'Academic freedom' turns to religious persecution

December 2, 2010

When Canada's university leaders meet privately in Vancouver on Thursday to talk academic freedom, headline-grabbing incidents at schools such as Carleton, York and Waterloo will doubtless drive much discussion.

Abortion, Israel and aboriginal rights, not to mention arrests of yahoos locking themselves by their necks to fences, have a way of monopolizing the highest-minded conversation.

In reality, however, such events are town and gown conflicts -- university spaces hijacked by external partisans. They have little to do with true academic freedom.

As the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada engages in its Dialogue on Academic Freedom next week, it would do well to deal with a more egregious threat to scholarly liberty.

The AUCC should take sharp note of the assault being waged from with academe itself on the independence, and even existence, of Canada's faith-based universities.

Since 2006, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has been targeting small, private, accredited, and invariably Christian, universities. Its method is to emit vague accusations that codes of conduct of such institutions somehow violate CAUT's definition of academic freedom. It then appoints its own "commissioners" to "investigate" whether the schools are guilty as charged.

Last year, it used these tactics against Trinity Western University in the Fraser Valley. More recently, it has turned it sights on a Mennonite school in Manitoba, a Baptist academy in the Maritimes and similar Christian schools across Canada.

What's risible about CAUT's singling out of these Christian schools is that, by its own admission, it has absolutely no legislative or administrative authority to conduct such investigations.

CAUT has been around since 1951, primarily as a labour advisory body for academic staff. It also plays the role of equal opportunity foghorn on campus free-speech issues. Demonstrating classic mission creep, though, it has appointed itself Canada's guardian of academic freedom and launched its campaign to root out attempts by universities to "ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous staff."

The meaning of academic freedom is what CAUT says it means. A CAUT document has a footnote to give authority to what it calls the "conventional understanding of academic freedom" -- and then cites itself as the authority.

CAUT's campaign impugns the legal rights of faith-based institutions to require employees to conduct themselves in ways consistent with their affiliation to the organization's religious mission. Settled human rights law and religious freedom rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada entitle such organizations -- non-academic and academic alike -- to do just that.

As Don Hutchinson, senior counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said recently about the case of Heintz versus Christian Horizons: "Christian institutions ... have particular rights that permit them to engage in selective hiring, requiring their employees to agree with their mission, beliefs, and behaviours -- provided the institution adequately explains ... why they are essential to the performance of the individual's work . . . ." Such rights are not, Hutchinson stressed, special exemptions or loopholes or simply sneaky ways to impose "Christian morality" within the academy. They are legal rights, straight up.

Sending unauthorized "commissioners" to snoop into entirely legal conduct is not just impudent. It offends the very fundamentals of freedom. Nor does it matter that CAUT is limited to posting the results of its snooping on its website shame list.

"An allegation that a university has 'violated the commitment to academic freedom' is an extremely serious matter [that can] easily damage the reputation of a university and place a cloud over the scholarship of its faculty," Jonathan Raymond, president of Trinity Western University, wrote in response to CAUT's bid to damage his school's good name last year.

It can also cost huge amounts of money if legal action is required. Every dollar spent fighting allegations is one that isn't spent for scholarship. Every such engagement, even at the more limited level of meeting the demands of self-appointed CAUT "commissioners" for all manner of documents, hearings, explanations, justifications etc., diverts time and energy from the proper pursuits of academic life.

In small private institutions, time and energy are always precious commodities and increasing pressure on them can lead to the worst effect of all. It can sow seeds of self-doubt -- even self-censorship -- among Christian scholars who, by ancient tradition and current law, are entitled to organize themselves into academic institutions that permit them to freely express their faith.

One legal scholar I spoke to last week put it best: "In some ways, it's easier to be a Jewish academic than a Christian academic. We've done a good job of identifying anti-Semitism and protecting ourselves from it. Christians are just learning what it means to be a minority, and they're still awkward at defending themselves."

Canada's academic leaders could strike a blow for freedom by lending them a supportive hand.