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Blog February 28, 2017

Authority and Freedom at UCLA, Toronto, and UBC

March in Los Angeles is a sweet month full of sunny, windless, dry days. In 2016 just after Presidents’ Day, I was at UCLA to visit two museums. The weather was fine and the university was outdoors. To get from one museum to another, I passed through the central campus where students staffed busy kiosks flogging popular causes—complete with boom boxes and street dancing.

Soon I was nose to nose with four energetic students, two men and two women who wanted my signature on petitions.

It turned out these weren’t petitions, but demands. The signers insisted that the administration open two “universally compulsory” first-year courses at UCLA. One was on LGBT gender rights (I quote their hand-out) and the other on “Working with the Latino and Black Struggle(s)” (again, the language of the hand-out).

Not only would all students take these courses, but all faculty would take “updating seminars” so they could teach or publicize the new courses. There would be a psychological revolution, as these courses would not just present facts but “encourage a commitment to the struggle.”

I mentioned I was a foreigner and that my signatures might not be worth much, but that didn’t faze the students. “Just sign,” they said. One of them said, “You’re a prof, aren’t you?”

I asked if they truly meant to re-educate the UCLA professoriate. They did.

Then I wondered aloud if the administration might say “no.” This would, of course, be after many profs had already said “no.” Consensus at the kiosk was that student numbers would compel administrators “to do the right thing.”

Then I inquired if new compulsory courses might replace or displace English, history, and so on. The students thought this was beside their point.

A quarter-hour had gone by.

The exchange started with jokes and street comedy. It turned serious. I asked if they planned discussions in the faculties or in the academic senate.  Answer: no need for “time-wasting b.s.” They’d get signatures.

I thought I’d encourage due process, so talked about debate in the faculties and senate about these things. In short, I argued that neither students nor administration would or should have a final say on the curriculum, and that there should be a chance to think about the public interest.

There was even talk of academic freedom, and its value in “these tough times.” Two men at the back spoke of the death the previous weekend of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. I understood them to mean that hard times were for student interest groups like theirs; and that made it somewhat easier to see why these earnest students were out on a March morning getting signatures from passers-by.

We finished amicably. I refused to sign, of course. On their side, the students announced they “didn’t have time to think about university governance.”

It was good to see students exercising the right of free speech. But oddly, the students just could not see how or why their compulsory courses might affect their teachers’ academic freedom.

On LGBT and Black Studies there are a thousand things to be said and several sides to every issue. But academic freedom offers a practical guarantee: profs and students will say their say without fear of administrative retribution—but more than that—they’ll have access to a legislative structure (the faculties, the senate, and even the board) where all sides can be heard, publicly debated, and decisions (including decisions about compulsory first-year courses) taken.

I had the impression my UCLA interlocutors didn’t see they might be playing into the hands of pressure groups on one hand, and administrators on the other. After all, the UCLA administration just might, after all, agree that there was no need and no point in bothering with the faculty, or the senate.

Yet academic freedom and open-participatory governance are permanently connected.

It’s a year later and the Jordan Peterson controversy in on at the University of Toronto. Peterson is “at the centre of a debate about gender and free speech.” He has said he cannot bring himself to use pronouns recently created to refer to “trans persons,” nor does he approve of proposed federal legislation adding gender identity or expression as a prohibited ground of discrimination” to the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. In light of events in universities across North America, few will be surprised that supporters of groups ranging from the self-described “extreme left” to the so-called alt-right have taken sides in Toronto.

What interests me is Peterson’s claim that U of T administrators have shown signs of heading down the road that the UCLA enthusiasts recommended when I met them accidentally a year ago. Prof. Kelly Hannah-Moffat became Vice-President Human Resources and Equity at the U of T about the time the controversy began. The Toronto Star (2017 January 15) says

Her office’s implementation of mandatory anti-racist and anti-bias training for HR staff — which was created after consultation with many parties including the university’s Black Liberation Collective, an activist group — also set Peterson off. The university declined to comment about Peterson’s accusations…. “She’s taking advice from the Black Liberation Collective, even though they’re perfectly willing to push violence as a solution to social problems,” said Peterson.

My point has little to do with free speech arguments at the University of Toronto. My point is the one that came up at UCLA: what happens to academic freedom, particularly fully formed professorial academic freedom when curriculum and pedagogy become the purview of administrators?

I’m guessing the U of T’s faculties and Governing Council have been involved in developing that institution’s equity policy. The Peterson case may not imply an extension or intensification of that policy. In other words, due process may have been observed.

On the other hand, one can see how tempted an administrator might be to resolve a touchy campus problem by “compelling” a solution.

My comment is written from the vantage point of a city several thousand kilometres away, so I say only that the Toronto experience is analogous to the UCLA one. Neither of them may end up going anywhere. But both events invite us to think hard about academic freedom, to resist the lingering authoritarianism of mobs and bureaucrats alike.

In British Columbia universities, there has been for twenty years a sustained discussion of harassment policy, and an equally lengthy argument over “respectful workplace policy.” These policies are nearly always administrative in origin, written by bureaucrats and chiseled in administrative stone by agreeable boards of governors.

That means a healthy debate between a department head and a vigorous teacher in the department can be characterized as…harassment. Here the harassment could be said to have been the work of the prof, not the head. It’s fairly obvious that an ambitious administrator could use “respectful workplace policy” or “harassment policy” to impose a kind of Diktat on her or his administrative unit.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, fortunately.

In all three examples, my claim is simple: if you want freedom, especially if you want academic freedom in a university setting, the way to ensure it is to define it with crystal clarity, and then to organize your faculty and your academic senate to support it at every turn, and to keep it all in the open, however embarrassing the personalities and the circumstances involved.

At UCLA, Toronto, and out west, academic freedom is still in good shape. But the pressure that comes from activists all across the OECD countries (it’s not just Canada and the United States) is strong. The majority of the public have trouble seeing what all the fuss is about, but all that tells me is…we proponents of academic freedom have work to do not only at home, but in the street.