Dean warns academics against ‘politically charged sentiment’

Some scholars at Canadian university say comments ‘infringe on academic freedom’

March 9, 2017
University of Ottawa library
Source: iStock
University of Ottawa library

An academic freedom row has erupted at the University of Ottawa after a dean warned faculty members against making “personal or demeaning attacks on celebrities or politicians”.

Jacques Bradwejn, dean of the Canadian university’s Faculty of Medicine, sent a memo to academics in the department last month warning that scholars have a “duty to remain neutral on political, religious and cultural issues”, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Dr Bradwejn also warned against academics “expressing politically charged sentiment over social media accounts” that identify them as a member of the Faculty of Medicine, claiming that such an approach has the potential to be “disruptive” in an environment comprised of learners from a spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs.

“Using your role as an educator as a platform for personal or demeaning attacks on celebrities or politicians, especially if they are not associated with the subject matter you are teaching, is unacceptable in the eyes of this faculty,” he wrote.

He said that it had “come to light that some [faculty members] have been using material or presenting information that may be considered inappropriate in the context of the educational values that we as a university uphold”.

But his comments have come under fire from some scholars in the department.

One unnamed academic told the Ottawa Citizen: “Nobody really knows what it is about but the way I read it, it infringes on academic freedom.”

Meanwhile, Amir Attaran, a law professor who is cross-appointed to the Faculty of Medicine, said the memo was “bizarre”.

“I am a health policy guy, so I am supposed to not talk politics? This is insane. We are supposed to talk about social medicine and not talk about politics? We can’t criticize Jenny McCarthy now?” he said, referring to the celebrity who has been criticised for promoting anti-vaccine sentiment.

“I am going to carry on as I always would.”

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the university should ask Dr Bradwejn to retract his comments and reassure staff that no action will be taken against those who exercise their academic freedom.

“One of the key components of academic freedom is the right of faculty to exercise free speech without the university’s censorship or reprisal,” he said.

“Historically, the majority of the most famous academic freedom cases involve professors who were unfairly sanctioned for their public comments and actions."

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