The 2020–21 academic year saw two incidents of Ontario professors being effectively fired: the termination of 116 of the 345 professors at Laurentian University in an unprecedented use of the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act (CCAA) at a public institution and the donor interference that reversed the decision to hire Dr. Valentina Azarova as Director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program because her research was seen to be critical of Israel.

While there are important differences between the two incidents, and the termination of Dr. Azarova’s hiring process is perhaps not a “firing” in the most literal sense, both raise the crucial question of whether or when it is acceptable to terminate tenured professors without cause—a practice that has been occurring with growing and disturbing frequency in the US, UK, and Australia but that, until Laurentian, had only occurred once in Canada in a case that was not later reversed.

The termination of Dr. Azarova’s hiring at U of T has drawn substantial national and international condemnation for its abrogation of academic freedom and for the light it shines on donor interference and the racialized “Palestine exception” in academia. The incident prompted the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to impose a rare censure of the University of Toronto in April 2021. The University of Toronto community then mobilized a remarkably strong grassroots international campaign in support of the censure, which culminated in U of T reversing its decision not to hire Dr. Azarova in September 2021 and CAUT lifting the censure in November of the same year.

In contrast, it is far less widely known that 116 faculty members at Laurentian were either pushed into early retirement or fired during group Zoom calls without termination or severance payments. Upwards of 25 additional faculty were terminated when Laurentian cut ties with its affiliated institutions, forcing them to close, while yet more faculty jobs have since been lost to attrition. Those who remain were pressured into accepting a new collective agreement with major concessions. Opposition to what has happened (and continues to happen) at Laurentian has been levelled from many vital perspectives, but it has rarely (if ever) been framed as an attack on academic freedom.

To be sure, the Laurentian case does not match the archetype of a violation of academic freedom as neatly as the U of T case does. The Laurentian professors were fired in large numbers and under the guise of financial necessity when the university invoked the CCAA, which triggered a restructuring process designed for insolvent private-sector corporations. As a result, these terminations do not appear to be retaliation for faculty research or other actions. Nor is there (so far) as clear a line of evidence indicating that the goal of the firings was to keep certain kinds of research out of the university as there was in the U of T incident. What happened at Laurentian is also perhaps not linked as directly to what Vincent Wong has called the “conservative backlash against anti-racist and decolonial education” that has underpinned the U of T case and many recent violations of academic freedom.

However, if we look at the financial arguments that have been used to justify mass firings of faculty at Laurentian and elsewhere in the context of the increasing competition between different visions of the role and purpose of a university, we can see how—despite these divergences—mass firings of tenured faculty for financial reasons, too, can be understood as violations of academic freedom. From this perspective, what happened at Laurentian is not senseless or short-sighted, and it is not just about the underfunding and privatization of the university; it is also a disciplining of the professoriate in the growing struggle over who controls and legitimates ideas in our society. It is about which researchers and which kinds of research are allowed in the university and in the public sphere—and who gets to decide.

Is it ever financially necessary to fire faculty?

For decades, the language of financial necessity has been deployed to frame all manner of public sector cutbacks, layoffs, and privatizations as inevitable and technocratic—simply a question of arithmetic. As many have pointed out, this language conveniently obscures the political choices that underpin these moves. In the university sector, for instance, financial trouble is often feigned by universities that are in bargaining with faculty associations when the university actually has ample coffers and is choosing to invest in multi-million dollar campus buildings and ballooning administrators’ salaries instead of the university’s core mission of research and education.

It is unclear what kind of genuine financial hardship would actually necessitate firing professors, particularly as public universities are not businesses, nor do they operate in isolation. Their mission is not to make a profit or to generate revenue but to serve the public interest by fostering an educated, deliberative, collectively self-aware, and engaged populace through research and teaching. Governments fund universities because the pursuit of profit would pervert this core mission and because the benefits of a strong university sector benefit society at large, much like primary schools, hospitals, or public parks.

