Every so often, academic freedom makes the news. When this happens, it is usually because a violation so egregious took place that its immediate impact is of concern to the broader community. However, many attacks on academic freedom happen in the dark, with malicious intent carefully hidden until the damage is done. It is in the spirit of shining a light into these shadowy corners that I am sharing a story I have waited eight years to tell.

One reason I am free to tell this story is because of the strong advocacy of organizations such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers, whose policy statement on academic freedom reads in part:

Academic freedom includes the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; freedom to engage in service

It is a lofty ideal, some might argue, but to ensure that the principles of academic freedom are not an empty promise, there is also the requirement of tenure. This is an earned indefinite appointment that essentially means an academic cannot be terminated (or have a re-appointment denied) just because aspects of their teaching, research, or service make some uncomfortable. That being said, contrary to popular belief, academics can still be terminated with cause or in cases of financial exigency (as evidenced by the deplorable situation at Laurentian University). Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine where that leaves the academy’s numerous and ever-growing cadre of precariously employed instructors.

When asked to support academic freedom with tenure, some might view it as an anachronism; a holdover from another era and no longer practical in today’s world. Indeed, the prospect of an indefinite appointment can leave some members of the public feeling skeptical. Contributing to this viewpoint are the limited number of extreme cases of academic freedom violations that make it into the public discourse. For these reasons, the discussion of academic freedom tends to move quickly in one of two predictable directions:

1) Defense of academic freedom

These arguments can have a strong historical bent, often starting with Galileo’s life imprisonment for his research and observations that supported the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In the Canadian context, support for academic freedom frequently cites the case of Harry S. Crowe, who was fired for privately sharing concerns about his administration and the government of the day (yes, privately).

More recently, there was the wrongful dismissal of Dr. Robert Buckingham, then Dean/Executive Director of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan. In his case, the university partly reversed its initial termination, which Dr. Buckingham described as “the senior administration’s attempts to shut down criticism of the university’s strategic planning process.” The university later offered Dr. Buckingham his tenure back, though currently he is Professor of Public Health and Health Sciences at The University of Michigan-Flint.

2) Criticism of academic freedom

Here the argument is that academic freedom and tenure can lead to abuses, where, for example, the public may hear accounts of  privileged professors refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns, using racial slurs, or otherwise not performing or completing their commitments.

These two directions throw down competing narratives about academic freedom. The first corresponds with concepts of responsibility, duty, and whistleblower protection. The second encompasses concepts like rights, privileges, and freedoms. The metaphor for defenders might be to describe the university as a lighthouse, while critics might prefer to invoke the image of an ivory tower. In her University Affairs column, Dispatches On Academic Freedom, Shannon Dea states that “we tend to focus more on the rights associated with academic freedom than on the reason we have it to begin with.

Critics see academic freedom as:Defenders see academic freedom as:
FreedomsWhistleblower protection
University as Ivory TowerUniversity as Lighthouse

What the public rarely hears about is academic freedom’s important role in making meaningful scholarly work and research possible in the first place. When academic freedom is functioning properly, which is most of the time, it rarely makes the news. When academic freedom is correctly implemented and respected, scholars are free to point out dangers, publish unwelcome results, advocate in favour of informed public policy, or argue against bad policy; they can share what they have learned with their students, their peers, and the public, whom the academy and its funders are pledged to serve. To fulfil this vital mission, they often speak out despite opposition or threats from powerful lobby groups, governments, influential donors, or university boards of governors. As Canada’s major research universities state, “Academic freedom allows scholars to pursue the truth where it takes them, whether in support of—or as a corrective to—current orthodoxies, and to proclaim that truth.”

What follows is a story of when academic freedom worked.

Before I begin, it is important to note that during this period I was tenured, felt a strong sense of belonging, had the support of my colleagues and dean, and did not feel that my employment was threatened. I recognize my privilege and understand that this sense of security is not distributed evenly or as easily attained by faculty from historically excluded groups, who are often placed in toxic situations.

But as solid as the pillars of my academic security looked and felt at the outset, the story would almost certainly have ended differently if even one of them had buckled.

Further, it is crucial to state that, regardless of any explicit support universities may express for academic freedom, in Canada, it is only truly guaranteed when included in a faculty member’s collective agreement and defended by their union.

