Is Bill 32 the real threat to academic freedom? 130 Quebec professors speak out in open letter
Published Wednesday, April 27, 2022 11:11AM EDT
On April 6, the Quebec government tabled a bill purportedly defending “academic freedom," Bill 32 -- but it would do precisely the opposite.
The passage of Bill 32 in its current form will open the door for any current or future government to radically reshape the nature of the relationship between education and the provincial government.
We ask, is the goal of this bill to protect academic freedom or does it usher in an entirely new bureaucracy for state surveillance of classroom activities?
One of the most basic pillars of academic freedom is autonomy from state control. The proposed law acknowledges this in its preamble, yet it contains an ominous threat to this principle.
Its Article 6 gives the minister of higher education the right to “order an educational institution to include in its policy any element indicated by the Minister,” and make “corrections” to non-compliant policies.
This clause would give the minister sweeping power to alter individual university policies, violating fundamental freedom from political interference in research and teaching.
Articles 4 to 6 of the proposed law would require universities to draft policies for ministerial approval, and create councils and appoint administrators to “examine complaints about violations” of academic freedom.
Even more troubling, the bill requires universities to adopt “penalties” for such violations. Because the very purpose of academic freedom is to protect professors from censure for scholarship that critiques government or challenges conventional knowledge, the introduction of a punitive approach to “protecting speech” is itself a violation of academic freedom.
If academic freedom is already a fundamental part of higher education, why is the government introducing this bill?
The government claims this bill is a response to the survey it conducted in 2021 on academic freedom. As researchers, we have to ask: what is the scientific validity of the claims behind these findings?
A number of problems arise when we look closer at the survey, including the small sample size -- roughly three per cent of all professors in the province.
The low response rate points to the likelihood that only those with strong views on the topic chose to complete the survey. Researchers call this “confirmation bias,” which means using data that reinforces preconceived opinions rather than painting an accurate picture of what’s happening in the province.
GOVERNMENT 'CHILL' ON CONTENT WARNINGS
The bill contains only one express prohibition: against the adoption of mandatory content warnings when potentially offensive material or language will be used in the classroom.
We agree that the imposition of mandatory content warnings would violate the autonomy that academic freedom enshrines. But there is simply no evidence that Quebec universities are even contemplating such policies.
It is, and must remain, up to individual professors -- often in consultation with their students -- to determine if or when such warnings may be appropriate.
By singling out the practice of content warnings, this bill does nothing but broadcast the government’s opposition to them, with potentially chilling consequences.
We can only see one motivation behind the proposed bill: to grant the government more power to interfere in how universities are run, and to enable students and faculty alike to punish one another for engaging in actual “discussion and debate” on politically contentious topics.
Academic freedom protects us from censure, and this proposed bill introduces new and far more dangerous mechanisms for censure than anything that currently exists.
We can’t help but wonder: is the real threat to academic freedom coming from Bill 32?
Robert Leckey is a professor of law at McGill University and Sarah Ghabrial is an assistant professor of history at Concordia University.
This open letter has been signed by the following professors and 130 in total across Quebec. See the full list here.
Francis Dupuis-Déri, professeur permanent, Université du Québec à Montréal/Tiohtià:ke
Martine Delvaux, Professeure titulaire, UQAM
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, Professeur agrégé, Université de Montréal
Catherine Flynn, Professeure, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Catherine Larochelle, Professeure adjointe, Université de Montréal
Genevieve Renard Painter, Assistant Professor, Concordia