Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Academic Freedom/Censorship Debate at Capilano U

I had taken this post down, but in the interest of full public discussion of the matter have decided to put it back up and keep updating as the story progresses. 

I wrote the following on the morning of Monday May 13. Many others wrote letter of protest or called the University.

Free speech and academic freedom have been under attack at Capilano University. Please check out the article in the Straight (link below). My letter to Cap U President, Dr. Kris Bulcroft explains. 

Dear Dr. Bulcroft,

I learned today from an article in the Georgia Straight that the University has taken George Rammell's sculpture. The following article is making the rounds of social media this morning at lightning speed:

I saw the work when it was unveiled and thought it was hurtful and in very poor taste. I feel it damaged the relationship between the Faculty Association and the Cap U administration and did not help dialogue between the parties. I expressed that opinion to the Faculty Association executive.  Be that as it may, I believe that George had a right to make the sculpture and show it in any public forum he likes. This is Canada, not North Korea. George has a right to express his opinion through his art or in any other way he chooses, even if that opinion is unpopular in some quarters or seems to some to be in poor taste. The idea that the work belongs to the University because it was created on University property is a gross abuse of University policies in this area and a flagrant violation of George's academic freedom and intellectual property rights. George Rammell is the owner and creator of this work and the University has stolen it. It makes me wonder whose work will be next and I am sure it makes the public wonder what kind of University we have.

This seems destined to ruin a year's worth of positive efforts to put the pain and tumult of the last year's cuts behind us. Why would the Administration want to create more bad press for the University at this critical time in its development?  Many departments at Capilano, including mine, have spent the past year in damage control trying to recover from the harm done to our reputation by the cuts of last year.  Now basics rights to free speech, intellectual property, and academic freedom at our University are called into question.  The recent budgeting and academic planning processes have done much to restore trust and collegiality between faculty and administration.  I was so hopeful for the future of this kind of dialogue.  This seriously damages that relationship again.  What a terrible mistake. Please do the right thing and give back George's art.

Most sincerely,

Dr. Jared Burrows
Coordinator, Jazz Studies

*UPDATE* as of evening May 13, 2014
Since I wrote this, the University has given the sculpture back to George (perhaps in damaged condition or in pieces? waiting for news on that).  They sent the following outrageous and laughable explanation to the University community;

Late last week, an effigy of the University President, produced by George Rammell, was removed from campus on my direction.

The effigy has been repeatedly displayed on and off campus and online over the last year. The decision to remove the effigy was not taken lightly, but rather was the result of endeavouring to find the right balance among many competing values.
Our University is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored.
We must also be mindful of the University's obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited. These obligations are reflected in our employment policies, as well as legislation. Our policies are intended to protect the interests of all individuals in our community - including our president, as well as our faculty and all others.
I am satisfied that recently the effigy has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the President. This led me, as Board Chair, to take action.
I understand the University's Administration has offered to give Mr. Rammell the effigy. The condition attached to this is that it not be returned to campus, and I fully support that position.
Jane Shackell, QC 
Board Chair
Capilano University

Stay tuned for more!

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Serious Post about Education.

This is a posting prompted by a Facebook comment, but is also in reaction to the BC Government's "BC Jobs Plan" announced last week. For those of you who haven't heard yet, the BC Liberals decided to "redirect" funds away from universities and colleges who aren't in the business of training students to serve big industry. Their plan relies almost completely on the long term availability of fossil fuel extraction jobs, and on the still-hypothetical Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industry in the North in particular.

Don't get me wrong. I'm 100% in favour of giving people opportunities and funding for trades training IF they want to be trained and IF the jobs are REAL and of long-term benefit to the province. Whether that is so with LNG is very much up for debate. If these jobs are so certain, surely the Province should be keen to invest new money and demand that big industry contribute their share to train their future workers. Why will it be necessary to take funding away from other areas of higher education that are already suffering from underfunding? It makes me angry and it makes me wonder if anyone actually values education for its own sake.  Then one of my students posted the following on Facebook today.

"LOL Jazz Education: preparing musicians for a future…in Jazz Education."

I responded with "No one is twisting your arm. YOU decide what your future will be."

He said:  "It's just a joke." ;-)

I know it was a joke. But my response was in earnest.  I guess I don't like it even as a joke because music, learning, art, and knowledge are central in my life. I really believe passionately in what I do as a teacher, researcher, and musician. I also believe in the historical purpose of a university education. That purpose is (or was) a tripartite purpose comprising the sharing, preservation, and discovery of knowledge. It is an opening of the world to the student - an opening that I hope stays open when students leave. Job training or preparation as expressed in the idea of 'preparing students for their futures' has always been an important, but secondary, function deriving from education, not the primary purpose for it.

There is nothing wrong with getting training to do a specific job. If you want to become a welder or a bank manager or a nurse or a plumber, that is great. These are all worthwhile pursuits and specific training and skills are required in addition to broader kinds of education. But the idea of education, especially an arts-based education, is so much more than training. The more our society holds universities responsible for job training and career preparation, the poorer we become as a society. When we hold the ideals of education hostage to job outcomes, we push our society toward becoming nothing more than an ant colony where individuals mindlessly serve in limited, foreordained roles. We cut off the benefits of the expansion of knowledge and limit the meaning of education for successive generations. The freedom to be educated and choose what we will do with our lives has been a great dream of humankind for millenia. Only a few societies in the world today have the wealth, political freedom, and economic conditions to support the kind of education that has been available in universities. Even within our society, access to education is far from universal. Barriers of many kinds remain for those who are poor and marginalized in various ways. Those of us who have been born into this position of privilege should hold the ideals of education and free access to it sacred and safeguard the privilege for our children against whatever forces seek to erode it.

To all of my students I say the future is now. Your "real life" is now. Don't think about your education as having some future payoff other than the possibility of spending the rest of your life trying to reach your potential as a human being. A university education can give you a glimpse of that potential. It might become, and is likely to become, the basis for further training for a job related to your field of study. If it doesn't, you may wish you had pursued more specific vocational training (and that possibility always remains open) but I doubt very much you will regret the educational process itself or wish you hadn't learned the things you learned. It is a tremendous privilege to spend part of your life in the full time pursuit of knowledge. The seriousness and dedication with which you approach this period will be a pattern for the way you relate to the pursuit of knowledge, skill, and artistry for the rest of your life.