At a January reception welcoming Peter MacKinnon as the interim president of Dalhousie University, a group of students greeted him with signs saying “MacKinnon threatens student safety” and “MacKinnon step down.” Their protest coincided with a list of demands from student unionists who accused the 72-year-old career legal academic and university administrator of “blatant support of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism along with other forms of oppressive rhetoric.”
MacKinnon’s alleged thoughtcrimes were committed in his new book University Commons Divided where, among other things, he suggested that recent campus controversies over Halloween costumes have been overblown. As an example he pointed out that when Brock University students dressed up as the black Jamaican bobsleigh team featured in the 1993 film Cool Runnings, the University of Toronto Black Students Association compared their use of black makeup to Nazi regalia. “These were Halloween parties, not cultural misappropriations, Nazi mimicry, or manifestations of disapproval of other people,” wrote MacKinnon. “So describing them risks diminishing real problems of intolerance, discrimination, and racism. It also risks backlash from a bewildered public observing these episodes.”
MacKinnon also sinned, according to his student critics, by questioning whether some of the 94 “calls to action” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are reasonable and practical. He doubted whether it should be mandatory for medical students to study the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and whether precious budgets should be used to offer degrees in Aboriginal languages for which there may be no demand.
Not just students were offended by MacKinnon’s heresies. A number of Dalhousie faculty members joined the attack. Law professor Kim Brooks asserted that MacKinnon should not be allowed to express the view that reasonable people disagree on the costume controversies. “When messages from members of senior administration suggest that ‘reasonable people differ’ in their approach to issues like the wearing of blackface…it erodes confidence that the university as an institution supports an inclusive environment,” she told the CBC.
Consciously or not, Brooks’ claim that students needed to be protected from the president’s opinions perfectly supported his main argument in University Commons Divided, which is that the war on diversity of opinion in the name of social justice is an affront to the very raison d’etre of universities.
MacKinnon details numerous incidents where campus mobs and cowed administrators refused to allow reasonable disagreements and debate. These include the University of Calgary edict against graphic displays by pro-life student activists because they threatened campus “safety”; the case of Andrew Potter, who was forced out of his job at McGill University over an article critical of Quebecois culture; and campaigns to force university boards to kowtow to social justice causes like divesting from fossil fuels. MacKinnon condemns such actions by universities on the grounds that they “make a pronouncement on truth and thereby compromise its search,” which is “contrary to the free and open enquiry for which they exist.”
Furthermore, he writes, they “undermine university values: a commons in which freedom of expression is the paramount value; a commons that privileges conclusions founded on evidence and reason; a commons that is well governed and one free of discrimination; a commons in which civility is valued and practised; and one that discharges its social responsibilities without presuming to pursue social justice.
Before MacKinnon waded in, Canadians had mostly been hearing these arguments through rebellious campus outliers like Lindsey Shepherd, Rick Mehta, or Jordan Peterson. MacKinnon, by contrast, has spent more than 40 years in academia, first at the University of Saskatchewan law school where he rose to dean, and later as U of S president, from 1999 to 2012. He led the national lobby group Universities Canada from 2003 to 2005. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and his wife Janice is a former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister (who is well-regarded across the political spectrum for her fiscally responsible record), and he has a long record of donations to the federal NDP. In short, he’s a certified member of the liberal intelligentsia, attacking progressive dogma from the top of the academic heap. Few people in his rarified position have publicly dared to deviate from politically correct orthodoxies. He deserves to be lauded for his courage and principled defense of elemental academic freedoms, and one hopes that other senior university administrators and policymakers will take note of his diagnosis and recommended solutions.
Among of the main enemies of reasonable disagreement on campus identified by MacKinnon are university faculty unions. He provides multiple examples showing how the unions exploit the weakness of the bicameral governance structure of most universities – in which a senate of tenured faculty members is charged with governing academic affairs while a board of governors comprised mostly of unpaid outsiders takes care of the rest – to advance their progressive agendas. He also blames mainstream media that is too quick to side with the shrillist victim voices. A third problem is mutation of academic freedom into a license for unionized faculty to ferociously attack the careers and reputations of campus administrators who are powerless to regulate or deter them. He provides this startling statistic to illustrate the power differential: “A higher number of presidents of the ninety-six degree-granting institutions in Canada have been fired in the past fifteen years than have been the number of tenured faculty fired over the same period from among more than sixty thousand in our degree-granting universities and colleges.”
One of his best examples of all three problems is the case of Jennifer Berdahl, a gender and diversity professor at the University of British Columbia. When Arvind Gupta was fired as UBC president in 2015, just one year into his term, Berdahl speculated on social media that it was because he “lost the masculinity contest,” he “wasn’t tall or physically imposing,” and was the “first brown man to be the university’s president.”
University board chair John Mantalbano phoned Berdahl to privately discuss her “damning and public allegations against Montalbano and the board.” MacKinnon contends the chair and board “were entitled to respond and, along the spectrum of possible responses, theirs was restrained: no public indignation or rebuttal; no public criticism of Berdahl for her denunciation of Montalbano and the board when she could not have known all the facts.”
Berdahl claimed that her academic freedom was trampled and that the university’s anti-discrimination policies were breached. With the help of the faculty association Montalbano was quickly forced out as board chair. Berdahl was then chosen as the faculty representative on the search committee to select Gupta’s replacement.
