University of Lethbridge president Michael J. Mahon’s recent cancellation of a talk by Frances Widdowson marks yet another failure of Canadian universities to maintain open academic environments where candid speech and robust discourse are encouraged.
Dr. Widdowson is a noted scholar of aboriginal issues whose views diverge from the mainstream narrative concerning Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal peoples. Unlike Mr. Trudeau, for example, she doesn’t think Canadians were “genocidal.” She believes that despite their many failings, residential schools bestowed educational benefits. And she has dissenting views concerning the vexed question of reconciliation. For many, she’s a heretic.
At first, President Mahon refused calls to cancel Widdowson’s talk and reiterated the university’s commitment to academic freedom. In his statement of Jan. 26, he wrote, the university “protect [s] free inquiry and scholarship …” and “Guest speakers … are afforded the same … freedom of expression as members of our campus community.” He further noted that those who object to Dr. Widdowson’s views may voice their disagreement, “but they may not obstruct or interfere with others’ freedom of expression.” Furthermore, “Debate or deliberation on campus may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided.”
Dr. Mahon should be commended for his robust expression of quotidian truths concerning the norms of debate in the university (or at least these were the norms until about a moment ago).
However, in that same missive, Dr. Mahon violated one of the sacred principles of academic ethics, namely, the need for the university to maintain institutional neutrality. As the university’s president, he wrote, “We strongly disagree with assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system.”
But the story continues. A few days later, Dr. Mahon changed his mind about Dr. Widdowson and reversed his decision. In a letter on Jan. 31, he cited as the reason for her cancellation “the safety of our diverse community.” Moreover, disregarding the ideal of institutional neutrality, he wrote, “We are committed to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. It is clear that the harm associated with this talk is an impediment to meaningful reconciliation.”
It needs to be stressed that it is not the place for a university to take a stand on a social issue, no matter how noble some members of the university community believe the cause to be.
Dr. Widdowson has arrived at conclusions which differ from the narrative promoted by the government and its allies in the media and the chattering classes. But so what? If one disagrees with her, then the way to refute her views is with arguments and evidence, not by denying her a voice.
By de-platforming her, the university has forsaken its mission. The viewpoint of an accomplished, knowledgeable and articulate scholar must, the university is saying, for the good of ends having nothing to do with scholarship or education, be dismissed out of hand rather than be discussed. President Mahon has denied the community of scholars at the University of Lethbridge the opportunity to hear a dissenting voice. Or, if you prefer, an opportunity to show Dr. Widdowson the errors of her ways.
As Aristotle long ago recognized, democratic education ought to mean not the education that democrats happen to like, but the education that will preserve democracy. Universities, like the larger society they serve, require an open and unfettered exchange of ideas in order to thrive.
Professors and students—and visiting lecturers—must be given the freedom to speak their minds without fear of censure or denunciation. For it is only in the free exchange of ideas that we can come to know our own minds, develop our thinking, and test our ideas against the views of others.