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A Clash of Cultures?

May 26, 2009

by Fred Donnelly

The reports of the firing of a journalism student employed at the Telegraph-Journal have saddened many in the academic community. A young man starting out in his chosen career has been dismissed for writing up an interview with one of our colleagues.

The journalistic ethics and professional standards of the case have been most eloquently expressed by Mark Tunney in a piece he recently did for CBC Radio in Saint John. The student intern’s article appeared on the front page of the Telegraph-Journal of 12th May 2009. It is an inoffensive interview piece stating the facts of the protest over UNB’s granting of an honourary degree to the Premier of New Brunswick.. Without editorializing it correctly attributes opposition to the honourary degree to a professor and a student. It contained no errors other than a mis-spelling of our university secretary’s name and there was a clear attempt by the author to get responses from the chair of the UNB Board of Governors and a spokesperson for the Premier.

Moreover as pointed out by Mark Tunney, a former editor of the Telegraph-Journal, student interns at the newspaper don’t get front page articles without some editor(s) approving it. Yet somebody has the power to fire a journalist, not necessarily the person entirely responsible, because that somebody found an article offensive.

I will leave the journalistic implications of this to the professionals like Mark Tunney for further analysis. At the same time there is another aspect of this sad and pathetic matter that concerns us as an academic community.

From my perspective as a university professor who experienced a concerted effort in 2007 by an element in the local business and political community to convert UNB in Saint John into a polytechnic, I detect a clash of cultures.

In the culture of the business world and its spill-over into the political sphere certain values are emphasized. These are such things as conformity, being a team player, loyalty to one’s boss or the corporation and “getting onside” with the current business mindset. Some of these values are also present in the academic world. We do expect some degree of conformity to the values of our collegial culture. Certain rules of conduct have to be followed, loyalty to the institution is valued highly and co-operation with policy decisions is expected.

At the same time the university environment tolerates a high degree of dissent and debate. Perhaps we see these things as necessary parts to the creative processes of both teaching and research. Those outside the university might find our faculty entitlement to criticize the university administration objectionable.

Yet it is clearly set out in the current 2005 Collective Agreement of the University of New Brunswick section 14.02 as the freedom of faculty members to “criticize, including criticism of the University of New Brunswick” [as was exercised by those who petitioned against the university granting an honourary degree to the Premier]. The same paragraph goes on to acknowledge freedom of research pursuits and freedom to choose methods of instruction.

These practices are little understood outside the academy and are sometimes interpreted as elitist privileges. In one sense they are as these work conditions are not enjoyed by many others in the labour force.

Yet the reason we have these features of academic freedom written in to our collective agreement is precisely because the vast majority of faculty are not persons of privilege. We don’t have the power to fire colleagues summarily nor do we have the power to pick up the phone to get a powerful patron to prevent our own dismissal. Yet we are required by our profession to teach controversial subjects, to publish on topics not approved by superiors and to research into areas sometimes offensive to the public. So we have these protections built into our workplace legislation.

Two final comments need to be made. First, the case of the student journalist fired for his article reminds us how different things are in the corporate world. What we face in Saint John is a local business community periodically concerned, as they were in 2007, to exercise more control over the university, perhaps to ultimately remove its university status altogether. If that were to happen, then I fear we could only expect an intrusion of the corporate culture of low toleration for dissent into our university situation.

Second, to our colleagues in the local print media who have on occasion been hostile to such things as university independence from government, academic freedom and the institution of tenure, I ask you to think again as to why we have these protections. We in the university don’t fire each other for writing articles in newspapers, magazines or academic journals. Moreover when controversies arise we aren’t forced by some higher power to scapegoat our students, staff, research assistants or interns.

Fred Donnelly teaches History at the Saint John Campus of UNB.

One Comment
  1. May 27, 2009 10:38 pm

    Thank you Fred. Man the barricades, the philistines are still on the horizon with poison nibs out for the “powerless.” Ah, to be so powerful and project such fear on “underlings.” As Alden Nowlan said, words to the effect: “When I first heard the word ‘fired,’ I imagined men from the sawmill [insert newspaper] hurtling through the air.” And, indeed, a journalist at work in the Academy had to go on air (thanks to CBC) to clear the air and tell the story nobody wants to believe. But it is too common to deny.

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