it, “arsonists” setting small fires in the public sphere should not be permitted “to succeed in . . . deterring academics in Alberta from acting as public intellectuals.”

Nothing should permit any university to retreat from the defense of academic freedom and active promulgation of its social importance: not financial distress being caused by government cuts to the university’s budget; not declarations by government ministers; not harassment of faculty; and not the fear of loss of funding, either from industry or government. But given the confluence of factors at play in this episode, it seems important to ask, is it possible that President Turpin is himself feeling constrained in one way or another as to what he may say publicly on this issue?

In its first few months of office, the Kenney government peremptorily ended the terms of all NDP government appointees to the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta and replaced them with its own. This included replacing the NDP-appointed chair of the Board, Michael Phair, a long-serving City of Edmonton councillor who had just barely been reappointed to a new term, with their own appointee, Kate Chisholm of Capital Power. Then the government savaged the University’s budget. This suggests that what most needs sunlight and fresh air for understanding the university administration’s unwillingness in this instance to publicly defend academic freedom is the triangular relationship of academic leadership, the provincial government, and the Board of Governors.

One of the anonymous voicemails that Professor Adkin received informed her that she was to “shut [her] mouth and do [her] job” because that’s what he has to do. The remark suggests the kind of anger that fuels up when expressive freedom is suppressed. When citizens who feel they lack expressive freedom see others apparently having a privileged right to exercise theirs and doing so, from their point of view, to contribute to what is for them an existential crisis, of course they are going to be angry. For the good of society, university leaders have a responsibility to communicate why that anger cannot be allowed to undermine professors’ exercise of their academic freedom. 

Professors who offer controversial views in national newspapers are not the enemy. They are using their academic freedom to share views from their knowledge and expertise. When they do so in an attempt to prevent either government or industry from silencing any of us, they are working to protect the expressive freedom of all. Academic freedom is not a “privilege” exercised by a few. It is a vital right of academic staff necessary to fulfill the university’s societal role. It is one of our most precious social goods, and essential to a healthy democracy. Every member of every university board of governors across the country needs to understand that so that neither academic administrators nor professors can at any time be stifled from expressing views they believe they need to share with the public, as part of their responsibility to the public interest. Only then can professors, academic administrators, and university boards all do their respective jobs of contributing to the future of our society by ensuring that Canada’s public universities remain vibrant places for genuine education and advancement of knowledge. In a time of significant social crisis, there are few things more important to that than the academic freedom of professors, and no place where, for all Canadians’ sake, it needs to be most aggressively protected right now than Alberta, the home of one of the most significant industrial challenges to Canada’s future that all Canadians need to help address.

*  This blog post has greatly benefited from the author’s conversations and correspondence with Professor Laurie Adkin. The author would also like to acknowledge that she played a key role in attempts to get both the Association of Academic Staff and the University administration to take action on this matter.