Volume 97, Issue 2
Thursday, May 29, 2003

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Does Mac policy hurt academic freedom?

By Laura Katsirdakis
Gazette Staff

How freely should academics be able to speak when addressing the media?

A policy recently approved by McMaster University's senate stated faculty members are not allowed to identify their association with the university unless they are speaking from within their area of expertise.

"The tradition of universities involves a long struggle to protect academic freedom," said David Robinson, associate executive director at the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "There are not many spaces left for free expression." McMaster's policy sends a certain signal discouraging free expression, he added.

"The reality is that professors have been speaking out on social issues for many years," Robinson explained, citing John Polanyi as an example. Polanyi, a University of Toronto chemistry professor, is known for also speaking out on peace issues. Robinson asked if he should be disallowed from mentioning his association with U of T just because peace has nothing to do with his specialty.

The idea that McMaster's policy restricts academic freedom is "totally untrue," said Lorraine Allen, outgoing president of the McMaster University Faculty Association. The policy has been in effect for many years – the senate's recent decision simply updated the wording, she explained.

"There is no reason professors should need to identify themselves with the university [when speaking on issues outside their expertise]," she said.

"The university's insurers advised us we are not covered for staff statements in the media," said McMaster's VP-administration Karen Belaire. "McMaster has always had [these] guidelines."

"This is in no way meant to restrict academic freedom... it is all about making sure the members of our community are well informed," Belaire said.

Western's policy on faculty interaction with the media is that they should "always make it clear when they're representing themselves and their opinions, not that of the [university]," explained Alan Wheedon, Vice-Provost policy, planning and faculty.

This message is conveyed in the collective agreement with the faculty, Wheedon said. It is also made clear in this agreement that faculty have the right to speak freely, he added.

"The difficulty can be that if a faculty member expresses an opinion and is sued for defamation, they can't look to the university to defend them unless they have been authorized to speak by the university," explained Peter Mercer, Western's VP-administration.

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2002 THE GAZETTE