In November, an incident regarding freedom of speech on campus took place at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University that galvanized the attention of Canadians and of those with an interest in this subject beyond our borders.
A graduate student in the field of Communications, Lindsay Shepherd, used a short segment in class from a debate on TVOntario’s nightly issues show, The Agenda, to illustrate to her students how linguistic terminology can become contested terrain in the realm of ideas. The presenting issue was freedom of speech; the vehicle for debate was the use of transgender pronouns. The segment Shepherd showed – without either approval or condemnation–included forceful pushback against “compelled speech” by Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor whose publicly avowed refusal to use constructed gender pronouns has in the past 18 months rocketed him, via a tsunami of vlogs and public appearances, from virtual obscurity outside the academy to continental celebrity.
In short order Shepherd was summoned to a meeting with her supervisor, her department head and the director of WLU’s Gendered and Sexual Violence and Support program. What happened at that meeting – more like a Star Chamber interrogation – would have fallen into the historical oubliette, except for the fact that Shepherd recorded it and shared it with the media.
Ordinary Canadians who listened to this recording were stupefied at the overt intimidation and condemnation Shepherd was subjected to, including accusations of “transphobia,” a comparison of Peterson to Hitler and for good measure a sprinkling of demonizing “racism” and “ “white supremacist” to ensure the message took hold. All because she adopted a perspective of neutrality in presenting conflicting opinions to her class so that they could freely discuss the issue without her influence. This was an intolerable stance for her left-wing superiors.
The repercussions of this incident are still unfolding, and you can read a detailed account of it here. The most-used word by commentators writing about that fateful was “Orwellian.” And it was. In my own commentary on the affair, I ended with the suggestion that Canada establish “the Lindsay Shepherd Students’ Bill of Academic Rights.” I would like to say that the idea of such a bill was my own, but of course it isn’t. The timely reason it sprang to mind was that I had just finished reading Book VIII of David Horowitz’s Black Book of the American Left: The Left in the University, the newest release in Horowitz’s ten-book series of collected conservative writings. In this installment, Horowitz chronicles his crusade to establish such a bill in law.
The common denominator of all the articles in this volume is the appalling comfort of the academic community with the travesty of scholarship exemplified in the Shepherd affair, where an attempt by a young and intellectually uncorrupted colleague to embody the spirit of actual scholarly research by presenting both sides of an argument on a question of principle was attacked as an evil impulse.
In my own commentary, thanks once again to Horowitz, who references it frequently in Volume VIII, I adduced the 1915 American Association of University Professors’ “Declaration on the Principles of Academic Tenure and Academic Freedom.” It included this statement: “Faculty members are expected to present information fairly, and to set forth justly, divergent opinions that arise out of scholarly methodology and professionalism.” This is a tenet that was observed by my own university professors in the 1960s, but which has been honored almost completely in the breach thenceforth.
Today the AAUT seems more concerned with protecting the rights of teachers to indoctrinate students in their social justice shibboleths than to offer “divergent opinions” or to train them in the critical reasoning skills that will allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. As former AAUT head, Cary Nelson, put it, “all teaching and research is fundamentally and deeply political.” Given that understanding, academic freedom is not about a student’s right to a balanced education; it is about an academic’s right to promote his or version of social justice. In fact, academic freedom in the eyes of the AAUT has become what Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcus called “repressive tolerance,” the freedom to ignore and suppress the student’s right to learn in the service of political correctness.
Here is but one example Horowitz offers of a leftist academic’s view of her own right to academic freedom and her own privilege to teach students what, versus how to think: In his article “My Visit to Bates” (originally published as “Enemy of the People” in Salon.com in April, 1999), Horowitz describes his experience, while making the rounds of universities on a speaking tour to promote his Academic Bill of Rights, of auditing a political science course at Bates University in Maine.
The course, taught by an Indian woman educated in England, was based on a single 600-page anthology, Modernity, which, Horowitz discovered when he bought it, included viewpoints ranging “from classical Marxism to feminist Marxism to post-modernist Marxism.” When Horowitz admonished the professor after class for the one-sidedness of her teaching, she complacently replied, “Well, they get the other side from the newspapers.” (As an aside, Horowitz notes that Bates students’ parents pay $30,000 a year in tuition for their children’s indoctrination.) The book offers many more such outrageous transgressions of academic integrity, gleaned from personal observation and direct reports from students, and well repays the curiosity of anyone who wonders if concern over political correctness in the universities is exaggerated.
