[Chronique de Normand Baillargeon] A dialog with Yves Gingras

It’s done. The long-awaited Law on Academic Freedom in the University Environment was passed by the National Assembly on June 3. This law, which follows the Cloutier commission’s report, defines academic freedom and ensures that universities adopt a policy by which it is recognized, promoted and protected.

I wanted to talk about this with Yves Gingras, professor at UQAM and member of the Cloutier commission, with whom I feel close on all these issues.

About the law and the debates it generated

The report’s first recommendation to the government was “to pass a law establishing the university’s mission as well as the conditions for its realization and defining academic freedom and its beneficiaries”. Is Yves Gingras satisfied with what the new law proposes and imposes?

He is.

The law, he says, defines, and this is the first time that it has done so, “the mission of the university and reminds us that two conditions are necessary to achieve it: the autonomy of the institutions and the academic freedom of the professors”.

I remind you that the law, however, aroused criticism and negative reactions. Were some legitimate, according to him?

Yves Gingras thinks that if “the first version of the project was susceptible to criticism from some of its formulations, the amended version no longer poses any problems, although we could have, as requested by the Cloutier report, include the fact of taking measures and cause for a teacher attacked in the exercise of his/her duties, that is, for justified and rationally argued public interventions”.

He adds that it is also up to the unions to negotiate collective agreements that include this and points out that no MP voted against the law, which shows a strong consensus on the matter. (Remember that the eight solidarity MNAs from Quebec present abstained from voting.)

A case of moral panic?

Some argue that this debate over academic freedom is a case of “moral panic”. I don’t agree with them. Especially since the Cloutier report included an appendix listing recent events involving academic freedom in Quebec, an appendix that we can think invalidates this hypothesis. Is that also his opinion?

Yves Gingras responds that these criticisms are unfounded. They are, according to him, a desire to “minimize the facts, impute hidden motives or make psychopopulation”.

The notion of moral panic, he continues, “functions here not as a neutral and symmetrical concept in its application, but as a tautology: everything with which one disagrees becomes ‘panic’. It is a way of pathologizing the debate and not of argumentation. As for the number of cases, I have always considered that when a problem is identified, we should not wait for the multiplication of cases to intervene. Saying “is marginal” is typical of this rhetoric often repeated by certain deans”.

The responsibility of universities

Some argue that universities have a share of responsibility for the fact that the State has to intervene by law in this dossier. What Mr. Gingras think?

Your answer is unequivocal. “It is quite clear that if universities had really understood the importance of defending and promoting academic freedom in practice, and not through mere ‘statements’, they would not have sided with student demands that were incompatible every time with this freedom of teaching. , research and creation. »

What could and should they have done?

According to him, they should have explained to people who were complaining what a university is, which is par excellence the place for reasoned debates on all subjects. Instead, he laments, the cases listed show a tendency to want to hold back, “flatter students in the direction of their hair and tell teachers to shut up, adapt, when they’re not called upon to explain themselves as if they were already guilty.” ”.

Exactly. Some, and I am one of them, also see serious threats to academic freedom in a certain ideological domination similar, at worst, to propaganda or indoctrination. Should we take these threats seriously, he says?

Yves Gingras recalls that the defense of academic freedom must be exercised in the face of all attempts at censorship, “whether they be from the State, religions, industry or ideological pressure groups of any nature”.

A concrete example of these ideological pressures?

He recalls this recent trend of “asking researchers to say what they are going to do to advance the EDI cause [équité, diversité, inclusion] or students as they engage socially”. All of this, he says, “goes against freedom at the university and even goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which defends not only the right to express oneself on an issue, but also the right not to speak about an issue. A researcher has the right to limit his work to the search for exoplanets without having to have an opinion on morally modern matters.

Finally, I wanted to know what led you to agree to be part of this commission — it’s not that common for an academic.

“I have as a principle that, as a teacher, I have a certain expertise”, he replies. That my education and salary were essentially paid for from public funds and that I have a kind of obligation not to refuse without just cause a legitimate request from an elected government. »

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