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Zachary Patterson: University ‘decolonization’ is a threat to academic freedom

Commentary

Across the country, the “decolonization” of curricula, and indeed universities themselves, is being advocated as necessary and adopted with seemingly little resistance. The most recent high-profile example of this is Concordia University, which released a five-year strategic decolonization implementation plan. Its priorities, among others, are to “critically evaluate and decentre Eurocentric knowledge systems across all academic programs university-wide.” Moreover, this is to be achieved by “cultivating a ‘collective critical consciousness.’”

Universities receive large amounts of public money. Unlike private sector companies, political parties, or non-governmental organizations, they are funded to provide society with a neutral and disinterested perspective on the world and how it functions.

Academic freedom enables universities to fulfill this role and their missions as truth-seeking institutions. It does so by protecting professors from universities interfering in their scholarly activities. It’s necessary because it frees professors to openly pursue, teach, analyze, and debate important questions, even those that might challenge the status quo. 

This allows for the rejection of wrong ideas while strengthening our understanding of truthful ideas. It has been an important ingredient to the secret sauce that has contributed to the incredible advances in knowledge since at least the Enlightenment.

Academic freedom is most commonly associated with the right of professors to express themselves without suffering repercussions from their universities on topics considered to be controversial. In this respect, it is epitomized by the well-known “Chicago Principles.”

Equally important for academic freedom is the political neutrality of universities. This is essential not only because universities are publicly funded, but because non-neutrality itself impinges on academic freedom. In fact, the University of Chicago also articulated this important principle in its Kalven Report.

When universities take political positions or support political causes, they implicitly and, often explicitly, interfere in the teaching, research, and commentary functions of those who work there. If you were a professor and your university took a public position on a topic, would you feel more or less free to teach, comment on, or pursue research that comes to different conclusions than those of your university?

Some argue that universities have a right and even an obligation to influence teaching and research through training on the use of new equipment and technologies, or perhaps best practices. This may be true if done neutrally. But what if the university insists on promoting political ideologies in teaching and research?

This question is central to discussions around “decolonization.” While many things could be said about the notion of decolonization and the Concordia implementation plan, it’s difficult to argue they are politically neutral.

The first sign giving the game away is the word “critical.” This is not “critical” as in critical thinking that we expect to be at the centre of a university education. No, critical here refers to “Critical Social Justice.” It’s a mix of neo-Marxist “critical theory” and postmodern theory. Its aims are variously to disrupt and subvert society with no less a goal than overthrowing Western Civilization.

If that doesn’t seem political enough, the term “critical consciousness” comes directly from the influential neo-Marxist educational theorist Paulo Freire. Freire believed that education was an inherently political act and that it should be undertaken to cultivate the critical (i.e. neo-Marxist) consciousness of students with the aim of turning them into revolutionaries.

People take part in a protest next to the James McGill statue in Montreal, Saturday, August 1, 2020, where they called on the university to take down the statue. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The term “decolonization” draws on the same “critical” roots as Freire through well-known post-colonial theorists like Edward Said and, most relevant here, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a Marxist decolonial theorist. Among other things, he is known for having justified and defended the use of violence and terrorism in conflict against “colonizers.” If he was not the intellectual inspiration for Hamas on October 7th, he is for many sympathizers of Hamas on university campuses across Canada.

As such, Concordia’s decolonization plan (as well as other decolonization initiatives at universities across the country), with its reach “across all academic programs university-wide,” seeks to advocate for, and directly impose, a radical political ideology onto university teaching and curriculum. It also implicitly imposes the ideology on research and public commentary. But these activities are exactly what academic freedom is intended to protect—even from universities themselves.

Such interference is antithetical to the entire mission of the university as a dispassionate, rational, truth-seeking institution. And besides violating academic freedom, these initiatives betray the public’s trust. Moreover, the vast majority of the Canadian public appears to disagree with the ideology inherent in these initiatives.

Since universities function and are funded at the pleasure of the public, they should refrain from undermining their core functions through the imposition of radical ideologies on faculty and students—unless, that is, they seek to be defunded.

