Conversation with Yves Gingras (*)

June 11, 2022

about the newly minted Quebec Academic Freedom Act

By Normand Baillargeon (**)

Le Devoir, June 11th, 2022

It’s done. The long-awaited Academic Freedom Act was adopted by the (Quebec) National Assembly on June 3. This law, which follows up on the Cloutier Commission report, defines academic freedom and ensures that universities will have a policy to recognize, promote and protect it.

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

On the law and the debates it has generated

The first recommendation of the report to the government was “to adopt a law stating the mission of the university as well as the conditions for its accomplishment and defining university 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 it has done so, “the mission of the university and recalls that two conditions are necessary to achieve it: the autonomy of institutions and the academic freedom of teachers.”

I remind him that the law has nevertheless given rise to criticism and negative reactions. Were some of them legitimate, in his opinion?

Yves Gingras thinks that “if the first version of the bill was open to criticism because of some of its wording, the amended version no longer poses any problems, even if we could have included, as the Cloutier report requested, the fact of taking up the cause of a professor attacked in the exercise of his or her duties, that is to say, for justified and rationally argued public interventions.”

He added that it is also up to the unions to negotiate collective agreements that include this and pointed out that no MPs voted against the law, indicating a strong consensus on it. (It should be noted that the eight Québec solidaire MPs present abstained from voting).

A case of moral panic?

Some have argued that this debate on academic freedom is a case of “moral panic”. I do not agree with them. Especially since the Cloutier report included an appendix listing recent events involving academic freedom in Quebec, which arguably invalidates this hypothesis. Is this also his opinion?

Yves Gingras replied that these criticisms were unfounded. In his view, they are part of a desire to “minimise the facts, impute hidden motives or engage in pop psychology”.

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 form of pathologisation of the debate, 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 number of cases to multiply before intervening. To say ‘it’s marginal’ is typical of the rhetoric often repeated by some rectors.

The responsibility of universities

Some argue that the universities are partly responsible for the fact that the state had to intervene by law in this matter. What does Mr Gingras think?

His answer is unambiguous. “It is perfectly clear that if the universities had really understood the importance of defending and promoting academic freedom in practice, and not by mere ‘declarations’, they would not have sided with student demands that are incompatible with this freedom of teaching, research and creation.”

What could and should they have done?

According to him, they should have explained to the people who were complaining what a university is, that it is par excellence the place for argued debates on all subjects. Instead, he deplores, the cases listed show a tendency not to make waves, to “flatter the students and tell the teachers to shut up, to adapt, when they are not summoned to explain themselves as if they were already guilty.

Precisely. Some people, and I am one of them, also see serious threats to academic freedom in a certain ideological domination which, in the worst cases, is akin to propaganda or indoctrination. Should we take these threats seriously, according to you?

Yves Gingras reminds us that the defence of academic freedom must be exercised in the face of all attempts at censorship, “whether they come from the State, religions, industry or ideological pressure groups of any kind”.

A concrete example of such ideological pressure?

He points to the recent trend of “asking researchers to say what they are going to do to advance the EDI [equity, diversity, inclusion] cause or asking students how they are socially involved”. All of this, he says, “runs counter to freedom at the university and even contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which defends not only the right to speak out on a subject, but also the right not to speak out on a subject. A researcher has the right to limit his work to the search for exoplanets without having to give his opinion on morally fashionable subjects.

Finally, I wanted to know what had led him to agree to be part of this commission – not such a common thing for an academic.

“I have the principle that as a professor I have a certain expertise,” he replied. “That my training and salary were essentially paid for by public money and that I have a kind of obligation not to refuse without good reason a legitimate request from an elected government.”

(*) Yves Gingras is a historian of Sciences, professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, often called by the medias to clarify scientific controversies for the general public.

(**) Normand Baillargeon is a retired professor of Education Sciences at UQAM. He has a weekly column in the daily Le Devoir. He was also a co-founder of the Humanist Association of Quebec in 2005.

Translation by Michel Virard with the considerable help of DeepL.

Link to original paper in French:

Michel Virard