An investigation into the suspension of instructor Derek Pyne by Thompson Rivers University has concluded the administration’s actions breached academic freedom.
The committee of investigation, established by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) found that TRU “appears to suffer a broad institutional weakness when it comes to understanding academic freedom.”
The investigation looked into actions taken in July 2018 by the administration to suspend Pyne and bar him from campus. Pyne found himself at the centre of controversy for his research into the use of deceptive journals by administrators and academics at TRU and for his public criticism of the university and his department, the School of Business and Economics.
The committee noted the right of academics to criticize their administration and their institution is a widely recognized feature of academic freedom. However, the committee found that at TRU, there was a failure to understand academic freedom beyond a “narrow application to support faculty members’ freedom to pursue what they expect to be fruitful avenues of research and publish their results.”
“Our investigation finds that the TRU administration’s approach in managing workplace complaints against Dr. Pyne failed to properly consider his academic freedom as it applies to his … criticisms of the School of Business and Economics, its administrators and its faculty,” the committee concluded.
The committee made a number of recommendations, including removing the constraints placed on Pyne’s speech as a condition of his continuing employment as a faculty member.
The members of the investigatory committee were chair Mark MacLean, professor of mathematics at UBC, and Carla Graebner, librarian for data services and government information at Simon Fraser University.
TRU did not take part in the probe, with administration telling KTW last year that CAUT does not have authority or jurisdiction to probe issues covered in the collective agreement between the university and the faculty association.
When contacted by KTW, Pyne said in an email he is doubtful the report will result in meaningful change at TRU.
“Just last week they got upset about a Facebook comment I made during the recent election,” he said.
As for the CAUT report, Pyne said, “I am very happy that CAUT considered the issue important enough to investigate. I believe that they bent over backwards to try to be procedurally fair to all parties.”
Pyne told KTW he is pleased to see the report’s appendix include his Section 12 complaint to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, in which he alleged the TRU Faculty Association (TRUFA) had breached its duty of fair representation.
The board dismissed his complaint on July 16 of this year, noting it did not have jurisdiction under Section 12 of the province’s labour code to determine whether a complainant’s academic freedom rights had been violated. The board said academic freedom rights are a matter for arbitration under the TRU-TRUFA collective agreement.
To that, the CAUT report stated: “Meeting the duty of fair representation is not an end in itself, but a condition on how a faculty association may proceed in making decisions about any individual case. In particular, having been found to have met its duty of fair representation does not imply the decisions made by TRUFA in Dr. Pyne’s case were the best ones to further the interests of Dr. Pyne or the faculty association in the defense of academic freedom. Indeed, it is a conclusion of our investigation that TRUFA has erred in not considering Dr. Pyne’s academic freedom under Article 9.6 of the Collective Agreement in their management of his case.”
Pyne was suspended by the university in 2018. He told KTW he was banned from the campus in May of that year and suspended in July due to his research into faculty at TRU and elsewhere paying to have papers published in dubious scholarly journals.
In November 2018, TRU argued Pyne’s suspension was not related to his research.
“The discipline imposed is related to matters which I am unable to comment on due to both employment and privacy law,” TRU’s then-interim president Christine Bovis-Cnossen said.
However, Pyne said he was indeed suspended because of his research into so-called predatory journals. The research formed a paper, The Rewards of Predatory Publications at a Small Business School, which was published by University of Toronto Press Journal of Scholarly Publishing.
Pyne said he was suspended due to the research he included in his feedback on proposed promotions of other TRU instructors, with his feedback including information he found that connected those instructors to having paid for papers to be published in journals.
TRU president Brett Fairbairn told KTW on Tuesday afternoon he had not yet fully read the CAUT report.
“But when it comes to academic freedom, I guess the biggest thing for me is that I’m confident in our processes,” he said. “I know we have thorough processes in place. We work with our faculty on issues of academic freedom. I’m confident in those processes.”
Fairbairn said CAUT is not part of those process and does not have information to information privy to TRU administration and TRUFA.
“Certainly at TRU, I know that faculty care deeply about academic freedom and that’s one of the norms we share,” he said.
Fairbairn said TRU declined to take part in the CAUT investigation due to B.C. privacy laws, which he said prohibits the university from sharing an employee’s private information. Even if the person signed off on sharing the information, Fairbairn said, TRU would need an individual’s approval for each piece of information released.
“So a person can say they waive their rights, but we’d still have to show that they approved each individual thing we might release — and I don’t think that’s a reasonable process in a case like this.”
In March of this year, Fairbairn created a university committee to work on a TRU-specific “statement of academic freedom,” which is expected to be unveiled next year.
Fairbairn said the faculty committee is preparing to release a draft based on its findings, but the release “is not imminent.”
Other highlights from the report:
• “On June 4, Dr. Pyne met with a psychologist as arranged by TRU. On July 12, Dr. Pyne received a copy of the psychologist’s report. The report is dated June 27. The psychologist indicated there was no evidence to support a diagnosis of a mental illness. Normally, medical reports are kept strictly private and the law expects them to be managed in a way that results in few individuals having access to them. For example, such records are generally not included in an employee’s regular personnel file. We are shocked that this report has been allowed to circulate into the hands of so many individuals at TRU and beyond in the management of this case. This is a serious breach of Dr. Pyne’s privacy rights.”
• “Dr. Pyne’s return to work on campus is under the condition that he will “cease communicating inappropriate, defamatory and insubordinate statements, made through email or publicly, that relate to your Dean, Associate Dean and faculty.” This is a condition that significantly impinges on Dr. Pyne’s academic freedom as the effect is to censor his academic judgments. Given that this letter of expectations also raises the possibility of termination, the effect of this provision is to censor Dr. Pyne.”
• “By July 31, Dr. Pyne’s faculty association became aware of his suspension and took action. Dr. Pyne’s indefinite suspension was reduced to a two-week suspension, which ended on July 31, 2018. TRUFA also filed a grievance based on the suspension. On August 22, the president of TRUFA suspended a shop steward involved in Dr. Pyne’s case for failing to report Dr. Pyne’s suspension and for other infractions.”
• “It is clear from the evidence the TRU Administration feels justified in silencing Dr. Pyne, because it is their view that Dr. Pyne’s academic freedom was not a factor in this case, and that he had been creating a hostile work environment and so has given up the right to speak. Indeed, they argue that he needs to be silenced to protect the safety of his colleagues. The TRU Administration’s position is undermined, however, by the fact that it reached its conclusions through flawed processes, in which one of the most significant failures was to ignore Dr. Pyne’s academic freedom completely.”