Connecting the dots: Academic freedom at LU

By Ian Dew

Academic freedom includes a set of issues keenly felt by everyone in the university community, internationally, nationally, and locally. The roots of academic freedom at the Lakehead predate the establishment of the university in the person of Bora Laskin, graduate of Fort William Collegiate Institute, who would go on to become Chief Justice of Canada. Bora Laskin, after whom the Education Building on the Thunder Bay campus is named, was a prime mover in the formation and early history of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which defended faculty across Canada and provided the necessities of academic life, like free speech and academic freedom at the end of the McCarthy era and the “Red Scare.”   Free speech in the university setting and the wider issues of academic freedom are nurtured and supported at the local level by the Academic Freedom Fund of CAUT.

Academic freedom is defined by CAUT as the “the right to teach, learn, study, and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance.” It goes on to state, “Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.” According to the CAUT Bulletin, the Council of CAUT voted for the Academic Freedom Fund in November 2001, to “aid CAUT and local associations in vigorous defence of academic freedom.”  The fund, as stated on CAUT’s website, is “‘catastrophic insurance’ plan to guarantee sufficient resources for any local association or CAUT to defend academic freedom when a case requires extraordinary resources.” The fund has been instrumental in cases like the highly publicized case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri at the University of Toronto.


Given its long history with academic freedom, it is surprising that Lakehead University Faculty Association (LUFA) is not a member of the CAUT Academic Freedom Fund. Of all institutions in Canada calling themselves universities, from the giant University of Toronto, that kicked in $100,000, down to the College of Cape Breton, which somehow found $11,000 to contribute to this cause, Lakehead is the is one of the very few bona fide English-language universities that is not a member. Even the new University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which arguably is not an academic but a technical institution, found $500. The question of why this state of affairs should exist has not been answered directly by LUFA, although the question has been posed a number of times over the years. Dr. James Turk, President of CAUT, writes of the causes: “I don’t know if is parsimony, dislike of CAUT, or feeling that academic freedom is not a major issue.” He goes on, “I do feel badly as Lakehead is one of the only major associations not to contribute to support their colleagues.”  Whatever the real reason, it is clear that the executive favours local control and action over national standards and oversight.

What are the effects of this situation on the academics who spend their lives teaching and researching at Lakehead? What are the effects on the opportunities for study and advancement of students once they leave Lakehead? What are the impacts on the reputation of the university, long characterized in the major rating publication, the Maclean’s Survey of Canadian Universities, as problematic? Can the current tidal wave of grievances against LUFA and Lakehead University be traced back to LUFA’s isolated position? To date LUFA has withheld its support and its money for the fund since its inception. If the answer to the question of membership is “yes” in future, then the next question is: how much? Will Lakehead at last shrug off its rogue status and contribute to support their colleagues by joining the Academic Freedom Fund of CAUT?