An organization that fights for academic freedom on Canadian university campuses is criticizing British Columbia’s Thompson Rivers University for suspending an economics professor over of a Facebook post.
Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and a philosophy professor at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, is demanding to know why TRU suspended Derek Pyne.
“Dr. Pyne’s suspension is a serious violation of his academic freedom,” said Mercer in a letter to TRU. “In addition, that Dr. Pyne may not use his office, his university email address, and other university resources will severely impede his work as a scholar. Thompson Rivers owes it to the academic community to explain why it has taken action against Dr. Pyne and why this action is not an attack on academic standards and values.”
Mercer said in an interview that he wrote the letter because he is concerned Pyne’s academic freedom was violated.
“SAFS wrote to Thompson Rivers University about the suspension of Derek Pyne because central to our group’s purpose is to explain, defend, and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus,” he said. “When the board of directors believes that academic freedom might have been violated, compromised, or put at risk, SAFS writes a letter to the parties involved asking for clarification or explaining our position.”
Pyne said his suspension was over a Facebook post he made on June 10 applauding Brock University Faculty Association (BUFA) for defending academic freedom.
“Some good news for a change. Unlike Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association, it seems that some university unions are not opposed to academic freedom. One can debate some of the details of the following statement but the bottom line is that it comes out in support of academic freedom, even when it goes against the university, and the union’s, positions,” his Facebook post said.
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The post tagged the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators and several members of Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association (TRUFA) in a comment. He predicted that TRUFA members would “go running” to Larry Phillips, the executive director of human resources at TRU, to defend them.
Phillips brought him into a human resources meeting, and he was told there was a harassment complaint against him. Pyne said the two complainants told TRU that being tagged in the post led to them losing sleep, and one of them claimed she needed time off work to recover.
He received a one-year suspension with no pay and no benefits.
Pyne said in an interview that he appreciates the support from the SAFS.
“At some point, a line has to be drawn or academic freedom will only be a right on paper,” he said.
Mercer said in the letter that Pyne’s right to criticize TRU and TRUFA is protected by academic freedom guaranteed to all professors by Article 9.6 of the TRU Collective Agreement.
Brett Fairbairn, the president of TRU, said in a letter to the SAFS that Pyne’s suspension is not about his academic freedom, but other issues arising in the workplace.
“Privacy laws prevent organizations from releasing information about a specific individual,” said Fairbairn in a letter. “As a result, we will not be releasing information specifically related to Dr. Pyne. Matters involving Dr. Pyne do not pertain to exercise of academic freedom.”
Pyne said TRUFA’s chief stewards will be filing a grievance against TRU for academic freedom violations. The TRUFA is demanding the suspension be rescinded and he be reinstated with full retroactive salary and benefits.