On Campus

Christian universities fight back

Updated: secular definition of academic freedom should not rule in Canada

Under attack for allegedly violating academic freedom, Christian universities in Canada are fighting back in a decidedly academic way. They are planning to hold a conference. Last week, delegates from faith-based schools across the country were in Toronto for the annual meeting of Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), an advocacy group.

At the top of the agenda was the ongoing investigation being conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) into whether Christian institutions respect accepted rules of academic freedom.

For background click here.

The national professors union has already completed a report on Trinity Western University that concluded that due to the existence of a Statement of Faith affirming Christian beliefs, that all professors must sign, the school places “unwarranted and unacceptable constraints on academic freedom.” Canadian Mennonite University and Crandall University have also been visited by CAUT investigators.

Faced with the possibility of further rebukes against Christian schools, CHEC’s board of directors has decided to invite other groups from the post-secondary sector to participate in a “national conference to dialogue on the meaning of ‘university’ and ‘academic freedom.’” However, planning for the conference is still in the preliminary stages, and a date and venue have yet to be set. CAUT told Maclean’s it is reserving comment until a formal request to participate in the conference is made. (Update: CAUT executive director James Turk told Inside Higher Education that they would probably accept an invitation to participate in the conference.)

Al Hiebert, CHEC’s executive director, said the dispute stems from two competing definitions of academic freedom. On one side is CAUT’s position that Hiebert said represents an “unqualified academic freedom” for “every individual professor at a university.” On the other side is a view that holds institutional autonomy from outside influence above faculty independence. The latter definition is clearly favoured by faith based universities.

For example, Trinity’s statement on academic freedom protects scholarly inquiry only when it stems  “from a stated perspective, i.e., within parameters consistent with the confessional basis of the constituency to which the University is responsible.”

While CAUT argues such qualifications do “not ensure genuine academic freedom,” Hiebert said respecting an institution’s autonomy to develop its own approach to scholarship, including the right to limit inquiry on faith-based grounds, is consistent with the idea of a university. “Our posture is that this CAUT position does not rule in Canada [and] should not be allowed to rule in Canada,” he said. Despite CHEC’s apparent hostility towards a principle that privileges faculty autonomy, Hiebert said he hopes that the conference can help foster “mutual understanding.”

“If some consensus position were drafted, that would be wonderful,” he said.

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