Freedom to Whom?

Academic Freedom does not mean no-accountability

Maia Lomelino // Contributor
Valeriya Kim // Staff Illustrator

I remember being in my first term at CapU, fresh off the plane, still thinking Canada was the land of unicorns and rainbows. Like many first-year students at Capilano University (CapU), I enrolled in the required ENGL100 class—that’s where my eyes were opened to the problem of using academic freedom as an excuse for reproachable behaviour by an instructor. 

We discussed a very triggering topic to me—feminism and the porn industry—that put me in tears. Many weeks later, after trying to talk to the professor about what happened and being refuted with the academic freedom argument and a good old dose of veiled sexism and gaslighting, I realized that what happened was not academic freedom. My instructor used academic freedom to shield their sexist—and later xenophobic—behaviour and ideas. They were trying to justify their microaggressions towards me as their liberty to teach. This is not the only instance of this.

We should not allow “academic freedom” to become a “get out of jail card.” Please teach us the hard things, teach us the nasty stuff, but be mindful that you are dealing with humans. Be mindful that generational trauma exists, that personal traumas exist.

Academic freedom is “a scholar’s freedom to express ideas without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, but what do you do when the term is used by faculty as smoke and mirrors to distill sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, xenophobia and ableism? Is it fair that faculty members use this noble concept to avoid being held accountable for many prejudiced forms?

I come from Brazil, a country that had a 21-year Military Dictatorship where professors were arrested for speaking their minds against the government. There would be military infiltration among students in universities to police classes—one would never know when “they” would come for you. If they did, you would face imprisonment and possibly torture. I often see people justifying their xenophobic (or racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) behaviour by claiming freedom of speech, but freedom of speech means the ability to speak out against your government without repercussions. It doesn’t mean making discriminatory remarks or actions without consequences.

No one is saying professors and instructors should not have the right to teach delicate or controversial subjects, but we should not allow “academic freedom” to become a “get out of jail card.” Please teach us the hard things, teach us the nasty stuff, but be mindful that you are dealing with humans. Be mindful that generational trauma exists, that personal traumas exist. Debating or dismissing someone’s human rights is triggering and wrong. Our generation is not made of sensitive “snowflakes”; we are the ones that spoke up to say, “Enough, I shouldn’t have to go through this pain if it can be avoided.” And I say enough—academic freedom without accountability is bullshit. 

I stopped attending … Maybe if I reduced my time in the classroom, I would be less susceptible to feeling attacked again. Every class after the first incident contributed to my realization that the instructor used misconceptions and their own bias continuously in class. 

No, using slurs is not academic freedom; relativizing Nazism is not academic freedom; disrespecting another’s culture is not academic freedom. Facilitating environments where students feel emboldened to make discriminatory remarks is also not Academic Freedom.

The time has come for faculty to go through mandatory anti-oppression training as part of their jobs. It’s time to understand their students and peers from the so-called minorities’ difficulties and time to answer for their bad behaviour in class. In my case, all my instructor accomplished was to push me away from class. I stopped attending and only showed up for presentations and tests. Maybe if I reduced my time in the classroom, I would be less susceptible to feeling attacked again. Every class after the first incident contributed to my realization that the instructor used misconceptions and their own bias continuously in class. 

This was the first time I was subjected to xenophobia in Canada. In a classroom that is supposed to facilitate open thinking by a professor that dismissed the entire history of literature from my country as silly. Let that sink in. I got a bad grade, but my GPA is not more important than me being at peace, having my identity and culture dismissed and belittled, and not having anxiety attacks before entering the classroom.  

I love learning, and I believe that being a teacher, an instructor, or a professor is one of the world’s noblest professions. To be the one that shares knowledge, that instructs and guides students is a beautiful thing and should be preserved, but not at the cost of students’ mental health. Academic freedom should not be used as a “blank check,” and this means respecting the students.

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