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Zachary Patterson: Should universities be worried about political diversity?

Commentary

Canadian governments invest a lot of money in higher education.

In 2015, they invested 1.2 percent of GDP, or $30 billion. In that same year, there were over 33,000 tenured or tenure-track professors in Canada who earned on average $140,000, placing them in the 96th percentile of income.

These are just some of many statistics that demonstrate the respect that Canadian governments place in higher education and it is clearly important that they do so. Where else can society turn to expect an impartial understanding of the world around us, policy concerns and policy interventions? Where else can society turn to train future entrepreneurs, employees, thinkers, bureaucrats and politicians on which our future depends?

Equally important is the respect with which the public at large holds higher education, however, since it is with them that support for higher education ultimately rests.

As it turns out, in Canada higher education is the most respected institution included in a recent survey by Public Square and Maru/Blue and provided to The Hub. The others were government, judiciary, media, police and religious institutions and the Public Square study surveyed 1,500 Canadians, Americans and Britons on their respect for institutions, including higher education.

While a good sign, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of higher education since only one-third of respondents reported that they had a “great deal” of respect for it. This figure is the same as for U.S. respondents. Similarly, higher education was the institution with the lowest proportion of respondents indicating “little or no” respect for it (14 percent).

At the same time, there is concern that academia, and academics in particular, are skewed to the left politically. While various studies have looked at this issue in the past, a comprehensive study including Canada, the US and the UK was recently released. The study documented a general pattern supporting this concern. It found for example that only 7 percent of Canadian professors voted on the right (Conservative or People’s Party of Canada) in the most recent federal election in 2019.

The Queen’s speech last week even laid out the U.K. government’s plan to protect freedom of speech on campus after a series of “de-platforming” incidents in the country. Among other proposals, the plan will allow people to seek compensation for losses due to infringement of speech in higher education.

It could be argued that the political affiliations of professors is not an important concern and that professors can remain impartial, independent of their political views. It can also be argued that the political views of professors will not necessarily influence the politics of their students who go on to work in government, where higher degrees are now almost universally required. While this is possible, it’s also possible that political affiliation of professors matters to the public, which is what the Public Square data suggest.

In particular, while 43 percent of people voting Liberal have “a great deal of respect” (along with 40 percent of those voting Liberal, NDP or Green) for higher education, only 26 percent of those voting Conservative do. Moreover, almost 20 percent of Conservatives have “little or no respect” for higher education compared to only 9 percent for Liberal, NDP and Green voters.

Similar patterns have been observed in a series of Gallup polls in the U.S. They show that in 2018, 48 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Like in Canada though, confidence is highly partisan with only 39 percent of Republicans showing such confidence, compared to 62 percent of Democrats.

Perhaps more discouraging is that these numbers are decreasing rapidly, particularly for Republicans. Between 2015 and 2018, Republican confidence in higher education had dropped by a third, three times faster than for Democrats.

To be sure, the reasons for the difference in confidence in higher education by political affiliation are not explained in these studies. At the same time, it’s not a leap of faith to imagine that these findings could be partly explained by the political leanings of the professoriate.

If this is the case, and if the same temporal pattern exists in Canada, it could have implications for how future governments on the right see, value and fund higher education. Calls for the re-evaluation of government funding for universities are already mainstream in the U.S. and similar calls in Canada may not be far behind.

Canadian universities and governmental funding agencies would be wise to consider this in their governance and policies, perhaps even those policies relating to diversity.

Sam VanderVeer: Among the pandemic’s many victims is the English language

Commentary

C.S. Lewis begins one of his best-known non-fiction works, The Abolition of Man, with a scathing review of an elementary school textbook.

The authors of the textbook write about two tourists visiting a waterfall and analyze the tourists’ different reactions to it. One tourist reacts with a simple description (he says it is “pretty”) and the other with a value statement (he says it is “sublime”). 

The textbook authors make the argument that the tourist who called the waterfall “sublime” was not in fact making an objective statement about the waterfall, but rather just describing how the waterfall makes him feel. They write:

“This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” (Author’s note: Did these guys design Twitter?)

