Whistle blowing professor’s fate still up in the air

TRU economics professor Derek Pyne opens up about academic freedom

Pyne was banned from campus and suspended with pay earlier this summer. TRU says this wasn’t because of his research. (Robert Wisla/The Omega)

Earlier in the year Thompson Rivers University banned professor Derek Pyne from campus. Pyne is an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University who rose to prominence due to his recent writings on the practice of predatory publications. Predatory publications are journals which are published without being peer-reviewed. Commonly these publications are only publishable if you pay a fee ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

The article in question is an academic article that was published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Volume 48, Number 3, April 2017, pp. 137-160), which in turn was published by University of Toronto Press. Pyne’s article was titled the Rewards of Predatory Publications at a Small Business School.

In the article itself Pyne investigated the School of Business at TRU and found that all the departments within the university have faculty members with articles published by predatory publications. The article lays this out simply:

“The greatest number of predatory publications by a single faculty member is ten. One individual with four publications has 100 per cent of them in predatory journals. In total there are seventy-seven publications in predatory journals, representing 15.5 per cent of the school’s journal publications.”

The Omega got a chance to chat with Derek Pyne and ask him a few questions regarding his situation.

Why did you get in so much trouble?

DP: “I thought I wouldn’t get the response from TRU that I have. I have had disagreements regarding what I was researching before with the school of business and economics. I expected TRU to just take my academic article into consideration and try to work to resolve this issue but instead they just made it a bigger news story then it needed to be.”

Has there been any backlash against you personally?

DP: “I have gotten a couple nasty emails but generally its been an overwhelmingly positive response both from other facility on campus and off at other universities, especially after my op-ed in the New York Times.”

Do you think academic freedom at risk here at TRU?

DP: “Absolutely academic freedom is at risk here, my article should be covered by the rule that professors can research what they want without fear of retaliation from their colleagues or the university.”

Do we have an academic freedom policy at TRU?

DP: “No, we don’t. As you may know TRU is trying to get U.S. accreditation through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, however as part of the process, the Commission has recommended the university must create an academic freedom policy. Something that has been put on the back burner since my article came out.”

So where is the issue at now?

DP: “TRU is making defamation claims against me but basic defences against defamation include one, truth and two, having a moral or legal duty to report. My statements were true and the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a similar case that the second applies.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has also recently launched an investigation against TRU to see if Pyne’s academic freedom was violated. However, in a memo sent to staff on Nov. 2, interim president Christine Bovis-Cnossen said CAUT does not have “authority or jurisdiction to bring such an investigation into matters covered in our Collective Agreement” with TRU’s Faculty Association.

For reference former president Alan Shaver said in 2015 that Canadian universities are places of respect and understanding.

“Fortunately in Canada, universities are places where the active contesting of ideas is accepted as a safe and respectful path to understanding,” Shaver said. “It’s the norm rather than the exception. Faculty members especially are expected to exercise academic freedom by freely expressing their informed opinions without fear of retaliation from their colleagues or the university. I undertake the defense of their academic freedom as a key responsibility and as president I also undertake the defense of the right to free speech for all students, faculty and staff.”

As of this past Friday, Bovis-Cnossen has released an updated statement on both Pyne and academic freedom:

“In light of recent media attention that has focused on Thompson Rivers University, the publishing activity of its faculty, and on academic freedom, I feel it necessary to provide this public statement.

Much of the media attention has incorrectly stated that faculty member Dr. Derek Pyne was disciplined for his research. This is not the case. The discipline imposed is related to matters which I am unable to comment on due to both employment and privacy law. But I do want to be clear, to set the record straight, that academic freedom is fully protected at TRU under the collective agreement with our faculty association. Action taken against Dr. Pyne was not related to his specific research, the dissemination of his research, or the exercising of his right to academic freedom.

Additionally, it is important that I convey to you, to the public, my confidence in the calibre and quality of the faculty at TRU. We have a strong faculty complement committed to excellence in teaching, research, and scholarship. Any faculty member hired or promoted at TRU goes through a robust process which involves a review of research activity and publishing credentials. This is a process led by peers, hence, any faculty member at TRU moving through the promotion and tenure process is doing so with the endorsement of their faculty colleagues provincially, nationally, and internationally.

Regarding disputes involving faculty, our focus is on resolving such disputes through the appropriate internal processes and in a way that is respectful of all individuals and their right to privacy.”