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Academic freedom key to social interest

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University of Manitoba professors were ready to strike over academic freedom. Manitoba very narrowly dodged a strike that would have disrupted the lives of 29,000 students when, after many months of negotiations, the university compromised on its original refusal to include new language protecting academic freedom.

Throughout the bargaining process, the president's office insisted it had no intention of limiting academic freedom by restricting professors' right to speak publicly, including the right to criticize the university, or by imposing performance-management systems that would allow administrators to dictate criteria for research and publishing.

Yet its refusal to agree to enshrine those rights in a collective agreement, as most Canadian universities have already done, and its efforts to actually impose performance management in at least two faculties raise questions about how sincere those promises were.

What is academic freedom? It sounds more like an 'ivory tower' privilege than a legitimate reason for a strike. But in reality, it's not only central to the mission of the university; it matters to the whole community.

Academic freedom protects individual faculty members' right to pursue research of their own choosing, to speak openly about their research and even to criticize their own institution when it threatens to restrict those choices or demand that research be tailored to meet corporate or other external objectives. Academic freedom ensures universities continue to contribute to the public good.

One of the ways it does that is to give young people the tools they will need as workers and citizens by learning how to evaluate their ideas critically, test common-sense beliefs against evidence and acquire the intellectual skills and self-confidence to exchange ideas in a respectful way in a democratic society. These essential aspects of the university are undermined when teaching and research agendas are dictated by university administrators rather than freely chosen by faculty.

But to return value for taxpayers' money, universities must do more than train young workers to meet the needs of employers, who pay only a small part of the cost. University professors are not only teachers; they fulfil an important and unique function as 'public intellectuals.'

Probably the best-known example of the threat to independent research is the federal government's de-funding of the Experimental Lakes Area project, a world-renowned experiment that tracks the impact of environmental damage.

Those scientists and other academics contribute to the common good by addressing social issues, such as preserving the environment, protecting human rights and cultural diversity, challenging long-standing assumptions that justify inequality and discrimination and identifying threats to democracy and the public interest. Independent research, unconstrained by the demands of business or other sponsors, has produced reliable, scientific evidence of the human causes of global climate change, identified dangerous and ineffective drugs and found toxins in baby bottles and other household items.

No other profession fills this function, in part because few other professionals exercise comparable autonomy in the way they perform their work, and because independent research is an important aspect of that work.

Independent research has helped identify solutions for the most significant problems of our time, including global climate change and the human activities that are polluting this planet. Research that is fettered by the objectives of administrators or industry can't solve these problems.

Without academic freedom, students and the broader public will be unable to rely on universities and the faculty who work there to provide the kind of education and research we deserve as Manitobans.

This was written by Chris Rigaux, a CUPE representative, and University of Manitoba professors Dana Medoro and Julie Guard.

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