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Post-secondary education conjures up notions of philosophical lectures, new ideas and self-discovery. But associate news editor Rebecca Burton discovers that, at Ryerson, it’s all about a strict formula to a normalized education

Two mechanical arms intertwine with one another. One side represents a system of beliefs that doesn’t allow men to shake hands with women. The other side symbolizes a nation that elects women as heads of state. The hands let go and the operators move to the next exhibit.

The controversial piece of art will appear in Meta 2011 as fourth-year new media student Takin Aghdashloo’s final piece. While professors gave him the go-ahead to complete the project, it was accompanied by a warning. As the gallery opens its doors to the public, it is sure to draw controversy.

The idea itself jabs at a subject that makes many squirm with discomfort. Within the confines of the university, this might be Aghdashloo’s only chance to show a piece that sensitive.

Arguably, university is one of the places with the most freedom to say, learn and teach what you want. At a policy level, there are no limits on what can be taught. Ryerson only restricts teaching hatred, bigotry, and scientific theories that are not backed by accredited scientific research. Teaching flat-earth in a course on history of ideas is okay, just not in geography. But as students sit through mandatory courses to fulfill degree requirements and professors hide their opinions for job security, post-secondary education is eclipsed by self-censorship.

Students like fourth-year film student Elaine Poon feel the pressure to steer clear of controversial projects while in university. “If you’re going to do a pornographic piece, you wait until you graduate,” says Poon. “You don’t have to be offensive to prove you’re an artist.”

Ryerson’s I.M.A gallery director, Katy McCormick, agreed that controversial subject matter has its place. Nudity, for example, has had its place historically in the art world. But how the artist perceives the body matters more than the nudity itself.

In essence, academic freedom encompasses the right to express views, take a critical stance, or maintain the status quo without being unfairly scrutinized. Tariq Amin-Khan, a professor in the politics and public administration department, feels Ryerson is conscious of this definition and implements its principles in many ways. “We have a degree of academic freedom [here at Ryerson],” says Amin-Khan.

According to John Isbister, vice provost of faculty, professors at Ryerson are not censored as long as what they say abides by the law, is not libelous, does not create panic and does not constitute hate speech. But the reality is that the curriculum dictates much of what a professor can actually teach and places further restrictions on the development of programs.

A small group within each department is responsible for determining what is taught and what courses students must take to fulfill a degree. While the individuals in this group are trained in their respective subjects, what they end up choosing can steer dominantly in one direction. The program could take a more radical shape, take a conservative mainstream angle, or remain in the middle ground. “You have to teach about what the subject matter is,” explains Isbister.

According to its policy, the university has the freedom to teach all kinds of subject matter, but professors are circumscribed by a host of other issues they have to keep in mind. For instance, Amin-Khan says, at times, he has been cautious about what he says in class. While presenting Canada’s new anti-terror laws in one of his politics classes, he presented the issues but he shied away from stating his own views.

“I don’t want to say there will be a problem but it’s at the back of my mind – the what if,” he says. “I often find myself self-censoring,” says Amin-Khan.

According to John Isbister, the university can never step in to condemn professors for being too radical. But along with the freedom to state their own opinions comes criticism from colleagues and unspoken pressures to tame controversial viewpoints.

For professors, even the difference between being tenured and not can limit their ability to express how they really feel. In order to be considered for tenure, professors must go through a five-year evaluation process before they are given a full-time position. Liana Salvador, VP education, says professors who are untenured are under harder scrutiny and have less freedom to introduce contentious topics in the classroom. “Without job security, can you really go against the grain?”

Ryerson has never experienced an extreme case of a student or professor misusing their academic freedom, but there have been such instances at other Canadian universities in the past. In 2009, a tenured professor at the University of Ottawa was dismissed on allegations of assigning exceptionally high grades to one of his courses but he claimed his forced departure was tied to the political views he expressed in class, such as those about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Amin-Khan’s view, there is potential for full academic freedom in classrooms but it requires creating a dialogue between colleagues, students, faculty and staff. And while there is room for improvement, Amin-Khan sees Ryerson as a sphere that mainly supports freedom of speech and expression.

“No one is telling me what I can and cannot do. For the most part Ryerson is a happy place.”

With files from Leah Wong

Photo by: Lindsay Boeckl

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