CS Lewis takes issue with the textbook authors “subverting” objectivity with subjectivity. Over the course of the short book, Lewis argues that pretending the only thing that is real is how we feel at any particular moment has all sorts of confusing and damaging consequences — especially as it relates to how people interact with, and relate to, each other. 

I thought of this passage recently while once again shaking my head during a government press conference. Does anyone mean what they say anymore? Or say what they mean? 

We seem to have entered a bizarre period of hyper-inflation when it comes to words and meaning. The sheer volume of information and opinion (often indistinguishable) has never been greater, while at the same time it feels like words themselves have never had less real meaning. As the meaning of words becomes ever more diluted, the language we see used by individuals, the media, politicians and corporations is increasingly hyperbolic, brash and absolutist. 

Take a look at how much of the outrage machine is fueled by statements of historical absolutism.

Seeing absolutism grow and ultimately consume the progressive project in recent years has been a surprise. Progressivism promised openness, tolerance and an escape from the dogma and cruel objectivity of traditionalism. Within certain bounds this has certainly been true and many lives are better for it. But establishing and prosecuting the boundaries of openness and tolerance has come to dominate the progressive project in a way that looks more like tribalism than it does liberalism. The dogma, it turns out, also lives loudly in progressivism.

As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote (in a column the Times declined to publish), “we are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it.” 

Take a look at how much of the outrage machine is fueled by statements of historical absolutism, as an example. Are race relations the worst they’ve ever been? Is wokeism the greatest threat to freedom of speech in a generation? Has income inequality reached all-time highs? Is the science settled? None of these kinds of statements convey objective facts, yet we hear them constantly. They are disguised as factual by individuals in pursuit of personal or political agendas.

There are countless examples of the media accelerating the devaluation of words. In two separate cases, Rachel Maddow (a left-wing MSNBC host) and Tucker Carlson (a right-wing Fox News host) were able to save themselves from the financial consequences of defamation lawsuits by arguing that what they say should not be taken literally. In Maddow’s case, the judge wrote that the mix of news and opinion on the show meant “a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.”  It bears noting that Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar and has won three Emmy Awards, two of which were for “Outstanding News Discussion and Analysis.” 

COVID-19 has similarly laid bare how the careless use of language can render words meaningless. In instructing individuals not to wear masks and declining to restrict borders in early 2020, politicians and health officials disguised policy preferences as facts (the reality was that there were not enough masks to go around, not that masks were ineffective). Canada’s borders have never actually been “closed,” but you’d be forgiven for thinking they had.

Contradictory messaging around the recommended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine is another good example. The chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recently went as far as saying on national television that she wouldn’t want her own family members to take the AZ vaccine due to risk of death, while at the same time assuring viewers that AZ is “very effective” and that the risk of thrombosis is “very rare.” As if to assist in the writing of this column, the chair of the NACI went on to say in the same interview that she didn’t think her advice would contribute to confusion or vaccine hesitancy. Yet, just this week, several provinces announced that they will no longer be administering the first dose of AZ.

Readers who enjoy precise language will be able to provide countless examples of COVID-19-inspired vocabulary that reject meaning in favour of sloganeering and, at times, misdirection. We are told to “practice social distancing” when it is in fact the law, and the law states that we must keep a physical distance.

At the time of writing, the “Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act” has forced the closure of most Ontario businesses for the third time. Ontario’s golfers — who are permitted to walk alone in a field so long as that field is not a golf course and they are not carrying clubs — may quibble with the description of the legislation as “flexible.”

So what is there to do? Is it time to chain ourselves to the Oxford dictionary and shout “Stop!”?

The bad news is the HMCS Hyperbole is not a ship that can be turned around quickly. That said, in a world in which what we say means a little less than it did yesterday, our actions mean a heckuva lot more. 

The first step is to focus more on what is done rather than what is said, both in how we conduct ourselves and in how we interpret what we are told. We can also take care to speak plainly, truthfully and with humility, and to value others who do the same over those who shout loudest. 

In a lesser known collection of letters to fans, C.S. Lewis gives advice to a young writer that may be part of the prescription for hyper-inflation of this kind:

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very;’ otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”