Troubling University Trends That Impact Academic Freedom, Free Speech

December 10, 2019 Updated: December 11, 2019

News Analysis

The University of British Columbia is being called out for using hiring practices in three of its schools that restrict applications to those in certain identity groups, making white males ineligible to apply.

A recent job posting for positions in the university’s School of Public Policy, School of Nursing, and School of Community and Regional Planning says “the selection will be restricted to members of the following designated groups: women, visible minorities (members of groups that are racially categorized), persons with disabilities, and Indigenous peoples.”

The posting says the restriction is in accordance with UBC’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan and pursuant to Section 42 of the BC Human Rights Code.

But the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a Halifax-based organization of university faculty members dedicated to the defence of academic freedom and the merit principle in higher education, takes issue with UBC’s approach.

In a letter to UBC President Santa Ono, Mark Mercer points out that “appointing scholars to academic positions according to sex, race, ethnicity, or disability status is a violation of the merit principle,” which holds that academic decisions should be made on academic grounds only.

“Excluding a significant proportion of qualified candidates cannot be a sound way to build an excellent faculty. As well, because appointing scholars on such grounds is wrongfully discriminatory, making such appointments cannot be a sound way to create a fair and equitable university,” Mercer writes.

UBC is by no means the only university to go down this road, however. Such hiring practices are reflective of the trends that have been developing on campuses in recent years, particularly when it comes to the social justice ideologies that have become so popular within faculties and among students.

Many academics and scholars have made analyzing whiteness and its so-called negative implications a sole focus.

One example is a recent article by physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein titled “Making Black Women Scientists under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics,” which argues that “white empiricism involves a predominantly white, predominantly male professional community selectively failing to apply the scientific method to themselves while using “scientific” evaluation to strengthen the barriers to black women in physics.”

“White empiricism is therefore a form of anti-empiricism masquerading as an empirical approach to the natural world. By denying agency to Black women in discussions of racism, white empiricism predetermines the experiences of Black women in physics,” Prescod-Weinstein wrote.

Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen’s University, says this view is the result of an increased preoccupation with privilege and how it’s allocated between groups, and how one’s privilege gives others license to discriminate in order to correct what they see as an unlevel playing field.

The aim, he says, is to produce something known as substantive equality. While formal equality means the same rules and standards apply to everyone, substantive equality means that people should be treated differently in order to achieve equal outcomes.

“Formal equality and substantive equality are mutually exclusive and cannot exist,” he writes in an article on the Advocates for the Rule of Law website.  “One person’s right to have the same rules and standards applied universally is inconsistent with another’s right to have a rule modified or waived because of its differentiated burdens.”

Pardy is one of the many academics who are concerned about how these trends have affected academic freedom, free speech, and the academy’s willingness to uphold these principles.

“Universities seriously discredit themselves when they indulge in identity politics and equality of outcome at the expense of merit. They are in danger of undermining their own credibility and the legitimacy of their credentialing function,” he said in an interview.

Classroom Discussions

Another concern is how this thinking can impact the way classroom discussions are conducted and how professors teach.

In October, Andrew Wenaus, a lecturer in the University of Western Ontario’s English department, found himself in a controversy after something he said that offended his students.

During a class in which he showed an episode from the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Wenaus explained how in the days of slavery, there were field slaves and house slaves, and used the N-word to refer to what house slaves were commonly called back then.

Despite only using it in the context of the class and not in a deliberately threatening way, his mention of the word sparked outrage. One student, Chizoba Oriuwa, told CBC that she “instantly felt like my presence as a black student, who sat in the front-row seat, was overlooked.”

“I felt devalued. I felt deeply humiliated and angered he said something like this,” she said.

In his apology to the Western community, Wenaus explained that he showed “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” episode to demonstrate how it reflects critiques of race and class in America, with Will Smith’s relationship with his butler, who calls him “Master,” reflecting the history of plantations and slavery.

“In articulating this historical context that was used to refer to one of these two classes of slaves, I used the term ‘House N*****’ to inform the students of the disturbing terminology that was used during slavery,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Western’s response was a plan to assemble an anti-racism working group.

In a similar case, graduate teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd got into hot water with senior administrators at Wilfred Laurier University after she showed a short excerpt of a TVOntario video in which University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson defended his rejection of using gendered pronouns when speaking to students.

Shepherd said she didn’t necessarily agree with Peterson and just wanted to stimulate debate. Nevertheless, she was accused by the administrators of having created a “toxic climate for some of the students.”

Pardy thinks people should make a stand against such trends but acknowledges how intimidating that might be.

“Pushing back against these trends is difficult, whether one is a student, professor, or member of the public,” he says.

“In this era of cancel culture and the outrage mob, it invites condemnation and personal risk, and nowhere are these dynamics more extreme than at modern universities. On the other hand, there still exists a viable principle of academic freedom at many of these institutions, especially for those fortunate enough to have tenure. If those people don’t object, who will?”