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FAQ: Academic Freedom

The following “Frequently Asked Questions” and responses were adapted from a 2009 communication to our membership and updated based on our 2017 Collective Agreement.

What is “academic freedom”?

Academic freedom is the belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of a learning institution, and that academics and scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts, including those that are inconvenient to political groups or authorities. Academic freedom is a widely accepted principle in post-secondary institutions. All Ontario university faculty association collective agreements have a specific clause guaranteeing academic freedom.

The right to speak freely without fear of reprisal, the right to determine specific teaching methodologies, the right to transmit knowledge openly, and the right to research in one’s field are some examples.


What is OPSEU’s history with Academic Freedom?

Other OPSEU bargaining units such as the Michener Institute and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine had academic freedom language in their collective agreements. Colleges did not have academic freedom in the Collective Agreement until Arbitrator Kaplan awarded it in arbitration to resolve the 2017 negotiations and strike.

Ontario’s Colleges have expanded far beyond their trade school roots. Colleges not only partner with universities, but have many articulated programs leading to post-secondary degrees, and grant degrees themselves. Colleges are now firmly established within the post-secondary domain in Ontario.

What does the Collective Agreement say now?

The language added to the Collective Agreement in 2017 appears in Articles 13.02 through 13.05:

Article 13

13.01 Except as may be otherwise mutually agreed between the employee and the College, a work commissioned by the College, or produced pursuant to the employee’s normal administrative or professional duties with the College, shall be and remain the property of the College. Other works produced by an employee shall be and remain the property of the employee. Nothing contained herein shall adversely affect any rights an employee may have under the Copyright Act(Canada) and in particular the subsection addressing “work made in the course of employment”.

13.02 Academic freedom is fundamental to the realization and preservation of the Colleges’ commitment to academic excellence. The purpose of this article is to define the rights and obligations related to academic freedom.

13.03 All members of the College community shall support and protect the fundamental principle of academic freedom.

13.04 Every faculty member is able to exercise academic freedom in the performance of his/her duties. Academic freedom at the College includes the right to enquire about, investigate, pursue, teach and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.

13.05 The exercise of academic freedom is subject to the following responsibilities:
(i) In exercising academic freedom, employees shall be responsible for adhering to legal parameters (such as but not limited to The Human Rights Code, Criminal Code of Canada, civil liability, collective agreement obligations),institutional regulations, Ministry Directives, requirements of accrediting bodies, and program and curriculum requirements.
(ii) Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligations to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge. In exercising such freedom, faculty have a responsibility to respect the academic freedom and rights of other members of the college community.
(iii) The College affirms that faculty shall be free to act and speak in their capacity as public citizens provided they indicate they are speaking as individuals and not acting as representatives of the College.

Is Academic Freedom at risk?

The short answer is yes.

We can assume the College Employer Council will try to remove the language in future negotiations. In a June 2020 whitepaper published by Colleges Ontario, the lobby group for the 24 colleges, you can find this excerpt:

“The components of a college course are, in many cases, technical in nature and thereby fixed. The fixed nature of college programming makes it far less susceptible to a professor’s interpretation of academic freedom than in the traditional humanities or in the university system more broadly.”

Colleges Ontario, or at least their advisors, seem to deeply misunderstand the application of academic freedom towards colleges. Just because curriculum may be technical in nature does not mean that academic freedom is not necessary.

Consider an example: a Professor is teaching students how to repair a farm tractor. The manufacturer of that tractor has donated several tractors, spare parts, and technical manuals to the college. The technical manuals have been incorporated into the curriculum. The Professor, while teaching a given unit, is aware of a repair technique, based on his/her industry experience, that uses another manufacturer’s replacement part that is preferred and meets all of the safety and performance requirements. The manufacturer may not be pleased with this and attempt to exercise influence as a major donor to the college. Yet, the Professor needs to have the freedom to discuss alternative techniques with students, while meeting the learning outcomes of the course, without fear of impairment of position.

The 2017 academic freedom language represents a significant improvement to the public Ontario College system especially when compared to the gaps in the patchwork of individual college policies that previously existed. Faculty should be prepared to defend this significant gain to their working conditions at the negotiating table.