Opinion: The Quebec Commission proposes a bold new approach to protect the academic freedom of wide-awake crowds


Christopher Dummitt and Zachary Patterson: In Quebec, a commission recommends strong action to turn the tide against reactionary crowds

Content of the article

Anyone in Canada retains even a glimmer of hope that universities can once again become bastions of free thought and academic freedom should look at Quebec, where a commission of inquiry spent the summer and the fall to hear from witnesses and research the deplorable postwar state. secondary school in the province. It collected stories of students trying to fire teachers for saying the wrong word, canceled classes and bullying.

Advertising

Content of the article

None of this should come as a surprise to those who follow academic affairs – or today’s cultural wars in general. Canceling culture is even worse now than in 2018, when British journalist Andrew Sullivan remarked that “We all live on campus now”. Each week apparently brings another example of a waking mob determined to demolish a statue, change the name of a street, or lobby libraries and school boards to ban books.

What is new in Quebec, however, is that the Independent Scientific and Technical Commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in Universities is recommending forceful measures to turn the tide against reactionary crowds. The commission made five recommendations and formulated five informed “opinions” based on its research. The recommendations probably don’t go far enough – and much will depend on how they’re implemented – but they are Canada’s best hope for a renaissance of academic freedom.

Advertising

Content of the article

The main recommendation is that Quebec present a law clearly defining academic freedom – making a definition the law of the land – and insisting that all universities have the responsibility to promote and protect the values ​​enshrined in the law. Universities should establish their own committees to promote the academic freedom of students and staff, to hear complaints about breaches of the law, and to report annually to the government on all cases at the institution.

The committee followed up on these recommendations with five opinions, and that is the strongest part of the report. Here, the commissioners take a stand to protect themselves against the greatest threat to academic freedom today: militarized ideas of danger and security.

Advertising

Content of the article

Commissioners insist that university courtyards cannot be “safe spaces”. In recent years, activists have used the idea of ​​a safe space to clamp down on academic freedom. They argue that expressing certain points of view or even mentioning certain words (even to analyze academically the meaning of a word and without clearly attempting to offend) is dangerous. Some even claim that just mentioning certain topics (like biological sex) is harmful.

It was one of those cases (in which a University of Ottawa professor was fired for discussing the N word in an academic context) that sparked the commission, but his report lists many other similar incidents. . The commission insists that there is no room in contemporary universities for this kind of attack on academic freedom. University classrooms cannot – and should not – be “safe spaces”.

Advertising

Content of the article

The committee followed up on several other opinions – addressing ‘trigger warnings’ in course curricula, the response to online crowds and whether senior academics should be involved in debates on the issues. of society.

There are, of course, a dozen ways in which these recommendations could go wrong, and many other areas that the commission did not cover. For example, the recommendations would do nothing to protect McGill researcher Patanjali Kambhampati, who was recently denied funding by equity bureaucrats because he planned to hire his research assistants on the basis of merit and not of identity.

This is a case of forced speech that has been enshrined in the funding guidelines, hiding political ideology behind the facade of a neutral bureaucracy. It does not appear that the commission’s recommendations would prevent such a violation of academic freedom from occurring in the future.

Advertising

Content of the article

In addition, the composition of university committees intended to defend academic freedom will be of great importance. It is entirely possible that these committees will be taken over by academics with little attachment to academic freedom and eager to prevent what they see as “harmful” speech.

But it’s also clear that a provincial law imposing a single, clear and broad definition of academic freedom – and insisting that universities in the province abide by it – would be a huge improvement over the status quo.

In recent years, Ontario and Alberta have demanded universities create academic freedom policies, but these measures were largely empty exercises. While some universities in these provinces have done so in good faith, many of their so-called academic freedom policies were anything but to the contrary. They contained huge loopholes to allow for speech suppression and research to protect against “damage.” The Quebec model – if applied – would be a huge improvement.

Advertising

Content of the article

It should be a non-partisan issue, and in Quebec there seems to be broad public support. After all, academic freedom has traditionally protected those with unconventional and even subversive ideas. We must all watch to see if the government of Quebec follows up on the commission’s recommendations, and other governments must follow where Quebec leads.

National post

Christopher Dummitt is Professor of Canadian History at Trent University. Zachary Patterson is Associate Professor at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering.

  1. University of Alberta Associate Professor Kathleen Lowrey was removed from her post as Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Anthropology in March.  Lowrey says she thinks she was fired for her critical views on the genre.

    Barbara Kay: State University professor holds line on free speech

  2. Babacar Faye poses for a photo outside the University of Ottawa on October 19.  Faye is president of the student union, which issued a statement complaining about the use of the N-word by a teacher.

    Lloyd Wilks: It’s never okay to say the N word, even in academia

Advertising

comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a vibrant but civil discussion forum and encourages all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour of moderation before appearing on the site. We ask that you keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications. You will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, if there is an update to a comment thread that you follow, or if a user that you follow comments. Visit our Community rules for more information and details on how to adjust your E-mail settings.


Comments are closed.