The values that universities forgot

By: on December 14, 2016 |

19th century illustration of people burning books

Academic freedom and freedom of expression on the university campus ought to be valued for at least two reasons. One is that freedom is essential to the central goals of research and teaching. The other is that only a free university can be a place of true intellectual community.

Each is an excellent reason to maintain and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression. But as recent events have shown us, not all university people care much about either academic freedom or freedom of expression. Indeed, we have seen widespread institutional hostility to both. How could that be?

When I was a younger professor, I thought all university people would put intellectual community and the central goals of research and teaching above all else, at least when engaged in university business and at least in times of relative peace and prosperity. University or intellectual values are not the only values worth honouring, of course, and in times of armed conflict, economic crisis, or dictatorship, they might be subordinated to the urgency of our condition. (Although it is often in such circumstances that they are most important.) Yet, I thought, if university people in relatively free, fair, and democratic Canada were ever to privilege other, illiberal values over academic ones, it would be out of rashness, in the heat of an emotional moment. Upon realizing that their actions threatened or infringed upon academic freedom or freedom of expression, they would quickly revert to proper intellectual behaviours.

But then, in early 2006, Peter March, a philosophy colleague at Saint Mary’s, taped the Mohammed cartoons from Jyllands-Posten on his office door. The administration at Saint Mary’s (and, even more sadly, many of the professors here) reacted badly – or, in any case, not as academics who prize research, teaching, or intellectual community should. In ordering him to take down the cartoons, they were, I thought, violating Dr. March’s academic freedom and dampening freedom of expression on campus simply out of bad judgement. Temporarily blinded in the fog of conflicting values, they would correct themselves once they understood what they were doing.

I publicly opposed their actions and communicated my arguments directly to the administrators. Yet with each new development in the March affair, administrators continued to betray academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus. They consistently sacrificed academic values in the service of such non-academic values as avoiding offense and promoting harmony, even when those non-academic values were hardly in peril.

Dr. March was brought before a tribunal (of two professors and a student) charged to determine whether he had harassed anyone or discriminated against anyone in his actions or speech. When it became clear that the tribunal would find what was obvious – that posting cartoons and talking about them could not possibly constitute harassment or discrimination – the complaining students were advised to withdraw their complaint. They did so, which was unfortunate because a clear and unequivocal tribunal ruling against the complaint would have set a useful campus precedent.

From March to worse

Instead, in the years since the March incident the Saint Mary’s administration, often with support from professors and our union, has acted weakly or wrongly whenever campus freedom was at stake: when a presentation by an invited speaker was disrupted; when the students’ association took exception to a student society’s sign; when the Queer society proposed an event for orientation week; and in the aftermath of 2013’s rape chant. (The assault on academic values continues today with the meddlesome and censorious work of the Action Team for a Respectful Campus.)

In 2006, there were few voices decrying our administration’s disdain for academic freedom and freedom of expression. On the contrary, the faculty union at Saint Mary’s supported it, as did the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

censorship of language

But one organization did stand up for freedom of expression at Saint Mary’s: The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS). SAFS sent a letter to our university’s president and posted the letter on its website. I was impressed, and I joined SAFS a few months later. In 2009, I was elected to the Board of Directors, and in 2015, after long-serving president Clive Seligman stepped down, I became the fourth president of the 25-year-old organization.

SAFS is dedicated to “Maintaining freedom in teaching, research and scholarship” and “Maintaining standards of excellence in academic decisions about students and faculty.” We’re an advocacy and education organization. We write letters to university presidents and others defending academic values when our board judges them to have been infringed or put at risk. We publish a newsletter and organize symposia in which the things we care about get discussed and debated.  Over the last year, we have held panel discussions on initiatives to indigenize the university and on pseudo-science and academic freedom.

Since the beginning of the current school year, SAFS has been engaged in three prominent cases involving the subjugation of academic freedom or freedom of expression on campus.

Black October 

In early October, administrators at Western University, in London, Ontario, reacted to photos on social media of four students posing under a banner reading “Western Lives Matter” by formally investigating whether the students had violated Western’s student code of conduct. Though that code explicitly states that nothing in it “shall be construed…to inhibit free speech,” administrators said that trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement could violate people’s human rights. After the investigation, no students were disciplined because their actions “did not rise to the threshold as a code violation under our student code,” according to Western’s associate vice-president of student experience. The implication, unfortunately, was that there is a threshold where criticising or making fun of a political movement could very well violate the students’ code of conduct, and not be protected by freedom of expression.

Also in October, University of Lethbridge professor Anthony Hall was suspended without pay because of allegations that some of his social media postings were anti-Semitic. Dr. Hall was suspended, that is, before the allegations were tested and independently of any expressed worries about the quality of his research or teaching. Of course, even if the postings were indeed anti-Semitic, universities attentive to academic values would be neutral with regard to the content of peaceful expressions of opinion or emotion.