Canadian universities also have built-in financial checks and balances through a bicameral system of collegial governance. If a university has reached a point of genuine financial crisis, it is very likely that this is the product of financial mismanagement by the Board of Governors and senior administration that has been concealed from collegial governance bodies (as was the case at Laurentian) and/or a prolonged mismatch between the university’s funding and its current needs, such as the chronic underfunding of universities across Ontario. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which firing faculty or other employees would make more financial sense than expanding and strengthening collegial governance, while either temporarily or permanently boosting government funding to address existing financial shortfalls.

Moreover, while firing faculty might temporarily improve a budget line, it doesn’t make financial sense for the public purse. By the time faculty achieve tenure, they have received substantial public investment through the public education, salaries, and research grants they have obtained. Faculty also—rightly—often tailor their research (including any long-term, public grant-funded research projects) to opportunities unique to their institution, community, or geographic region. It takes many years to build the local networks, facilities, and base of graduate students that allow faculty to carry out this work. Even if they could easily transfer that work to another university, in the Canadian academic job market, mid-career faculty are unlikely to find work again. The considerable expertise faculty require means that they essentially spend the first half of their working-age lives training and preparing for the work they will produce in the second half. Firing faculty mid-career wastes that considerable public investment.

But even in the short term, the Laurentian administration’s argument of financial necessity was weak. As part of the CCAA process, Laurentian cut 35 per cent of its undergraduate programs and 25 per cent of its graduate programs—including programs that were popular, at capacity, and even self-financing. Following in the footsteps of private-sector CCAA cases, Laurentian’s financial crisis seems to have been manufactured, in this case through attempts to conceal years of mismanagement from faculty and the public and through a decision by the university president not to invoke the detailed procedures for insolvency laid out in the university’s collective agreements. This allowed the crisis to worsen until the university could file for insolvency through the CCAA. The provincial government knew about the impending crisis and refused to step in to stop the CCAA process—and may even have encouraged it. Moreover, Laurentian had spent nearly $10 million on CCAA restructuring by August 2021. It was projected to have spent nearly $20 million by February 2022 and is experiencing a predictable decline in enrolment. What happened at Laurentian clearly was not really about improving the university’s finances.

If not finances, then what?

If firing tenured professors for financial reasons doesn’t actually make financial sense, what else is at play? Who benefits? To answer these questions, it is useful to look at the principle of academic freedom and who typically feels threatened by it.

Academic freedom, and the tenure system that protects it, allows faculty members to pursue research, teaching, public engagement, and service to their university and scholarly community in a way that is guided by their expertise, the quest for truth and understanding, and rigorous review by their peers—not by the fear that they will be penalized if their work does not toe the line of their university, its donors, or government officials. This is why academic freedom is a cornerstone of democracy. It works to prevent governments and private interests from controlling public opinion by limiting the information and analysis available for public debate to whatever paints them in a positive light.

However, through the process of closing entire departments or programs for supposed financial reasons, university administrators, creditors, and the governments who determine university funding can, in effect, control what professors research by controlling in which disciplines there will be professors. For instance, if a government doesn’t like what scholarly studies are concluding about the impacts of its policies on climate change or racialized communities, then starving universities financially and standing by as they fire faculty in the social sciences, sciences, and humanities in order to appease creditors will, in effect, muzzle that research.

Firing all the faculty who teach in one program could mean eliminating a significant portion of the country’s experts in a particular field, or all of the experts on a particular text, approach, or scientific entity. Moreover, every faculty member contributes to the development of their field beyond their institution through peer review of the manuscripts, grant applications, and promotion files of colleagues at other institutions; leadership roles in national and international scholarly journals and societies; and the sharing of ideas at conferences and seminars—not to mention by teaching and mentoring the next generation of scholars in the field. Firing faculty at one institution is like cutting holes in a wool sweater: it leads to irreparable damage far beyond the site of the initial cuts.

