‘Woke Extremism’ at Universities Sparks Concern for Academic Freedom

December 9, 2020 Updated: December 16, 2020

News Analysis

Student groups at several Canadian universities are continuing to call for more robust social justice policies, but critics say that this approach clashes with the need for academic freedom and free inquiry on campus.

The McMaster Graduate Students Association (GSA) passed a new anti-oppression policy on Nov. 12, which states that the GSA seeks to “consistently leverage its position as a large student body to promote social justice on campus” and that the association is “raising its voice for the end of institutionalized racism.”

In the Nov. 20 statement introducing the policy, the GSA declares it will no longer be neutral when it comes to injustice and calls on the university to commit to the cause.

Concurrent with this is an open letter issued on Nov. 30 by members of several student groups as well as black and Muslim groups at McGill University requesting that Philip Carl Salzman, a retired professor of McGill’s anthropology department, have his emeritus status removed.

The letter condemns the traditional standards of what passes for legitimate free speech as a framework only benefitting whiteness, saying that Salzman—who has written and conducted research on topics such as multiculturalism and Islam—is abusing his status as an academic in presenting his opinions as fact, harming minority students in the process.

“Framing this as an issue of Professor Salzman’s academic freedom, rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe, illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues,” the letter says.

Salzman said in an interview with The Epoch Times that the groups’ views are a product of the ideas that have been taught by professors. He said he is being attacked only because of his pushback against the new ideologies that have become predominant among university faculty, particularly in the humanities and social science departments.

“It appears to me that the students who signed the [open letter] were just acting on what they have been taught. All the woke extremism was sown by radical professors and administrators, and now it is being reaped in the form of Maoist Red Guard students,” he said.

“The students are right to say that wokeness, or inclusivity as they refer to it, is incompatible with academic freedom. And they, and many university administrators, are sacrificing academic freedom in favour of wokeness.”

In response to the McGill students’ letter, Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, wrote a letter of his own coming to the defence of Salzman and academic freedom.

“If you disagree with a position Dr. Salzman has taken, you are free to criticize that position and to argue for your own. That is what people interested in understanding the world would do. It is also what academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus both encourage and protect,” he wrote.

Rodney Clifton, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Manitoba, says academic freedom is too important to sacrifice, and robust debate remains the most efficient way to handle disagreement.

“A fundamental value of universities, including McGill, is academic freedom, which means that professors and students are free to argue for unpopular positions on virtually all major issues,” he said in an interview.

“The debating process is so that participants get a closer view of the truth.  Therefore, the correct response to hearing or reading arguments one dislikes or disagrees with is to respond with better arguments. Universities need to preserve academic freedom as a fundamental value so that full and unfettered debates take place.”

A particularly controversial incident occurred this summer at the University of Manitoba. In July, medical student Rafael Zaki was expelled from the Max Rady College of Medicine at the university after 18 anonymous complaints were filed about his pro-life and pro-gun views. The school’s University Discipline Committee “determined that a change in the Appellant’s behaviour was essential in order to meet the professionalism standards set by the UGME (Undergraduate Medical Education) policies.”

The McGill student groups, to make their argument that legitimizing Salzman’s academic status threatens inclusivity and student well-being on campus, made reference to the idea of “rhetorical violence,” meaning words can cause harm equivalent to that of an act of physical violence.

William McNally, a professor of finance at Wilfrid Laurier University and frequent commentator on these issues, says this approach is simply a tactic to get administrators to sympathize with them and silence their opponents.

“Inclusivity, in the social justice lexicon, means censorship. Thus, arguing that ‘inclusivity’ and ‘free speech’ need to be reconciled is disingenuous,” McNally said in an interview.

“Inclusive spaces are spaces where no one feels excluded. An individual would feel excluded if they heard speech that upset them. Thus, to make a space ‘inclusive’, we must bar speech that any group feels is upsetting or harmful. So one can’t reconcile inclusivity and free speech—or academic freedom.”

He adds that an “inclusive speech regime” is disrespectful of others’ intelligence because it avoids participation in critical discussion. “To shield some individuals from discussion is thus disrespectful because it is patronizing.”

Salzman says these controversies at universities are a consequence of the hyper-politicization of academia, which will continue to hinder the value of the universities to the public who pay taxes to fund them.

“Anthropology and the other social sciences (perhaps with the exception of economics) have all been radically politicized, turning their disciplines into victimology and becoming advocates for categories of alleged victims,” he says.

“Postmodernism ‘debunked’ the idea of objective knowledge and truth, so now it is all whether you are on the right side of hypothesized political struggles.”

He notes that although universities receive public funding, they are not “seeking reliable, objective, evidence-based knowledge, but are pushing radical crusades.”

“Even academic associations and journals, including scientific ones, will not touch anything that is not politically correct, and by that, I mean anything that challenges radical shibboleths.”

The Epoch Times reached out to the Students’ Society of McGill University and the Graduate Students Association at McMaster for comment but didn’t receive a response in time for publication.