Finally, and most prominently, on October 18 University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson was sent a letter, signed by the dean of the faculty of arts and science and the vice-provost of faculty and academic life, urging Dr. Peterson to stop saying publicly that he will not accede to requests from students or colleagues to use their preferred “gender neutral” pronouns. Failing to accede, the letter said, is “contrary to the rights of those persons to equal treatment without discrimination”; acting contrary to those rights would be in violation of the “responsibilities of faculty members to establish ‘fair and ethical dealings with students,’ as well as with colleagues.” Dr. Peterson’s persistence in his “discriminatory intentions” had been “emotionally disturbing and painful” to members of the university community and had caused some of them “to fear for their safety on the University campus.”

To its credit, the U of T subsequently organized a public debate on the issues, pitting Dr. Peterson against two academics opposed to his views. But the union that represents part-time faculty members objected. In an open letter, the union wrote: “Despite the administration’s welcome stance on respecting pronouns, we are deeply troubled to learn that the University is providing a forum for what Peterson has termed a ‘free speech debate.’ We object to the basic premise of this event. Human rights are not up for debate. We urge members of the University community to boycott this event.”

The union of graduate students likewise came out against free and open debate. “In agreeing to host future debates on the themes challenged by Peterson and his supporters, the University of Toronto Administration has proven irresponsible in providing Peterson a continued platform to promote discrimination at the expense of students.”

The actions taken by administrators and their supporters in these three cases need to be considered in relation to the central goals of teaching and research and of intellectual community.

What universities should be

“Research” is a broad term that covers at least three sorts of activity in which professors and students engage. One is inquiry into the ways of the world. The goal is to figure out how things are, or to come as close as one can to how they are. Another is the interpretation of artistic and other cultural artifacts and expressions. A third is the emotional and intellectual appreciation of the world as understood through inquiry and by interpretation.

“Teaching” is of course the dissemination of the products of research and interpretation to students. But its goal is not only to make students knowledgeable. Teaching is primarily aimed at helping students to become researchers, interpreters, and appreciators themselves.

Brain or mind caged in birdcage

The goal of figuring out how things are and producing and appreciating interpretations of their meaning is much better served in an atmosphere of freedom than in one of constraint. Academic freedom and freedom of expression increase the likelihood that we will get things right and help others to do so. That is because they multiply the options we can discuss and test.

Intellectual community is formed when people come together in an institution to pursue inquiry, interpretation, and appreciation together.  There are two reasons for intellectuals to gather together. First, through collaboration and critical discussion, inquiry and the rest become more productive. Second, by coming together in community, people enjoy the pleasures of collaboration and critical discussion.  Intellectuals aspire to develop insightful theories and interpretations, and they enjoy presenting their work to others and discussing the work of others.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression do not just work to improve intellectual community but are necessary for it to exist in the first place. Researchers and interpreters care about getting things right, certainly. They want to believe truly and to value soundly. But they also deeply care about believing what one believes and valuing what one values for one’s own good reasons. The only good reasons for believing or valuing are the reasons of evidence, argument, and example. To believe or value because of social or other pressures is not consistent with the endeavour to think for oneself.

True intellectuals and scholars, then, aspire to be intellectually and morally autonomous. Because they value autonomy for themselves and for all members of their community, they refrain from the controlling behaviours exhibited in the examples from Western, Lethbridge, and Toronto.

The university administrators and other officers who investigated the students, suspended Dr. Hall, ordered Dr. Peterson to mind his words, and called for an end to debate, are in fundamental conflict with the goals of research and teaching and the ideals of intellectual community. They do not think of universities as places of liberal study. Indeed, their actions are antithetical to liberal study.

The new academic utilitarianism

Their evident understanding of the purpose of universities is that they are places for the training of experts and professionals, the creation of a professional or managerial class, and the inculcation of preferred attitudes and values (respect for diversity, for instance, or concern for sustainability or citizenship). At universities that pursue such goals, academic freedom and freedom of expression are unneeded, and can be a nuisance. Free debate and critical discussion of human rights, for instance, could be emotionally and even psychologically upsetting for some; thus, they are an unnecessary and unwelcome diversion from the utilitarian purpose of the university. While an intellectual welcomes such a discussion even in face of the risk, for an administrator hoping to bring members of historically marginalized groups into a society’s cadre of experts and managers, the risk is unacceptable.

I wish I could claim that the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has succeeded in maintaining universities as places of liberal study, places devoted to intellectual community or to the goals of research and teaching. But the truth is, safe space for academic and intellectual freedom has been shrinking over the last 25 years, not expanding. We would like to think that interventions and arguments we have made may have contributed to the exoneration of the students at Western and Dr. Peterson’s continuing employment at the U of T. But the most important task of SAFS, in the long term, is to keep alive and to nurture the idea of the university as a place for dispassionate inquiry, for study for the sake of study. The idea of intellectual and moral autonomy is for many people extremely powerful, if only they hear of it and know that others cherish it as much as they do. You are not alone.

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About Mark Mercer

Mark Mercer is a professor of philosophy and serves as the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. He is also the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. (The views in this article are his and not necessarily official SAFS positions.) Membership in SAFS can be obtained at the SAFS website, Dr. Mercer’s website is at