My story: A surprise announcement

It is February, 2013. Saskatchewan’s Minister of Education suddenly announces that the province would be moving ahead with the most extensive K-12 standardized testing regimen in the country. We would be testing every kid, every year.

I was gobsmacked. As an education professor, I teach assessment and evaluation to those becoming teachers. I include the current scholarship on standardized testing in my assessment and evaluation course. The overwhelming majority of this scholarship has been unfavourable to standardized testing as a mechanism for improving student learning. Now the government was not only going to entrench standardized testing, they were going to do far more of it far more often than any other Canadian jurisdiction.

The University of Regina Faculty of Education passed a motion detailing the research that demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized testing. The motion formed the basis for a letter from the Faculty requesting that the Ministry reconsider its decision to roll out standardized testing.

A public campaign developed. Concerned university colleagues, teachers, parents, and students started writing letters and social media posts. I produced informational videos with experts in the field, including with Alfie Kohn who would later be the keynote speaker at the 2014 Regina Teachers’ Convention. We held public information sessions to present evidence demonstrating the flaws of the Saskatchewan government’s new policy; organized an online petition; authored numerous op-eds; wrote letters to the editor opposing the plan; and did numerous media interviews.

My colleague, and counterpart at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Paul Orlowski and I also wrote a detailed account of our efforts to prevent province-wide standardized testing in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Orlowksi and I also reviewed the literature upon which the Ministry said they based their decision to adopt standardized testing. We determined that 10 of the 11 references provided by the Minister were actually opposed to standardized testing and the 11th was only supportive in very specific conditions. This, also, found its way to the floor of the Legislature. During this period, spanning 2013–2014, my op-eds, letters, and media appearances were cited and I was personally named in the debates of the Saskatchewan Legislature five times.

When the government comes for you

Despite the momentum of our grassroots campaign, it still came as a shock when the Deputy Minister (DM) of Education requested a meeting with me in September 2013. Until this point, the DM had not had any formal contact with the University of Regina administration nor faculty members. The DM came to the Dean’s conference room at the Faculty of Education building accompanied by the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). With me for support was the former Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Programs, Dr. Rod Dolmage, and my friend and colleague, Dr. Alec Couros.

At the meeting, the DM and ADM stated that I was expected to work with them and the Ministry with the clear implication that I stop opposing standardized testing both publicly and in my teaching. I replied that I had a duty to teach the current scholarly evidence. As Dr. Dolmage recalled:

… [they] argued that the Faculty’s teaching should be consistent with the Ministry’s policy. Again, as I recall, I countered that this suggested a basic misunderstanding of the role of the university; that, rather than teaching preservice teachers to blindly follow the policy of the day, it was our responsibility to teach them to be critical and (to borrow a contemporary cliché) to ‘follow the science.’ Seemed to me [the DM] was confusing the Faculty of Education with a normal school. I think you and I were completely in sync.”

Dr. Couros recalls the meeting the same way. Not long after, the DM requested a meeting with the Faculty’s leadership at the Ministry’s offices. From the accounts at the time, when the subject turned to discussions of my teaching and qualifications, my colleagues defended me. If the government was looking for a “bad” or “rogue” professor narrative, or a divide and conquer approach, they had failed.

The story takes a darker turn

In November 2013, I decided to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) Request of the name “Spooner” covering just 11 months in 2013. In working with the FOI office, I further limited the search to the small Assessment Unit of the Student Achievement and Supports branch of the Ministry of Education. I was both surprised and disturbed when it produced over 120 pages of documents.

From the FOI pages, I could see that the content of my Facebook and Twitter posts were being shared within the Ministry of Education, as were my internal university listserv postings. Social media is public, but that the government was keeping tabs on our internal listservs felt different and more like surveillance.

What follows are just a few excerpts from the more than 120 pages.

In an email from a Ministry of Education Assessment Consultant to the Director of Assessment and others on October 10, 2013: “Thought you might ‘enjoy’ the latest segment of Marc Spooner’s campaign against ‘standardized testing in Saskatchewan.’”

The Executive Director of the Student Achievement Branch (ED) reports the video to the DM and ADM: “This is not good…This may cause some problems.”

Five minutes later, the ED is requesting a meeting at the behest of the DM and ADM: “Could we get together for 15 minutes today to talk about bringing someone in that could combat this.”

