By Amy Sharaf
The topic of the show was “What is a Terrorist?” The stunned host looked intently at Canadian Islamic Congress President Mohammed Elmasry and reiterated his question.
“So anyone and everyone in Israel, irrespective of gender, over the age of 18 is a valid target?” he asked. “Yes, I would say,” answered Elmasry, a professor at the University of Waterloo. The Oct. 19 edition of The Michael Coren Show sparked public outrage.
Halton Police launched an investigation into possible hate speech and the University of Waterloo conducted its own inquiry. Elmasry, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, publicly apologized in response to the outcry, but he is not the first professor to be criticised for airing his personal views.
Recent incidents have raised questions about academic freedom, expression of opinion and the role of the professor. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) defines academic freedom as “(the professor’s) freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution, its administration& (and) freedom from institutional censorship.”
Neil Tudiver is on the CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee. “If you get to the point of disciplining someone for the views they may state even though they are controversial, then you are undermining the very foundations of a university,” he said.
Each university has its own guidelines governing acceptable faculty behaviour. Tudiver added that while controversial views should be debated and challenged, universities should not get involved.
“Academic freedom is not unlimited freedom, there are limits,” he said. But where that ambigious boundary lies is the problem. Ryerson Faculty Association President, David Checkland, said lack of funding and image may be behind attempts by some universities to muzzle professors. “Universities these days, because of government funding limitations, are constantly in a position of raising money and they are put into a position of concern in terms of their public image,” he said.
“Most universities are (try) … to appeal to people in the wider community. In the way that the opinions of some professors may get into the way of that appeal& universities may be tempted to silence them.”
Political Science professor at York University David Dewitt said problems arise “when faculty inadvertently give the impression that they are speaking on something in which they have an authority and that expertise carries weight.”
Dewitt, director of the Centre for International and Security Studies, said there is sometimes a “halo effect” in which expertise can carry over to outside discussions.
“We who have the privilege of being faculty at universities have a responsibility when we use our platform. Then when we speak outside the university, our expertise carries on with us, unless I go out of my way to say that I’m not an expert in this.”
Few universities have been spared conflicts regarding academic freedom. J. Philippe Rushton, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, faced protest and was deemed a racist by some, for his controversial paper comparing Asian, black and white people.
Another professor at the University of New Brunswick was suspended for an opinion piece about date rape published in a campus paper, and a University of Toronto professor was threatened and called a racist for designing a controversial exhibit called “Out of Africa” at the Royal Ontario Museum. Ryerson has also had a high-profile incident.
The case of former journalism professor Gerald Hannon made national headlines in 1995 when Hannon admitted to the Toronto Sun that he was a part-time prostitute. These revelations came when he was already under review by the university, for allegedly discussing his views supporting pedophilia in his freelance writing class.
“It was never really a case of academic freedom … He was just expressing his personal views. He wasn’t expressing any scholarly research he’d done,” said John Miller, Ryerson’s Chair of Journalism at the time.
Hannon was suspended pending an investigation into his conduct, but was later reinstated with a letter of reprimand. His contract expired in mid-1996, and while he filed a grievance to get his job back, he was not rehired.
Richard Plant, a censorship expert at the University of Toronto, wonders if teaching itself is a dangerous profession. He said people who have a responsibility to “the development and expression of new ideas” are potentially in trouble.
“Professors are in a conflicted and difficult circumstance. I often see teaching as a very dangerous job,” he said. “Over the past 20 years the climate in academic institutions is one that has tightened up considerably.”
He added that the notion of learning includes the teaching of new ideas. “The idea of going to a class is to learn something new, and learning something new is asking you to alter and re-shape what you already know. Nobody likes that change,” he said.
But academic freedom is not always about what is taught. One of the most recent professors to fight for his academic freedom and right to criticise his employer is David Noble, of York University.
Noble was heavily criticised by the university and a Jewish rights group, after circulating a memo called “The York University Foundation: The Tail that Wags the Dog.” The memo included the names of individuals and affiliated organizations that allegedly point to a pro-Israel stance by the university.
While York has not taken formal action against Noble, he has filed a grievance with his union against the university for heavily criticising him in the media. He is in the process of filing a lawsuit. Checkland, of the RFA, believes that academic freedom itself is being challenged.
“Academic freedom is a right that has to be constantly re-defended and re-thought,” he said. “In an ideal world, universities would be open to a wide range of opinions and that would be the end of the matter.”