A couple of years ago I resigned from a tenure-track position at a private university in the United States to take on a lower-ranked limited-term position at a public university in Canada. My mentors told me this was unwise, but I made the choice because I believe in public education, and however naive, I hold onto a hefty dose of idealism about the state of higher education in Canada. I believe that a public university can be participatory and democratic, a site of pluralism and justice, and an innovative and mobilizing context for positive social impact.
While bureaucratic and increasingly corporate, Canadian universities still function with structures that if engaged consciously allow for accountability, and democratic integrity. As an indigenous scholar, I was persuaded by the socio-political opportunities that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action have opened up in higher education. To be a university professor in this moment means that one has the opportunity to participate in the supercomplex work of unsettling colonial violence, and more broadly, to oppose the marginalizing forces of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and religious xenophobia.
Canadian academics, in the milieu of social policies like multiculturalism and human rights promotion, can explore, sharpen, and engage social and transformative pedagogies. I was excited by the idea of funding structures like the research councils, and how they can incentivize research that is engaged, responsive, and mobilizing knowledge around the great challenges of our time.
While my idealism is laughable to many, and the rose-coloured glasses have been shattered, replaced with disposable contacts and increasingly gray hair, I do find myself and many colleagues in the university searching for a way forward. While most public Canadian universities have mandates to advance research, teaching, learning, and community impact for the public good, these values point to the raison d'etre, the why of being in this together. We often fall short in articulating the applied question: how we will be in this together? This is of course until someone says something xenophobic in a national op-ed. Then it seems academics know their applied ethics: To rally to protect the right of freedom of expression of Andrew Potter who willingly resigned from his leadership role after saying something that erodes the public good.
But what does the privileging of "freedom of expression" and the practices around it suggest? It tells our students that we are more concerned with protecting Andrew Potter's right to expression, instead of critiquing bias in his expression, and exploring our social responsibility to oppose xenophobia in society. It tells our students we privilege the privileged. It's a lot easier for an academic to participate in public discourse with all the trappings of a Ph.D. on the wall of a seldom visited office, where students opposing racism on campus have to schedule die-ins.
To be clear, I do not want to diminish the freedom of expression. It is necessary in society, and we should defend it. But where are rights defenders when student opposition to the rising costs of tuition are ignored? Where are the public academics when white supremacists spew anti-black, transphobic, homophobic, anti-refugee and Islamophobic sentiments on our campuses? How do these academics perceive their responsibility when presented with the reality of complex historical trauma, and requests by indigenous and black students for trigger warnings in classes, and subsequent public backlash?
Dr. Nisha Sajnani of Harvard University recently suggested that universities need to respond to issues of racism, sexism and all forms of xenophobia and oppression in the the same manner as we might if an armed shooter entered our campus. She invites us to consider the full blown mental health services that would be provided, the academic accommodations afforded, and the sensitivity necessary to navigate the material threat of violence. She reminds us that in Canada the material threat of racial, colonial, sexualized, gender-based, and xenophobic violence is real and that only privilege positioning in society allows it to be reduced to an abstraction. This position demands that higher education must reconfigure its core ethic to include social care, safety and responsible welfare.
This is not a challenge unique to higher education. In Canadian society, while policies of multiculturalism have framed issues of diversity through pluralism, and equity through justice, the most significant Charter controversies of our time coalesce around the challenges of pluralism and justice at the junctures where tolerance and diversity collide in limitations of expression (See TWU and the law program). And while our courts seek to balance these competing issues, citizens are asked to consider how the rights that afford our individual freedoms implicate responsibilities in our actions, to nourish and embody a just society.
Do religious institutions have a right exclude on the basis of their charter freedoms if it results in discrimination? Do indigenous people have a right to political self-determinism, even if it extends beyond the Canadian settler-colonial state? Do cultural rights, like the freedom to wear a Niqab, extend even when they are in tension with federal policies of citizenship oaths? I don't know all the answers. But I know these are important conversations, and how we engage them matters.
Our society and our universities need a renewed ethic for how we are to navigate deep social divisions with one another, including how we advocate for the protection of rights, respond to the violation of rights and how we contest the terrains of rights and our responsibilities to one another in a pluralistic society. If the academic body politic is limited to advocacy for privileged elites whose right to thoughtful expression is rarely materially threatened, will our responsibility also extend to those people who are a perennially in the crosshairs of our systems?
Public education needs public ethics. This is why I chose to pursue my career in Canada. I am lucky to spend my days sharing life my life with students, listening to them, reflecting with them, rallying with them, and learning about justice from them. Many of them see education, while fraught with structural violence and endless barriers, as a viable pathway to justice. And I for one, want to struggle towards justice with them. Why else should we fight for public education, if it is not for the public good.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog referred to Andrew Potter as a tenured professor when he was actually a director at McGill University.
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