Universities Must Uphold Free Speech Or Lose Canadians' Trust

The recent scandal at Wilfried Laurier University should make it clear that higher education in Canada is, literally, in crisis.

11/27/2017 11:17 EST | Updated 11/27/2017 13:26 EST

The recent scandal at Wilfrid Laurier University over a teaching assistant's use of footage of Jordan B. Peterson in class should make it clear that higher education in Canada is, literally, in crisis.

I use the word "crisis" in its specific etymological sense, referring to a judgment in a trial. The entire controversy surrounding Peterson ever since his initial criticisms of Bill C-16 last year have put the university system in Canada on trial, charged with a failure of its mission to be a space for dialogue in search of truth. As the recording of the reprimand makes clear, and despite the penitent qualifications that came afterwards, the administration's concern was that Peterson was like Hitler and therefore should not be entertained, or at least should be "contextualized" (as if the university setting is not already a context of opposing views in dialogue). In other words, the attitude is that there are certain views that — despite being widely held — should probably be kept away from the vulnerable ears of undergraduates.

The backlash may take the form of a populist sentiment that demands that universities be defunded.

And if this attitude continues to gain traction, the backlash may take the form of a populist sentiment that demands that universities be defunded. This would not necessarily just come from right-wingers, because it is not just conservative icons like Peterson who have fallen under this condemnation; Tony Hall, who teaches globalization studies at the University of Lethbridge and has published a great deal on First Nations rights, was suspended, initially without pay, because of accusations that he had made anti-Semitic remarks on his YouTube channel. Hall may be too far outside the Overton window to become a rallying figure for the left the way Peterson has been for the right, but all it would take is a similar case, just a little more within the mainstream, for progressives to be in exactly the same situation as conservatives; and, just like Peterson has floated the idea of starting his own online university, other alternatives to conventional corporate-funded schools could begin to materialize from disaffected radicals.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
Jordan Peterson lectures at the University of Toronto on Jan. 10, 2017.

All of this constitutes a danger: both an existential danger to universities and also what we might call a "teleological" danger; universities are in danger of failing in their central purpose and their importance to a democratic society. Something has to be done to salvage all this, or we are in for even darker days than we have seen.

I can sense the eyes of many readers rolling at that last sentence, but it is worth remembering the central purpose of a university — not the various social advantages of a university, but its main raison d'etre. John Henry Newman dealt with this in his 19th century text The Idea of a University: it is not to make sure people get jobs (the purpose of a technical school) or to produce peer-reviewed research (the purpose of a scientific academy), but instead to train people to critically evaluate the ideas that they encounter and come to a judgment for themselves. This goes all the way back to Plato's Academy, the source of the university system, which was based on Socrates' method of using dialogue to reach the truth. And, before one begins to claim that some ideas are just too intolerant and dangerous to be entertained, remember that this was exactly the charge levelled against Socrates (and, according to thinkers like Karl Popper and I.F. Stone, it was an accurate charge, and Socrates really was a revolutionary whose ideas were the basis of modern totalitarianism). Yet Aristotle, not Meletus, had the right reaction to Socrates: refutation, not hemlock, is the answer to an offensive argument.

Radagast via Creative Commons

As Allan Bloom pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind, the university went from being a privilege in the medieval era to a public institution at the dawn of liberal democracies precisely because those democracies were dedicated to the proposition that the people could choose between different policies and decide which ones should become the law of the land. But to make sure the voters weren't taken in by demagogy, the university was essential precisely because it trained people to think critically. The university was not meant to inculcate a certain point of view but to enable people to reach their own conclusions rationally — an essential for a democratic society.

This is why we must make sure not only that public sentiment does not turn against the universities, but also to ensure that academic freedom is a reality, not just a policy.

While he was still a leadership candidate, Andrew Scheer proposed defunding universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech. This was widely mocked and criticized, but a policy like this, which may seem to some like an assault on higher education, is probably necessary to save it.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, May 29, 2017.

As for how Scheer's general proposal could be concretely implemented, here is a suggestion: there could be an academic ombudsman, and if an academic or student group felt like they were being censored on campus, they could appeal to the ombudsman. The ombudsman's job would be to analyze the cases brought to them and judge them in the light of to the academic freedom policies of the institutions involved. If they decided that, indeed, the university had broken its own code, they would be given a certain amount of time to fix the situation. If they failed to do so, the ombudsman could issue a public report to Parliament a la the auditor general so that the government — as well as any private donors — could decide whether to withhold the funding or not. It would be similar to the Human Rights Tribunal, except without the power to levy fines.

I have run this suggestion past some university administrators, and they have suggested that this proposal, while nominally getting the government more involved in the university, would probably lead to the opposite result, because university administrators would be incentivized to deal with these kinds of problems internally before the ombudsman could be summoned.

Perhaps there are better solutions out there; I'm wide open to them myself. But taxpayers need assurance that their money is being used responsibly; there must be accountability. The university system may be a public good, but it needs to show the public that it is good if both it, and the public, are to continue in safety.

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