The release of the University of Ottawa’s Committee on Academic Freedom’s report has drawn ire from student leaders at the University. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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Unions say report’s recommendations fail to reflect consultations committee had with students

The release of the University of Ottawa’s Committee on Academic Freedom’s report has drawn ire from student leaders at the University. Both the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) and Graduate Student Association (GSAÉD) have called the report a disappointment. 

The unions were joined in their criticism of the report by the Black Leaders Student Association (BLSA) as well as Hannan Mohamud and Saada Hussen, the undergraduate student representatives on the University’s Board of Governors.

On Nov. 4, UOSU released a joint statement with Mohamud and Hussen, expressing their mutual despondency with the report. The statement says that the report disregarded consultations the committee had with student leaders and “disregards the need for mutual respect in favour of the freedom to use racial slurs in a classroom.”

“Students at uOttawa deserve to receive their education in a dignified environment, free from discrimination,” said Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s president as part of the statement. 

“Of all parties to this report, academics should be fully aware of the fact that words matter,” the statement continued. “There is absolutely no need to use racial slurs in an academic setting. It is possible to have conversations about discrimination without using discriminatory language.”

The UOSU believes the report failed to take into account anti-racism movements at the university such as 4,000 individuals signing a petition by the caucus of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour professors and Librarians at the University of Ottawa that expressed disappointment “for framing anti-racist issues as a threat to academic freedom.”

“We need evidence that student voices are being heard,” said UOSU equity commissioner Sana Almansour. “BIPOC students deserve to be at the centre of conversations that directly impact them.”

The joint statement took particular issue with recommendation F, writing:

“While the UOSU believes strongly in the importance of robust academic freedom, Recommendation F of the report seems to sanction the use of virulent language, without weighing the responsibilities of professors to maintain a respectful learning environment.” 

Recommendation F suggests that the University must “protect academic freedom and freedom of expression in fulfillment of its teaching and research mission.”

In this recommendation, the committee also took a stance against “the exclusion of words, works or ideas in the context of respectful academic presentations and discussions whose educational goal is to promote the dissemination of knowledge.” 

“The Committee believes that students and the University community must be willing to address sensitive topics in an academic context. Providing advance notice of topics deemed sensitive by some students may be expedient in certain cases to ensure they are not caught off guard. It must not affect the professional responsibilities of faculty, however.”

GSAÉD shared in a statement to the Fulcrum, that the report was “biased in its number of responses from uOttawa academic members, and this reflects in the authors’ approach to this subject.”

“The lack of student representation, and indeed any non-academic members of the university community, on this Committee was a clear downfall. We can only hope this was an oversight, rather than a purposeful design to promote a certain agenda,” wrote the association in its statement. 

The GSAÉD says that although several of their recommendations can be found in the report, they do not endorse the report. 

“The GSAÉD reinforces that our brief consultation with the Committee on Academic Freedom should not infer our support for the presentation and content of the report. While we note that several of our recommendations are present in the report, including the creation of a review committee, we consider the overall report a biased and dissatisfying outcome to this process.”

The association believes there is a major disconnect between the way academic freedom is understood in research and interpreted in classrooms on campus. 

“Ability and necessity seem to be conflated in the report, which is particularly troubling in light of the events which led to the formation of the Committee. […] We contend there is a disconnect between the understanding of academic freedom in research and how this is taken up in the classroom and around campus.”

GSAÉD also shares UOSU’s opinion that the report empowers academics to “say ‘whatever they want, however they want.’ ”

“The report does not engage enough with the implications and repercussions of academics feeling empowered to do and say ‘whatever they want, however, they want,’ ” the group statement reads.“While academic freedom is a central pillar of our institution, it exists alongside the need to uphold the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization.”

The association’s governance commissioner, Cameron Smith called the report a “missed opportunity to emphasize an ethic of care, mutual respect, and acknowledge the pedagogical responsibilities academics have when engaging with sensitive content,”. 

The BSLA also put out a statement regarding the committee’s report. The association believes the committee made it clear where its allegiances lied with the report.

According to the committee and the board of trustees, the academic freedom of professors far outweighs the university’s obligation to create a comfortable space for their students to learn.”

“The report seemed to focus on the harassment felt by the faculty when students responded to their petition while acknowledging that the freedom of speech of those students wasn’t protected.”

“Truthfully we and many other organizations didn’t expect much in the way of change from this committee as appeasing the faculty, shareholders and board of trustees was clearly its goal.”

“We will continue to demand better from our academic institution while leaving the door open for further communication.”