From their classrooms to research labs, universities are known as places where students and faculty engage in the pursuit of knowledge. Through this pursuit, students and faculty often have healthy debates based on the best knowledge and information available to them. And they do this without fear of censure or reprisal. This, at its most basic level, is what is referred to as academic freedom.
Academic freedom is fundamental to teaching, learning and inquiry at a university. It permits scholars, and hence universities, to pursue and advance knowledge, which serves society.
Such freedom is protected at universities, through policies and labour agreements, but TRU has taken this one step further by developing its own specific statement on academic freedom.
“It was an honour to do this because academic freedom is the heart and soul of our university,” said Lauchlan Fraser, a professor with the Faculty of Science, who chaired a working committee of faculty that was charged by TRU President Brett Fairbairn to develop the statement.
Fairbairn specifically left out administrative representation on the committee because he wanted the process to be faculty-led and faculty-driven.
“Academic freedom is of the highest interest and impact to faculty, and I trust through the committee that you will propose a statement that best reflects TRU,” Fairbairn said in spring 2019 in addressing faculty when the committee was struck.
While the committee’s work was delayed due to the pandemic, its work is now complete with the submission of a final statement. The statement runs four pages, with an additional page for citation.
Fairbairn stated, “[the committee’s] work involved consultation with faculty at various stages and has resulted in a distinctive TRU statement, I believe we can all be proud of. It reflects our university’s vision and values and acknowledges Indigenous perspectives on academic freedom. With its focus on both curiosity and respectful relations, this statement fits who we are as a university community.”
“We took an academic approach to this,” said Fraser, referring both to the thoroughness of the research, discussion with faculty, and the statement’s length.
Unique to TRU’s statement is the prominence and recognition of Indigenous perspectives on academic freedom. This came through the involvement of indigenous scholars at TRU.
“When they shared their thoughts on academic freedom, we recognized how powerful those ideas were and how they reflected what we wanted to develop which is about respect and compassion,” said Fraser. “An understanding that there is conflict, differences of opinion, and that we can explore those with respect and humility.”
For his part, President Fairbairn said the statement on academic freedom far exceeded his expectations.
“I am deeply impressed with the faculty input and thought that went into the statement. It reflects TRU’s values which are built on respectful relations, including respect towards one another and respect for knowledge.” The committee has framed the statement as a ‘living document’ reflecting on the crux of academic freedom. Fraser noted: “As we (as faculty) pursue new and novel thoughts through research and teaching, through that whole process this statement can change over time.”