In March 2021, the Quebec provincial government created an independent scientific and technical committee to conduct studies on academic freedom. The academic freedom committee is also known for making recommendations on current public issues.
Due to fear of confrontation from students, this committee was formed largely due to reports of professors being reluctant to touch on controversial topics. A survey in 2021 revealed that self-censorship was a common issue with many Quebecois professors, which naturally limited the scope of their research.
One crucial event that led to the committee’s formation occurred in 2020, where part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, who taught at the University of Ottawa, was suspended for her use of a slur during a lecture.
The event spurred a great divide in the university, as there were faculty members who supported the professor, proclaiming the need for academic freedom. Still, there were students who criticized the professor and her supporters.
The reluctance to openly discuss controversial topics may reduce the occurrences of racist and discriminative behaviour exhibited by faculty, but it can also serve as a form of censorship.
Currently, the committee is headed by former Parti Quebecois cabinet leader and current vice-chancellor at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, or University of Quebec in Chicoutimi, Alexandre Cloutier. The former leader stated that universities are places where people gain knowledge through debates. As such, avoiding controversial topics simply reduces the number of debates that can take place, thus impeding the discovery of new ideas.
Since its formation in March, the committee has been investigating incidents relating to post-secondary education academic freedom affairs and has since given its recommendations to the provincial government.
For many, there is a major difference between protecting academic freedom and tolerating discriminative behaviour.
With this in mind, the committee recommended that the provincial government adopts a bill that would define what academic freedom should universally be recognized as, and would guarantee the protection of academic freedom in universities.
Universities all across the province would then share a single, widely-accepted definition of academic freedom. This will prevent controversies surrounding academic freedom violations due to differing interpretations and understandings on academic freedom.
This topic has led the committee to publicly state that university classrooms cannot be “safe spaces.” It would be impossible to explore different viewpoints on controversial topics if these ideas were censored based on violating the principle of “safe spaces.”
Many opportunities for discussion will be lost. It is concluded that the classroom should be a place open to discussion and knowledge-seeking, free from conformity to the idea of “safe spaces.”
Similarly, the committee recommended universities halt the requirement of using “trigger warnings” in course syllabuses and such documents, which traditionally serve to warn students of potentially sensitive topics and information to come.
Lastly, the committee also recommended all universities adopt their policy on academic freedom and create a committee that would handle academic freedom-related affairs concerning faculty and the student body.
Upholding academic freedom is vital to maintaining faculty members’ ability to research and discuss controversial topics.
Should the recommendations of the committee be adopted by the provincial government, universities in Quebec will be moving towards a future where academic freedom receives greater protection and guarantee, a step forward for the world of academia.