Ryerson prof blasts Carleton’s new policy breaching academic freedom

A visiting professor at Ryerson is putting Carleton University on blast for a policy that muzzles its board members.

James Turk, a visiting professor in Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design and a former executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) says the policy denies the board of governors, a democratic right.

“I believe that any board member has a right to talk about anything that happens, except for those things that are confidential and even then, a board should have a policy that only the narrowest set of things are confidential,” he said, adding that to deny that is to deny “a fundamental democratic right.”

Ryerson professor and former executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers James Turk. (Ryersonian file photo)

Ryerson professor and former executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers James Turk. (Ryersonian file photo)

The controversial move may result in the university being blacklisted — or “censured” — by the CAUT, which argues the policy breaches academic freedom.

According to a statement on the Carleton University Academic Staff Association’s (CUASA) website, members of the board were required to sign a newly amended Statement of General Duties, Fiduciary Responsibilities, and Conflict of Interest.

The revised statement said that it imposed restrictions on a member’s ability to speak publicly about board meetings.

In addition, members of the community are only allowed to attend open board meetings with permission and must watch a live-streamed version from a room across campus.

Turk believes the policy undermines essence of a university, a place where topics are encouraged to be debated. “It’s the kind of stuff you see in a totalitarian system, you wouldn’t expect to see it inside a university,” he said.

Biology professor Root Gorelick, who sits on the board, has blogged about the non-confidential portions of board meetings for the last two years.

He states that his posts are “not meant as a surrogate” for the minutes of the meeting, which constitute as the official record of the meeting, but meant as  “constructive criticism of allies.”

Under the new agreement, which he refuses to sign, he is prohibited from blogging about anything discussed during board meetings and may be removed from the board entirely.

A Carleton University press release referencing an Ottawa Citizen article about the issue said “proper governance requires fulsome, candid discussion and debate by Board members at meetings, without fear of being misquoted or maligned…”

It went on to reference Gorelick’s writing.

“Blog posts by the member referenced in the article making inaccurate statements about members, meetings, discussions and decisions of the Board are neither appropriate nor legal.”

The statement goes on to say that public blog posts stifle the freedom of speech of the board members themselves, who may feel unable to express themselves.

But Turk argues the opposite is true, adding that an explanation Carleton president Roseann Runte wrote to CAUT is misleading.

“It makes it seem as if their policy isn’t what I understand their policy to be,” he said. “I mean part of the letter reads as if she is saying, ’no, no, board members have to respect the confidentiality of those things said (in private).’ Well, nobody’s questioning that.

“There would be no furor about all this if that’s all they were saying. They’re obviously saying, ‘no you can’t speak contrary to what the board has decided in the public session.’ It makes it sound like they’re not doing anything unusual. Well, they are.”

A spokesperson for CAUT confirmed that a motion was passed at their council meeting on Saturday to initiate the censure process for Carleton, which could mean recommendation that nobody take a position there and that academic organizations choose not to hold conferences there, until the censure is lifted.

According to Turk, only one university has received censure since 1979.

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