08 October 2005

Academic Freedom, Ethics, and the Military at U of T

Academic freedom is a tough topic. On one hand, the academy is (nominally) the place in which scholars and researchers should be free to explore the boundaries of knowledge, theory and practice without political interference. On the other, I maintain that there should be a cultural and societal standard of ethics that governs the pursuits of any institution within a civilized, and civil, society. This is the tension that must be managed in the contemporary university environment.

Last year OISE/UT experienced a significant and important controversy in which one of its research units sought to enter a research partnership with a commercial organization that develops software for military applications. Although the project itself was clearly focused on educational applications, it was equally clear that the knowledge obtained from the research would be used militarily. Advocates argued for academic freedom – that academic researchers should not be hampered by political concerns, particularly since the research itself was for (young student directed) education, and had passed the University’s ethical review protocol. Opponents argued (among other things) that the ethical review was flawed, that it did not obtain informed consent from one of the participants, namely OISE/UT itself, as an institution (noting that the Dean’s acquiescence in this matter did not constitute adequate informed consent of an institution comprised of many individuals whose careers and reputation are based on concepts of social justice, peace advocacy, pedagogy of the oppressed, and similar fields). How one appropriately approaches the issue of institutional consent is an topic worthy of a thesis, I think – one that extends the idea of institutional ethnography that itself was developed at OISE/UT.

So much for history and theory. The larger question of ethical review in these matters is now before the Governing Council at the University of Toronto. There is a petition being circulated that reads as follows:
I encourage Governing Council of University of Toronto to adopt the following two motions that were presented during the June 29, 2005 Governing Council Meeting. I fully support these motions.

Be it resolved that there be an immediate moratorium on all future military-defence and military contractor research/institutional partnerships until fair, ethical, and democratic guidelines are put in place taking into consideration amongst others Human Rights, International Law, Conventions, Covenants and Declarations.

Be it resolved that donations to and investment by the University of Toronto be made publicly available.
If you, or someone you know, is a member of the University of Toronto community – student, faculty or staff – I urge you to consider this issue, and the ramification of the current situation, that is, having NO GUIDELINES WHATSOEVER to govern the real ethics (as opposed to the prevent-the-university-from-being-sued ethics) of potential research partnerships with outside military agencies. Here is the Petition Against Military Partnerships At University Of Toronto.
People Against Militarization of OISE struggled in 2004/05 with OISE/University of Toronto administration which wanted to partner with the military and military contractor in an international research project which involved four Toronto Junior Public Schools. We won this struggle, but found that U of T had no ethical guidelines regarding types and lines of research and institutional and research partnerships. PAMO transformed into People Against Militarization of Life and was successful in presenting two motions at U of T Governing Council Meeting on June 29, 2005. These motions will be dealt with in October 2005. We hope you join us in making these motions a constructive reality. You can further support by asking U of T's Governing Council members, chair, and secretary about the status of these motions and show your support for Ethics at U of T. Canadian Federation of Students (ON) officially supports the two motions (CFS motion 2005/08:N23)

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