The effects are not purely academic either. Faculty regularly use their expertise to contribute independent fact-checking and analysis to public debate through op-eds in local papers, advice to local government and community groups, affidavits in legal proceedings, participation in community advocacy, and service on the boards of local public health, cultural, and environmental institutions. Their independent research often serves as a watchdog on the activities of local industry, government, and other powerful actors. When faculty members are terminated, the region where they worked loses this critical expertise and public engagement. It is no surprise that, six months after the Environmental Geoscience, Environmental Studies, Restoration Biology, Indigenous Studies, and Workplace and Labour Studies programs at Laurentian and its affiliated institutions were closed, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced plans to ramp up mining extractivism on Indigenous land in Northern Ontario. Following the cuts at Laurentian, the four small comprehensive universities in resource-rich Northern Ontario—which covers over 800,000 square kilometres—now have far fewer faculty with the expertise to intervene in public debate about this plan and monitor its impacts.

The indirect control of research by private or state actors is, of course, not new. Over the past several decades, as universities have been increasingly underfunded, private donors have stepped in to bankroll entire research institutes. Through earmarked investments, they are effectively enabling certain kinds of research—in certain subject areas or with certain orientations—over others. However, it is far more bold to actually eliminate researchers whose work, broadly, does not align with the interests of donors or particular governments.

Beyond controlling research, mass firings of faculty also allow private or state actors to alter the fundamental mission of the university sector from one of research and education in the public interest to one more centred on serving the private sector. Laurentian was long celebrated as—and in fact mandated to be—an institution that allowed people from working-class, Indigenous, and francophone communities in Northern Ontario to get a university education—and to collectively build an educational institution that reflected their communities. However, during the CCAA process, more full-time faculty in the social sciences and humanities were terminated than in all other faculties combined. A far lower proportion of faculty were cut in more applied departments like engineering and occupational therapy. As Min Sook Lee has pointed out, just as educational programs like Environmental Studies, Workplace and Labour Studies, and Indigenous Studies were eliminated, Laurentian introduced a new Mineral Resources Leadership Certificate to provide students and “industry applicants” with the skills “indicated by industry employers.” While critical scholarship and teaching remains, the CCAA process seems to have shifted the mission of Laurentian from producing educated citizens capable of questioning the status quo toward providing what Rinaldo Walcott has calledhuman resources training for the private sector.”

This shift reflects and advances a neoliberal image of society in which universities are merely job training institutions responsive to the needs of industry, not the public interest, and in which citizens make decisions based on their gut instincts, not research, reflection, and deliberation. In this vision, faculty are not highly-trained experts in research and education but the staff who “deliver” knowledge to paying student “users.” Some universities maintain support for a certain kind of education and research geared toward cultivating the elite “leaders of tomorrow” or improving a university’s international capital. However, rather than a crucible of democratic engagement that is autonomous from, and thus capable of critiquing, government and other powerful interests and the social hierarchies they uphold, universities in this vision become merely a way to use public money to bankroll private companies’ research and development and to train obedient employees—and, crucially, obedient political subjects.

The contrasting responses to the Laurentian and University of Toronto cases demonstrate that firing (or interfering in the hiring of) individual professors due to their research may not be politically feasible, but eliminating entire academic programs for supposed financial reasons is permissible—at least to some extent. By letting Laurentian fire faculty program by program, both by allowing the use of the CCAA and by refusing to provide sufficient funding to assist the university, the provincial government (and various corporate creditors) seem to have found a back-door way to control what is researched—and to re-purpose the university to suit their interests.

Crucially, then, this vision of the university is not just about using public money to save a buck for the private sector; it is also about making public debate a safer space for private sector actors who do not wish to have a light shone on their exploitation of people and the planet, for politicians who won’t be (re)elected if the truth about their policies is openly known and debated, and for all those who are privileged by existing social hierarchies.

Laurentian is only the beginning

If this dystopian vision is disturbing, by far the most disturbing part is the sense in which we, as faculty, may continue to advance it. There need not already be specific plans afoot to initiate CCAA processes at other institutions for academic freedom to be further curtailed. The firing of tenured professors without cause, even at one institution, creates a widespread chill effect as faculty elsewhere ask themselves whether their research and the programs they teach would withstand a similar restructuring process. Tenure is about far more than job security; it is the permanency of tenured jobs that allows faculty to exercise their academic freedom. Faculty do not have academic freedom if they have to choose the direction of their research and pedagogy based on what they think will seem worthwhile, or at least inoffensive, to the university’s creditors and senior administrators, or to other universities’ hiring committees, who are unlikely to be experts in their field.