“The faculty association rallied to Berdahl’s side and launched its own campaign to discredit the board,” MacKinnon writes. “Its reach within UBC, combined with the absence of rebuttal to its allegations, meant that securing non-confidence votes was easy. The nearly complete public silence of other voices at UBC contributed to the result. Most faculty did not vote on the confidence motions, and few of their voices were raised in public to protest unfolding events; the university senate was largely absent from the controversy. The problem was compounded by the media, whose superficial coverage of the issues did little to inform the public about what was occurring at one of the country’s leading universities.”
Berdahl was able to oust Montalbano and buffalo the board in part due to an overly broad and self-serving interpretation of academic freedom pushed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (essentially the national faculty union lobby group). CAUT claims that academic freedom gives professors an almost unlimited right to openly criticize the boards and administrators charged with running the university’s non-academic affairs. Although MacKinnnon doesn’t say it, it’s worth noting that another function of faculty unions is to obtain wage increases and other benefits from university administrations and boards, which is obviously another motive for seeking power over them.
Another time when all these issues – the weak governance model, a poorly-informed media and an overly broad definition of academic freedom – conspired to advance a social justice campaign was during the Dalhousie Faculty of Dentistry scandal. The short version is this: someone in the class of 2015 started a male-only Facebook group where some men posted vulgar, juvenile comments. In 2014, one of its members posted an invitation to reveal which female classmates they would like to “hate f–k” and “sport f–k.” A female student who learned of this was understandably upset and complained to administrators. The university’s then-president, Richard Florizone, investigated and decided that students would undergo a restorative justice process that would aim to make the men understand why what they did was wrong and explore how they could make it right for the women. Nearly all the women in the class opted to take part in this process.
But a group of Dalhousie professors not connected to the dentistry faculty started lobbying publicly for suspensions. Eventually more than 300 faculty and staff called for an “independent inquiry” to prosecute the men under the University Code of Student Conduct, which could have ended their careers in dentistry. The media almost universally clamoured for harsh punishment, with one local publication going so far as to recommend expulsions.
MacKinnon believes Florizone was right to choose restorative justice rather than disciplinary hearings. The latter tend to be “focused on the charges, defences, and range of consequences, not on understanding, recognition, acceptance, and redress.” The prosecutorial approach offered only two likely outcomes: ending the men’s careers or letting them off without any discipline at all – both unjust. MacKinnon writes that Florizone’s “neck was most assuredly on the line,” while the mob of professors denouncing him faced no real risk of consequences, nor did the media that sided with them. He clearly admires his predecessor at Dal for standing his ground.
As a compendium of the myriad threats to real academic freedom on Canadian campuses, University Commons Divided is thorough, reasoned and insightful. But it’s greatest value may be in charting a way out of the mess academe is in.
“It would begin with a re-emphasis on why universities exist, and a clear statement that freedom of expression is an essential condition of their existence,” MacKinnon writes. “It would acknowledge the potential for discomfort and offence as a result of this freedom and make it clear that neither is sufficient reason to curb its exercise. It would warn everyone in the commons that the university will take all measures necessary to protect the free exchange of ideas, including disciplinary action against those who would deny others their expression. It would convey the truism that civility facilitates and promotes freedom of expression, and that the university expects civil discourse in the commons.”
There are echoes of Mackinnon’s prescription in the campus free speech edicts ordered by the new Progressive Conservative government in Ontario. But government-defined speech codes are inherently risky, and as W.R. Laird’s recently explained in the National Post, some of the codes our universities have developed could actually harm free speech. One suggestion that no one seems yet to have considered is changing the provincial legislation that establishes each public university to make freedom of expression a paramount value.
MacKinnon also says the bicameral governance model should be re-examined. He suggests that “boards can protect university independence only if most of their members are from outside the university,” and that boards don’t function well if they’re bigger than about 18 members. He offers Carleton University, with 32 members and nearly half drawn from inside the university, as an example of a board that’s badly designed.
MacKinnon points out that the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities have both long endorsed a common definition of academic freedom, unlike their Canadian counterparts, CAUT and Universities Canada. The 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure in the United States defines academic freedom as “full freedom in research and in the publication of results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties,” while also acknowledging that academics’ “special position in the community imposes special obligations” including “appropriate restraint” and “respect for the opinions of others.”
Of course the Statement has not prevented campus mobbings in the U.S. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute chronicled many of them in her acclaimed 2018 book The Diversity Delusion. It was part of a bigger and broader rebellion against PC tyranny than has occurred so far in Canada. A key development was a 2015 report on freedom of expression issued by the University of Chicago. Known as the “Chicago Principles”, its recommendations have been endorsed or adopted on over 50 U.S. campuses.
One way to push back in Canada, suggests MacKinnnon, might be through a national inquiry led by a “blue ribbon panel, perhaps initiated by Universities Canada and led by a former Supreme Court justice, and consisting of members well versed in governance including a former university president with a distinguished track record.” He says the panel “should include a senior representative of Canadian provincial governments who can assist in ensuring that legislative changes recommended by the panel are acted upon by them.” If the Dalhousie students and professors clamouring for MacKinnon to be fired succeed, he would be an ideal choice to head the panel.
Josh Dehaas is a Toronto-based writer. He reported on higher education for Maclean’s for four years and has written about public policy for National Post, TVO.org and Quillette. Find him @JoshDehaas on Twitter.