Academic Freedom Advocate Goes to Bat for BC Professor Suspended Over Facebook Post

by EditorL

An organization that defends academic freedom in Canada is raising the alarm over the second suspension of a B.C. university professor who says his academic freedom is being stifled.

Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, wrote to Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops on July 27 calling on the administration to explain why professor Derek Pyne was suspended.

“Dr. Pyne’s suspension is a serious violation of his academic freedom,” Mercer said in his letter.

“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.”

Pyne was first suspended in July 2018 after publishing research showing several TRU faculty had their work published in “predatory journals”—journals that claim to be peer reviewed but in reality publish articles in exchange for payment by their authors. His research found that authors could use their inflated publication records in these illegitimate journals to advance their careers through promotions, financial remuneration, and research awards.

At the time, TRU said Pyne was not suspended due to his research but could not comment further due to privacy issues. In November, the Canadian Association of University Teachers investigated and determined the university administration’s suspension of Pyne had violated his academic freedom.

Pyne was reinstated in January 2019, but was again suspended on July 16 with no pay and no benefits.

Pyne has told media his latest suspension is related to a Facebook post he made on his personal page that referenced his ongoing battle with the university over academic freedom.

In a June 10 post he suggested that his union, the Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association (TRUFA), doesn’t respect academic freedoms in the same way other university unions do. He also tagged the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators and several members of TRUFA in a comment on the post.

“Some good news for a change,” Pyne wrote. “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.”

The post was a reference to the controversy surrounding Brock University professor Tomas Hudlicky, who was condemned by Brock after a paper he wrote questioning the impact of diversity hiring on the quality of scientific research received backlash.

About a month later, Pyne learned from TRU’s director of human resources Larry Phillips that he was being suspended due to a harassment complaint filed against him that said being tagged in the post caused one individual to lose sleep. Another person tagged in the post claimed she needed time off work to recover, the National Post reported.

Mercer noted in his letter, however, that “providing people an opportunity to know what one is thinking cannot be a case of harassment, especially when the people Dr. Pyne tagged on Facebook were union officials.”

TRU president Brett Fairbairn responded to the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship in a letter on July 28, saying that “in situations where faculty members have faced discipline, it is not about their academic freedom but rather other issues that have arisen in the workplace.”

“Privacy laws prevent organizations from releasing information about a specific individual,” Fairbairn wrote. “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. Any and all suspensions at TRU follow thorough, careful, and due processes.”

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