Horowitz’s tour occurred in the late 90s and early naughts. The situation is worse today. Rooting out incorrectness is carried on more aggressively. For example, it was established in an inquiry that Shepherd’s supervisor lied to her about there having been a complaint about her teaching method. There was none. But he clearly felt a lie was a small price to pay for an official opportunity to correct her thought crime. Such attitudes do not arise in a vacuum. They are internalized through cultural osmosis.
Indeed, sparked by increasingly emboldened leftist agitators, 2017 in general has been a year of extreme unrest on university campuses all over North America. Physical aggression in the name of social justice has become rampant. Guest lecturers who dare to express opinions that in any way contradict privileged leftist narratives have had their talks cancelled or violently protested, while even mildly dissenting professors have, aided and abetted by their pusillanimous administrations, been subjected to threats of violence. Some have even had to quit their jobs to retain their principles and ensure their physical safety, as in the case of Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State.
Here is a summary of what the Academic Bill of Rights would ensure:
- Faculty would be hired for their competence and knowledge and granted tenure “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.
- No faculty would be hired or fired or denied tenure “on the basis of his or her political beliefs”;
- Students would be graded on the basis of “reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge,” not on the basis of political or religious beliefs;
- Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences would “reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.” Teachers are free to pursue to their own interests and perspectives, but “they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints”;
- Faculty should not use their courses “for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination”;
- Selection of speakers and allocation of funds for speakers programs should “promote intellectual pluralism”;
- Given that an environment of civil exchange is essential to a university, “the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated”;
- Integrity of the research process and the professional societies formed to advance such research must be maintained. Thus, “academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry.”
There is nothing in this proposed bill that should scandalize or alarm any reasonable observer. It is fair to say that no conservative would take issue with any of these statements, which allow for the free exploration of views conservatives find repugnant. All conservatives ask is that students be exposed as well to views that leftists find repugnant so that students may weigh both and assess them without undue influence. That is not the case today, and has not been the case for a very long time.
Horowitz is precise in defining what academic freedom is, and what it is not. Academic freedom is not ‘free speech.’ An academic is free to pursue his scholarship according to his profession’s standards, and she is therefore not free from constraints in sharing his opinions. If she were, history professors could deny the Holocaust ever happened. Horowitz writes, “If mere opinion qualified someone to be a professor, professors could be hired for much lower salaries than is presently the case. Opinion is freely available on talk radio and local street corners.” Horowitz wrote these words before the advent of Twitter, which of course is the local street corner exponentially magnified. “Academic freedom,” Horowitz declares, is “freedom within a professional discipline.”
There’s the rub, of course. Professionalism implies knowledge based in evidence, not in authority. Such lines are blurred in the era of identity politics and the normalization of pseudo-disciplines such as Gender Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, Fat Studies, Disability Studies, Chicano Studies and White Studies and Indigenous Studies, all of which are taught based on the “authority” of Marxism, and all of whose primary purpose is to demonize “oppressors” – the “patriarchy,” white “colonialists” and the U.S. in general – and to recruit activists for organized perpetuation of the identity grievance industry.
“Professionalism” is not a word that springs to mind when one thinks of these pseudo-disciplines and their promulgators, a perfect case in point being conspiracy theorist, cultural appropriator and bogus academic Ward Churchill, whose shameless academic trajectory is chronicled anew in this volume. Students today have been so conditioned to accept academy-laundered political activism as bona fide “disciplines” that most of them wouldn’t be able to articulate the quintessential difference between the science of astronomy and the belief system of astrology.
It is fortunate that Horowitz does not succumb to the kind of cynicism I have just voiced, for it is thanks to his refusal to concede anything to the zeitgeist in standing up for the principles that should be guiding academics that so many of us find the motivation to keep resisting it, even when it seems hopeless. Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights was obstructed and failed to pass in his first campaign, but who is to say that it will never pass? Perhaps the Lindsay Shepherd affair and the Brett Weinstein affair were tipping points in the eyes of the silent majority, who are disgusted at the excesses of the progressive movement and who have finally understood that the issue – whether it is framed as racism, sexism or classism – is never the issue; the issue is always the Marxist revolution.
We won’t know if we have reached that tipping point until we try again. The Left in the University is a perfect companion volume to the events of today, and moreover an inspiration to taking up anew the battle to entrench an Academic Bill of Rights for students in law.
By: Barbara Kay
Barbara Kay is a columnist for the Canadian newspaper National Post and a member of the Board of Governors of the conservative student newspaper, princearthurherald.com.