Brian Bird: Perhaps there is hope for universities after all

Commentary

Much has been written in recent years on the state of our universities. Many have expressed concern that universities have lost their way: they have forgotten or abandoned their mission to be truth-seeking institutions rather than partisan enterprises that favour certain worldviews and shun others.

These critiques are valid. From refusals to allow certain views to be expressed on campus to making it practically impossible for certain scholars, on account of their beliefs, to remain employed at their universities, the classical understanding of the university as a place where the freedom to question, investigate, and debate is robust and largely unhindered has been seriously injured in our time.

But the situation might not be quite as dire as we sometimes think. The current critiques of universities relating to academic freedom thankfully do not reflect my experience at the university where I work. During my time at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, I have found my academic community to be one that by and large welcomes intellectual pluralism and encourages the pursuit of truth.

It would not take an extensive search online for my students or colleagues to form the view that I am a Christian and a conservative. Based on the prevailing critiques of our universities, I should be bracing myself for professional and personal adversity due to my non-progressive viewpoints. Perhaps I should not have survived for more than a year or two. Maybe I should not have even been hired to begin with.

Yet, four years later, I can share that my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with students inside and outside of the classroom. They have been respectful, bright, and intellectually curious. I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me—if not more. I look forward to being in the classroom, day in and day out.

My colleagues, from day one of my time at Allard Law, have been welcoming, generous, and eager to help as I navigate the early years of my academic career. Even when I have had reason to think that a colleague does not agree with my views, our exchanges have almost always been cordial and constructive.

I do not mean to paint a romanticized picture of my workplace. There have certainly been moments when I have felt that I had no choice but to bite my tongue out of concern for what might happen if I were to speak out on this or that topic. But the general tenor of my experience at Allard Law certainly swims against the current critiques of universities. When my friends who expect to receive a negative report ask me about my experience on campus, they are pleasantly surprised to learn the opposite.

Again, I am not suggesting that our campuses today are perfect havens for the pursuit of truth. I have previously written on this topic in these pages. I would not have helped to organize a lecture on this topic at my institution if I did not think there was major work to be done on this matter. The stories of cancellation, intimidation, and harassment at universities are disturbing and deserve our attention. 

In light of these stories, some contemporary voices suggest that the era of the university may be over. For my part, I do not believe that the ship has sunk. This ship can be salvaged, returned to harbour, and repaired. Considering the countless contributions that universities have made and continue to make to our societies and civilizations, I believe we are duty-bound to undertake this search and rescue effort.

The good news is that we have had centuries of practice during which the truth-seeking mission of the university became firmly entrenched. These foundations do not erode overnight, though they are fragile because they depend upon the individual conduct of the members of a university. As more individuals behave in ways that betray the purpose of a university, this purpose is more likely to fade out of view.

For much of the history of the university, the strength of the commitment to open inquiry and freedom of expression on campuses—all in pursuit of knowledge and truth—appears to have mainly relied on the goodwill of the individuals who at any given moment in time formed the university population. 

As that commitment has come under pressure, some universities have sought to reinforce this commitment by adopting statements of principle. One of the early high-profile examples of such a statement came from the University of Chicago in 2014. The “Chicago Statement” reads in part:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn … [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

The Cape Breton University cafeteria is seen, in Sydney, N.S., Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Steve Wadden/The Canadian Press.

The Chicago Statement goes on to note that the “freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.” There are indeed circumstances in which expression can be limited in the academic realm: for example, where the expression violates the law or defames an individual. But these moments of limitation are by far the exception to the rule given what a university is meant to be and accomplish.

Ten years after the release of the Chicago Statement, the threats to academic freedom and viewpoint diversity on campuses in North America and beyond have not disappeared. Much work remains to be done to rehabilitate the truth-seeking mission of our universities. This work will be finished when the step of issuing declarations like the Chicago Statement ceases to be necessary.

With time and effort, universities can rediscover their mission and embrace it once again. This effort will only succeed if all members of the university—students, faculty, and administration—consciously choose to support this goal and govern themselves accordingly.

I am fortunate to be part of an intellectual community that has broadly made that choice. In the academic world of today, I hope my story is far from unique.