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Zachary Patterson: Know your role, professors—and keep activism out of academia

Commentary

A group of George Washington University professors during a pro-Palestinian protest over the Israel-Hamas war, April 26, 2024, in Washington. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo.

Why are professors treated so well? They’re paid high salaries from the public purse, averaging $148,000 in 2021. This puts them between the 92nd and 99th percentile of all Canadian salaries. They also have good pensions and very robust job security in the form of tenure that is bolstered by academic freedom.

Explaining why professors are treated so well requires starting with academic freedom. It helps understand what the role of professors is supposed to be—and how the professoriate has strayed from this role.

Academic freedom serves to prevent universities from interfering in teaching, research, and public commentary that professors undertake as part of their academic responsibilities. It protects professors from, for example, being reprimanded, sanctioned, or fired for research they pursue or public positions they take—even if they criticize positions of their own institutions.

This combination of privileges and protections is unique in society and speaks to the equally unique role professors are expected to play. Professors are granted these privileges so they can be independent.

It’s assumed, and even enforced by contract, that people working in the private, public, religious, or non-governmental sectors are to represent the interests of the organizations that employ them. This is not the case for academics.

Academics are supported to be independent because it is through independence that they’re seen as best able to fulfill their role. Independence allows them to pursue pressing research questions even if the research questions are controversial.

It also enables them to consider and draw conclusions independent of outside interests. This is essential since it’s only under such circumstances that they can be relied on to provide a rational and evidence-grounded perspective—their unique, common-sense, role.

The independence that academics are expected to exercise is nested within three foundational principles.

The truth principle is that there is, at the end of the day, regardless of empirical complications or political or personal motivations, an underlying truth characterizing the state of human society, the world, or indeed the universe.

The merit principle is that professors are to be chosen based on their abilities. Primarily, their ability to ask important questions, propose hypotheses about the answers to those questions, research them with adequate methodologies, and, finally, to draw independent conclusions about them based on evidence and reason.

The knowledge principle is that the best way to uncover, or at least approach—even if imperfect—the truth is through the open debate of ideas. Ideas are to be confronted robustly yet defended analytically and logically while being supported by evidence both theoretical and empirical.

An implication of the first and last principles is that it’s not the role of professors to be activists. Rather it’s to do their best to describe the world as they understand it. That way society can use and benefit from the most well-supported and objective knowledge available. This includes the students taught and trained by professors.

Indeed, based on the unique privileges and protections extended to professors, we can speak of a contract between the public and professors. The public provides professors with job security and high salaries in exchange for professors doing their best to provide an independently verifiable and objective understanding of the world.

Some academics argue that adherence to these principles is old-fashioned or not necessarily synonymous with the role of professors. If this were the case though, why would professors have such a unique status?

If their role were to be activists, for example, why would we have NGOs? If their role were to come up with policy, why would we need politicians or policymakers or bureaucrats? Conversely, if we already have these other institutions and professions, why would we need professors?

These questions (and their answers) are important. That’s because we increasingly observe professors and universities abandoning these principles. These principles are being abandoned as academics increasingly adhere to the Left-leaning, Marxist-inspired “critical social justice” perspective.

Accordingly, the truth principle has been replaced with social constructivism. Truth is seen to be determined by powerful victimizers (oppressors) for their benefit and to the detriment of the victimized (oppressed). Part and parcel of this view is that ultimate oppression stems from Western civilization and its legacy.

Because no claims to truth can be seen to be more authoritative or true than any other, people speak of their “own truth,” the illegitimacy of “Western” science and objective measures of merit such as the SAT, and the need to “decolonize” universities. (An inherent contradiction of this view is that no knowledge is authoritative, apart from the axiom that knowledge is constructed by victimizers at the expense of the victimized.)

With the abandonment of the truth principle, the other principles give way. With respect to the primacy of merit in hiring, professors are increasingly selected based on identitarian criteria.

Instead of seeking to objectively understand the world through open debate, increasingly the goal for academics is less to debate and more to confine the bounds of discussion, or to “cancel” debate altogether.

Contributing to this belief among academics is a progressive-era mindset. This mindset not only contends that academics have a superior understanding of the world, but that this superiority provides them with the moral authority and even an obligation to seek to organize and influence the public rather than to inform it.

As such, the primary role of professors is now seen to be to advocate and overturn. The goal of such advocacy is to correct putative injustices imposed upon the weak and indeed the world or environment itself. In a word, the professoriate has become politicized.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from the role implied by the unique privileges granted to professors. That is, to prioritize truth, merit, and knowledge; to seek to objectively understand the world we live in; to first and foremost inform.

While the results of such scholarship and analysis may be used to benefit society, it is not the academic’s role to militate. On the contrary, activism and the abandonment of the principles of the academic project are a betrayal and antithetical to the role of the professor.

Caylan Ford: Universities have a monopoly on teacher training. They don’t deserve to keep it

Commentary

Teacher Nassima Sayah gives instructions during a class, January 25, 2023 in Montreal. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press.

For two full days this school year, teachers with the Alberta Classical Academy charter schools attended an intensive professional development session on early literacy, with a concentration on phonics instruction. The sessions were led by a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist and doctoral candidate whose research focuses on the science of reading.

The charter school board (which, in full disclosure, I founded and previously chaired) offered the same training last year as we prepared to open our first elementary school. And for the second year in a row, the reviews from new faculty were glowing—and alarming.

No fewer than five different teachers reported, in nearly identical terms, that they learned more in those two days than they did in their entire education degree. Others expressed something between baffled incredulity and outrage that their bachelor of education programs had left them so unprepared to teach children how to read.

The gravity of the problem is hard to overstate: a troubling number of Canadian school children cannot read at grade level. Without serious and immediate interventions, most of those children will face a lifetime of struggle with basic life skills. Their career and social prospects will be severely constrained, as will their ability to participate in the enjoyment of high culture, literature, and philosophy.

How can we account for the failure of so many university faculties of education to teach these essential skills? Part of the answer is that these programs hold a near-monopoly on teacher training and certification, but little direct connection to classroom instruction, and no accountability for the results they produce.

This needs to change.