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The Uses and Abuses of Academic Power and Freedom


Canadian faculty associations in general, and The University of Toronto's faculty association (UTFA) in particular, have damaged the functioning of the academic community.

This opinion piece was published on March 11, 1998, in *the newspaper*, an unsubsidized weekly paper that describes itself as "University of Toronto's independent community newspaper".


John J. Furedy

 Author Notes

Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto, Former President (1993-8) of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and Vice-president for International Affiliation, Foundation for the Advancement of Sexual Equity (FASE)

 Essay - 3/11/1998

In institutions of higher education where the primary goal is the search for truth, academic freedom means the right of all members of the community to be evaluated in terms of academic performance rather than on the basis of conformity with some ideology, or on the basis of membership in some designated group.

The merit based concept of academic freedom does not imply that all judgements of academic performance will necessarily be infallible. It implies only that judgements will be fair, which requires both that judgements not be politicized, and that they be rendered by those who are competent (through having a background in the relevant academic disciplines) to make those judgements.

It is with regard to discipline expertise that academic power differs from academic freedom. The latter, like justice in society, should be equal and indivisible in the academic community. The former should be proportional to expertise in the discipline. Academic power, then, will be correlated with rank and seniority, although this correlation will not be perfect.

So, for example, a full professor of psychology like me who only has a junior high school background in physics has less academic power in judging merit among physicists than a first year undergraduate physics major.

The distinctions I have made here are rather abstract, but they have important implications for the students and faculty that comprise the academic community, and on whose academic performance the reputation of each institution of higher education depends.

My main contention is that Canadian faculty associations in general, and this university's faculty association (UTFA) in particular, have not acted consistently with these concepts of academic freedom and power, and have therefore damaged the functioning of the academic community.

The best example of the damage done by the UTFA and the CAUT is in the case of Dr. Chun of the physics department.

Let me state at the outset that the evidence is quite clear, and requires no expertise in the discipline of physics, that the physics department mistreated Dr. Chun as a contractually-limited post-doctoral fellow, inasmuch as it obtained professorial work from Dr. Chun without adequate recompense.

On this issue of mistreatment both the UTFA and the CAUT have a legitimate and positive role to play in pressuring the U of T administration to provide adequate compensation to recompense Dr. Chun for the wrongs done to him.

It is, however, an entirely different issue whether the physics department, in judging to many competitors for tenure-stream positive in the department, should have placed Dr. Chun first in any of the four competitions iris which he entered over the past few years. ~

Of course people can have their opinion about whether Dr. Chun should have been declared a winner in one of the four competitions, but unless these people have the disciplinary background and expertise (in academic power) their opinions are technically suspect and therefore worthless.

Moreover, even those with the requisite disciplinary expertise who are not in the department in question (i.e., the external referees) asked only for their opinions on specific can dates in the competition. The rankings are matter for each department to decide.

In the Chun case not only have a lot of ignorant critics questioned the physics department's tenure-stream hiring judgements, but they have also charged that the reason for those judgements was racist bias.

This is an ugly accusation, which smears the reputation of at least the following groups in our academic community: the winners of the four tenure-stream competitions who were placed ahead of Dr. Chun; the members of the physics department who made the decisions in the four competitions; faculty members in the physics department. and physics students at the university; members of U of T's academic community who are in a supposedly "racist" university.

This is not to say that it is not logically possible that the physics department made its judgement on racist grounds, but independent and reliable evidence would have to be adduced for this odious charge.

Needless to say, I do not accept the conceptually primitive, politically correct notion that lack of adequate representation of certain designated groups in a department is, by itself, any evidence for such racism -"systemic," "unconscious," or otherwise.

To refute this sense of racism one has only to think of the NBA, where white males are underrepresented (and, I think, short white males like me are not represented at all). Is this, by itself, any evidence of racism in the NBA? To lay the racist charge against the NBA, one would have to look for specific instances of racist or anti-short bias in the judgements that NBA coaches make in selecting their players.

Just this sort of investigation was conducted of the physics department by Professor Cecil Yip, a prominent scientist, a university professor and former president of the UTFA. His report, while condemning the department for its treatment of Dr. Chun as a post-doctoral fellow, found no evidence at all of any racial bias in the department's failure to place Dr. Chun first in any of the tenure stream position competitions into which he had entered.

Under these circumstances, any member of the academic community who still persists in hinting that the physics department has been racist is guilty of both ignorant and irresponsible conduct.

It is not enough for the current president of the UTFA to merely assert that he does not know whether the physics department is racist or not, and that the CAUT will decide this matter. Both the UTFA and the CAUT should concern themselves with pressuring the U of T administration to compensate Dr. Chun for past mistreatment as a post-doctoral fellow.

Ignorant and malign charges against the university's academic community should not be employed by organizations like UTFA and CAUT who purport to represent academic interests in higher education.

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