Just in time for Thanksgiving…

I’m currently overseas to attend an academic conference and have been otherwise busy with the beginning of the term; so I don’t have time to post much or often here. However, there are a few matters worth posting about before too much time elapses. So, here is a quick round up.

First: On August 13, President Trump signed into law an act that included a provision making it much harder for researchers at colleges with Confucius Institutes to get Department of Defense grants. Senator Ted Cruz, not widely known for his defense of academic freedom, sponsored the law. He told the Washington Post that CIs are a threat to national security and academic freedom: “Confucius Institutes are a key way the regime infiltrates American higher education to silence criticism and sanitize education about China,” Cruz said. “American taxpayer dollars should not be subsidizing their propaganda.”

  • In this post, Alex Usher actually kind of predicted the new free speech mandate a few hours before the Government announced it. Here’s what he wrote:

…the Conservatives did make a promise about “protecting free speech on campus”.  This is one of those annoying right-wing wedge issues which I’ve written about before. [DAF note: be sure to click through. Usher’s earlier linked post is useful.] There is a good way and a bad way for the Conservatives to adhere to this pledge.  The bad way is one which effectively requires institutions to host speakers regardless of their opinions or affiliations.  This is patently ridiculous.  Not only does it foist a lot of security costs on institutions but it puts them in the position of having to acquiesce to having their names associated with some truly hateful people (as Wilfrid Laurier did last year when it chose to allow White Nationalist Faith Goldy to speak on campus), or worse, prevent them from banning Nazis from assembling on campus (as University of Toronto did last year).  The better way is simply to say that public institutions have to guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of assembly of all students and staff on campus (which, subject to various laws on hate speech, they are more or less bound to do anyway).   This is the policy of the United Conservative Policy of Alberta and the qualification about applying only to members of the campus community sidesteps most of the obvious idiocies involved in a “pure” free speech position.

What the government announced the next day is actually pretty much the “better way” Usher describes.

Far from entrenching free expression on university campuses, the Ford government policy undermines it. Free expression is not strengthened by diktats. Its strength lies in community recognition of free expression’s foundational importance to the university and society, and in community discussion and debate about the legitimate boundaries of free expression. While we need to challenge every lapse, we also cannot lose sight of the bigger reality that free expression rights are the norm within the university.  We must speak out against policies such as Ford’s, and proposals such as Scheer’s, that undermine university autonomy, misrepresent the reality of free speech rights on campus, make more difficult the necessary community discussions about proper limits to free speech, and build the constituency of the alt-right whose real goal is the destruction of liberal values on which the university is based.

  • The next day, Creso Sá, director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, published his analysis of the new policy. His analysis is very similar to Turk’s, but in addition Sá (quite rightly, in my view) takes the Council of Ontario Universities to task for appearing to validate the move by the government:

The Council of Ontario Universities issued a mildly obsequious statement expressing a shared commitment to freedom of expression, tortuously reminding the government that universities have “policies that affirm the right to freedom of expression for students, faculty and staff, and have mechanisms in place to resolve disputes.” COU has thus accepted the role it plays in the free speech spectacle set up by the government, which may be good tactics to avoid bruising egos of interlocutors who hold the purse strings. Nonetheless, this is a rather short-term and ineffectual form of public relations. The Ontario citizen who may inadvertently come across this message will see validation, not contestation, of the free speech crisis, which does not bode well for the public perception of universities.

Third: my August 30 post about the new provincial policy received a suddenly much-expanded readership when a prominent Toronto professor with a large social media reach tweeted it out to his followers. Predictably (I have been down this road before), I received some personal messages from some of those followers. I am going to share one of those messages with you to give you a sense of the weird historico-cultural moment in which I am writing (and you are reading) this blog. Fair warning: the language is pretty harsh. Prepare yourself.

Gosh, you are a dumb cunt aren’t you.   And what a whiner. Yes I am completely thrilled that H8ful Feminists like you shall be shut down over time – and hopefully we can completely defund the publically overpaid “Institutions of Higher Indoctrination” like Waterloo. 80% of our Universities are a disgrace to the idea of learning (perhaps there are a few areas in Science that can be justified but even there I am pretty skeptical). This of course will come as no surprise to you as I am a male – and beyond hope of redemption. Hopefully you don’t have any boys as it will save them having to deal with you the rest of their lives – but that seems unlikely given your ideology/political orientation.

So, uh, 2018, amirite?

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I really just inserted this happy fella because there is no good segue between “dumb cunt” and, well, any other topic, really. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Fourth: If you follow academic freedom and campus freedom of expression in Canada (and since you’re reading this post, you probably do), you will no doubt be familiar with Dr. Rick Mehta, until recently an Associate Professor at Acadia University. And you are probably aware that Acadia fired him August 31. While the publicly-available details of the dismissal were at first pretty thin on the ground, Dr. Mehta recently shared with the media his termination letter, and an earlier letter detailing the disciplinary case against him. You can read all the details here.

Dr. Mehta and his supporters characterize his dismissal as a violation of his academic freedom and are casting Dr. Mehta himself as a kind of whistle-blower. Acadia’s faculty association has said that it will fight the termination. (For what it’s worth, I think that it is important that FAs step in whenever members are subject to discipline, especially discipline leading to termination — irrespective of what the FA members may think of the colleague who was the subject of discipline. FAs are essential to ensuring fair process. I hope no one gives the FA folks at Acadia any grief for doing the hard work they are about to undertake.)

Finally: You will no doubt recall that University of Toronto Psychology Professor Dr. Jordan Peterson some weeks back filed a lawsuit against Wilfrid Laurier University. I wrote about it here . UNB Prof Matthew Sears wrote about it here. And here’s the response from the Laurier faculty association. Well, on September 11, Dr. Peterson filed a second lawsuit against Laurier for remarks it made in a public statement in response to the first lawsuit. It’s hard to predict how many claims will in the end get stuffed into this litigious turducken. But in the end, it’s hard to see it as anything but a serious chill on both academic freedom and free speech.

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A metaphor for freedom — now available in your freezer section!
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