Later that day, the highest levels of the Ministry were now describing my appointment to teach Assessment and Evaluation as a serious problem. The ED wrote to the ADM: “OMG!…[The Director of Assessment] just informed me that she will be teaching a ECS 410, Assessment and Evaluation. …She just found out that the person teaching a section is Dr. Marc Spooner. This is seriously a problem. Where is the university on what is expected in school.”

The following day, on October 11th, the Director of Assessment (who also taught some sections of the Assessment course as a sessional), sent me an email requesting my syllabus: “Any chance you might be willing to share your syllabus?…it would help me to get a sense of what you have been doing as well to make sure I keep consistent.” This email seemed innocuous at the time, but it is now clear that it was sent as part of a broader agenda.

With the results of the FOI as evidence that the Ministry characterized my teaching as a problem, I spoke to my then Dean, Dr. James McNinch, about holding a meeting with the Provost to officially inform the upper administration and to ensure I would be protected. Along with my ever-supportive Dean, I met with the Provost at the time, Dr. Thomas Chase, on the morning of February 4, 2014. After a brief discussion, I was reassured that the university would defend my right and responsibility to teach my students and to share with the public the findings of research on standardized testing. An excerpt from Dr. McNinch’s email to the Provost in advance of our meeting sheds some additional light on the events:

“Our awareness of this issue came because of an initiative of Dr. Marc Spooner who requested, through the Freedom of Information Act, an account from the Ministry of Education of what was being said about him by ministry officials. This was predicated by a whole series of informal and more formal meetings between Marc and [the DM], as well as me and my associate deans with the Ministry. The specific issue was Marc’s public campaign to raise awareness about the flawed research findings the Ministry had done regarding the proposed use of ‘high stakes’ testing announced arbitrarily by the Ministry last year.


This govt doesn’t like criticism, and … the now Deputy Minister of Education … seems surprised that a Faculty of Education has a much wider mandate than simply ‘training’ teachers for schools. The government’s agenda for success in the preK-12 sector is tied directly to economic outcomes not social or humanistic ones and as a Faculty we have been critical of that on any number of fronts. We continue to insist that part of our responsibility is to critique policy, in light of research, and advocate for best practice.”

What’s really at stake?

Once upon a time, academic freedom worked as it ought to, protecting me, my dean, my Faculty, and my university—permitting each of us to carry out our work and fulfil our collective responsibility to society.

In this story, it wasn’t a wealthy private donor nor a multinational corporation but, instead, the government itself that tried to position my teaching and dissemination of the best available scholarly research as a problem to be combatted and silenced.

In the end, the government’s push for standardized testing was scuttled. The Minister of Education resigned, the Deputy Minister was shifted back to the Ministry of Health, the Assistant Deputy Minister left for another Ministry, and the Director of Assessment now works in another country.

Delicately balanced, the scales could easily have tipped in the other direction, denying the public the opportunity to consider the government’s actions in the light of the best research available. I prevailed, but it required every bit of the systemic privilege of being a tenured, white, cis-gendered male that I had.

The reason that the health of our public universities and democracy are fragile is because it is built on tens of thousands of moments like this one and, in each moment, something vital is in the balance. As Universities Canada reminds us:

Academic freedom does not exist for its own sake, but rather for important social purposes. Academic freedom is essential to the role of universities in a democratic society. Universities are committed to the pursuit of truth and its communication to others, including students and the broader community. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship.

For Canadians, it is important to know that views expressed by faculty are based on solid research, data and evidence, and that universities are autonomous and responsible institutions committed to the principles of integrity.

My story involved educational policy, but the next story could just as easily come from the health or the environmental sectors. It might involve food safety or any number of fields vital to our well-being. In my university, I am surrounded by scholars working in crucial areas where they have to buck convention, go against the grain, and rub certain people the wrong way to do their jobs. Each has an important story to tell.

You can count on the fingers of one hand the entities that are still able to act as public watchdogs: universities, investigative journalists, some non-government organizations, certain faith groupings, and the odd brave whistleblower (usually with union protection). There are fewer still who have a mandate to present the best available evidence from which to inform public policy. Together, with the journalists, NGOs, and the whistleblowers, we are the “they” in the phrase “well they would tell us if it was dangerous or unsound.”

Marc Spooner is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.