Professors Who Are Arrested for Political Activism Have Limited Job Protection

Collective agreements prevent them from being fired, but they may still be punished for their advocacy

KPU Criminology instructor Jeffrey Shantz. (Braden Klassen)

Despite the recent court ruling against the Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, the controversy surrounding the project rages on. Anti-pipeline protesters continue to demonstrate against the project, and more and more people, including university professors, are joining the picket line to voice their frustrations.

In June, Susan Lambert, a retired teacher-librarian for the Burnaby School District and a former President of the B.C. Teachers Federation, was arrested for violating an injunction by engaging in a sit-in at the gates of Kinder Morgan.

Examples like Lambert’s raise questions about the consequences for instructors who are arrested, and sometimes even convicted, for engaging in political activism. Jeffrey Shantz, a criminology professor at KPU and a long-time political activist for environmental, anti-poverty, and labour issues, says that the threat of a professor losing their job for this reason is incredibly small.

“For university professors, we have academic freedom protection and that’s pretty basic,” says Shantz. “Within the more traditional, larger research [institutions] like UBC or SFU, for example, you have a more ironclad commitment to academic freedom and that might be protected through things like tenure protections.”

Shantz adds that, at KPU, instructors are protected through a collective agreement.

“When they sign that agreement, they’re saying, ‘Yes, we recognize that we don’t withhold the right for faculty to engage in potentially controversial research or scholarship, or to express controversial findings of their work,’” he explains. “Likewise, for teachers, you’d be talking about protections that would probably be in place through a collective agreement through the teacher’s federation.”

The job security of instructor-activists is also protected informally, through agreements that are both unwritten and unspoken, Shantz feels.

“If a university professor gets arrested at the gates of Kinder Morgan … it’s going to be difficult for a university employer to fire them for that because the university would then become a pariah within the academic community,” he says.

However, universities can still punish instructors if they disagree with the actions they’re taking outside of the workplace. These punishments are just less noticeable to the general public.

“[Academic protection] doesn’t stop universities from punishing faculty in different ways,” says Shantz. “They’re not going to come out and say ‘You’re fired because you were arrested at a protest,’ but they might work to ensure that you don’t get a sabbatical. They might work to ensure that you don’t get professional development funding … or they give you crappier classes to teach at crappier times of the day.”

“It might not have a material impact in a big way,” he continues. “But it can just make life miserable for faculty members to a point where they feel like they have to kind of self-censor.”

Shantz himself has been arrested and convicted for his political activism in the past, but still engages in protests and demonstrations. He encourages other instructors to do the same.

“As academics, we’re supposed to disseminate our research. We’re supposed to publish. We’re supposed to put our work out in the community for the public good,” he says. “For me, activism and demonstrations and protests are part of that. That’s the work of dissemination.”

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