Following the firings at Laurentian, faculty may be more willing to accept pre-emptive restructuring of their departments, faculties, and research funds out of fear that the CCAA might be invoked at their institution if they do not. Less financially secure universities may be less likely to initiate Indigenous Studies programs or approve hires in disciplines that would not be seen as worthwhile to the types of creditors who allowed the three-decades-strong Indigenous Studies program at the University of Sudbury in Laurentian to be cancelled. Faculty at those institutions may be less likely to challenge their administrations in collegial governance forums if they are worried their administration might later axe troublemaker departments. They may also be wary of speaking truth to power in the public sphere lest they draw undue attention to their institution.

And this potential chill on academic freedom won’t affect all faculty equally. Not only are the Humanities (and most of the Social Sciences) not viewed as profitable, but programs that aim to protect minority languages and culture, such as the unique Nishnaabemwin program and the federally-mandated French-language programs that were cut at Laurentian (as well as programs  anywhere, such as Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Black Studies, that challenge established hierarchies and power relations by their very existence) are unlikely to ever appear lucrative to financial creditors, despite their tremendous public value. Academic freedom has been crucial in protecting research, teaching, and public engagement that challenges the status quo, yet many who research and belong to marginalized communities continue to fight to justify their presence in the academy.

The recent rise in government violations of university autonomy in North America and Europe has been understood as a backlash against research and education about racism and colonialism. It is no accident that the first instance of the CCAA being invoked at a public university occurred at Laurentian, an institution that was at the forefront of attempts to decolonize the university and re-green the environment in the heart of mining country. Cutting entire programs, such as Indigenous Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Workplace and Labour Studies, sends a clear message, as Beverly Bain has pointed out, that those voices are not valued in the university. It signals that this research, and the communities in which it is rooted, are not valued.

The possibility that tenured professors can be fired without cause not only restricts the academic freedom of all faculty but could serve a gatekeeping function, reversing gains won through ongoing struggles to open the academy to scholars and scholarship in these areas.

Spoiler alert: It’s not about the money

There was indeed serious financial mismanagement at Laurentian, but there was no reason that it had to result in job losses. Instead, it was used (if not manufactured) as an opportunity to control research and public debate in Northern Ontario and beyond, and to accelerate the redefinition of the core mission of the university. And, crucially, it was about disciplining the professoriate, whose strong faculty associations have long defended Canadian universities against such measures.

The secretive, creditor-led CCAA process has run roughshod over university governance structures, collective agreements, and university autonomy, and it has made a mockery of academia and the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and understanding around which the academy is meant to be structured.

Even though faculty at Laurentian were not targeted individually for their research, it would be a mistake to assume that they, like Dr. Azarova, were not fired at least indirectly because their research was opposed by those in power and those who fund the university. What occurred at Laurentian was not the targeting of individual faculty but rather a collective punishment of those who had built a university that did not prioritize free employee training and research profitable for industry, and it was a warning to those elsewhere whose research and teaching foster independent inquiry, analysis, and critique. This collective targeting of scholars, too, is a violation of academic freedom.

Of course none of this is inevitable. Faculty can explicitly underscore our commitment to countering neoliberal visions of the university. We can commit to opposing metrics that value research and education according to their utility or marketability. We can continue to decolonize our universities and to dismantle structural barriers to research by, about, and for communities that are traditionally excluded from the academy. We can commit to fortifying academic freedom for all faculty—including for contract faculty, whose precarity effectively precludes them from such protections. We can strengthen collegial governance and work with our faculty associations to build forums for broader participation. While there are limited ways to avoid or mitigate the CCAA process in the courts, university communities can fight to ensure that governments restore public funding to universities, revoke the CCAA, and respect university autonomy.

And the next time we are told that faculty are being fired for financial reasons, faculty and other supporters of public research and education can remember that it is not really about the money. And we can treat it like the attack on academic freedom—and, by extension, the university, our communities, and our democracy—that it is, and respond accordingly.

Honor Brabazon is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo. She would very much like to thank Reuben Roth, amongst others.