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Zachary Patterson: Universities are meant to safeguard academic freedom and political neutrality. Far too many are failing this mission

Commentary

George Washington University students during a pro-Palestinian protest at a commencement ceremony in Washington, May 19, 2024. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo.

The past months have seen campuses across the West turned into encampments, ostensibly to protest against Israel’s response to October 7. In practice, many of these movements have had a habit of excusing—or worse celebrating—the atrocities committed by Hamas against Jews and Israelis.

The years prior saw universities, amidst the “great awokening,” become hotbeds for many transgressive political causes, from advocating for a world of open borders to Defund the Police to the broader breakdown of gender and societal norms. Whatever the cause, universities have been at the heart of the movement.

My previous column, the first in this five-part series on reforming education, explained that the role of the professor is not to be a politicized activist. It’s to seek to objectively and disinterestedly understand the world we live in. But what does this imply for the role of universities?

The main difference between higher and non-tertiary education is professors with tenure and academic freedom. As such, the role of the university must be to support professors in their role.

In addition to providing infrastructure for teaching and research, this amounts to ensuring the foundational truth, knowledge, and merit principles are upheld on campus. The truth and knowledge principles are upheld through the respect of academic freedom.

The first critical aspect of academic freedom is a “freedom from” university censorship or sanctions in terms of research, teaching, and public commentary. This is iconically described in the well-known Chicago Principles.

The second aspect is institutional neutrality. This holds that universities do not take positions on issues of a social or political nature not directly related to their operations. By taking political positions, universities endanger professorial independence and thereby interfere with academic freedom. This is exemplified in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report.

Upholding the merit principle requires universities to refrain from the allocation of responsibilities or resources on anything apart from merit, such as skin colour, sex, sexual orientation, etc. This principle has also been institutionalized by the University of Chicago through its Shils Report.

Sadly, far too many universities in Canada and across the Western world are failing to uphold these foundational principles. Professors are being sanctioned for their teaching, public commentary, and it seems for research too. Controversial speakers are disinvited and sometimes discouraged from speaking through onerous burdens placed on their events.

Universities have abandoned political neutrality in favour of institutionalizing highly political causes such as “decolonization.” Decolonization is promoted and institutionalized hand-in-hand with identitarian hiring representing thereby the abandonment not only of neutrality but of the merit principle as well.

Sadly, overt examples of threats to academic freedom are merely the “tip of the iceberg” in the Anglosphere, as shown by political scientist Eric Kaufmann. Evidence for such threats has been further corroborated in Canada. The threats are a function of three factors.

First, academics are increasingly willing to sanction those of a different political persuasion. Second, almost 90 percent of professors hold Left-leaning views. Third, universities are governed by the professors that populate them.

These sources are combined with increasing professorial adherence to (or at least sympathy for) critical social justice and progressive worldviews. This is seen in departments throughout the academy, but most profoundly, and ominously in departments of education such as UofT’s OISE that train and qualify K-12 teachers.

This adherence represents both the abandonment of the foundational principles of the university and the adoption of new, politicized principles.

Taken together, it is little wonder that academic freedom, independence, and “colour-blind” merit are threatened. Individual professors are overwhelmingly on the political Left, increasingly adopting politicized principles for the university, and are willing to enforce them by sanctioning colleagues who do not.

Since professors run universities as well as just populating them, and evidence suggests that administrators are even more Left-leaning than rank-and-file academics, it is easy to understand why the foundational principles of universities and their fundamental role are being abandoned.

Not valuing these principles means they are less likely to promote them—and worse, discard them altogether in favour of the new politicized identitarian policies.

It is worth highlighting that while this turn is likely not driven by broad popular sentiment, it is underwritten by the public as provincial and federal funding agencies provide the aid that enables these trends. These funding agencies are increasingly being politicized themselves, even encouraging non-merit-based considerations in allocating funding and in some cases explicitly endorsing and requiring group-based targets.

These requirements are then used by universities while placing the blame for them on the agencies themselves. Ironically, the funding agencies also maintain they have no choice but to politicize university funding.

Needless to say, by not upholding academic freedom and their foundational principles, universities are simply not fulfilling their role. In this context, the question becomes, how can we reform universities so that they adequately fulfill their role in the future?

Stephen Staley: The cult of expertise has gone too far

Commentary

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a Senate hearing in Washington, Sept. 14, 2022. Cliff Owen/AP Photo.

“By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.”

– GK Chesterton, March 1911

Recently, I made the classic mistake of engaging in an online argument. It wasn’t in a hostile subreddit or on a distant relative’s Facebook page filled with conspiracy theories but in a seemingly innocuous WhatsApp discussion group. Yet, I found myself ensnared in a debate that underscored a growing trend in our public discourse: the blind deference to “experts.”

The particular argument that got me wound up on this occasion was when someone decried the trend of disagreeing with “experts” which he described as “denialism.” Variations on this argument have been hurtling around the public sphere in recent years, often described as a war on experts, or expertise.

Given there has been an increasing amount of commentary on this topic in our public discourse recently, I thought it worth addressing in a more comprehensive argument than I was able to deliver to strangers in a WhatsApp group.

To begin, if expertise is a club, it’s one that should have more stringent entry requirements. The criteria for being labelled an “expert” on a TV panel, in a news article, or during a public debate have become alarmingly loose and flexible. Often, the label of “expert” hinges on a plethora of increasingly dubious credentials based on esoteric or narrowly focused theories, rather than on practical or productive experience. Credentialism is the art of knowing everything about nothing, and nothing about everything

This problem is exacerbated by the media’s tendency to start with a predetermined thesis, and then seek out “experts” biased in their favour, constructing arguments around this shaky foundation. Those with opposing views are often dismissed as foolishly anti-expert if their position is acknowledged at all.

For much of modern academic credentialism, particularly outside the hard sciences, you could make a very plausible argument that the PhD class should have their perspectives discounted as a result of their degrees, rather than elevated.

Lest Hub readers think this an overly glib broadside against academia, I strongly encourage you to glance through this random sampling of doctoral recipients of grants from the National Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Remember, these aren’t 19-year-old undergraduates, these are for doctoral programs, the most educated of the expert class.

While I am not an expert in “Affect and Fat Feminist Futures” or “The Alternative Media Fight For Activist Visibility During The 1976 Montreal Olympics,” I feel confident in saying that these niche fields of study do not necessarily bestow a level of expertise that warrants unwavering trust in their judgement or knowledge.

Even on topics that are more germane to public life and tend to be given more credence by Canadians, an impressive-sounding credential is not a guarantor of broadly sound expert judgement.

When our families are unwell, we rightfully seek the wisdom of doctors and medical professionals. For diagnosing serious symptoms and prescribing treatments, we are fortunate to have dedicated and skilled doctors in Canada who serve our families with care and expertise.

However, when it comes to policy decisions related to public health, rather than individual medical cases, the past five years have shown that being a skilled physician does not automatically equate to expertise in public health policy.

Medical doctors worked their tails off to keep patients alive and well during the pandemic, but medical doctors also provided policy air cover for wrapping the cherry blossoms in caution tape, physically preventing children from playing pond hockey, and demanding that if you were going to sit in a park you must do so in a giant painted circle.

What’s more, the broader point illustrated by public health policy throughout the pandemic is that on any one of those policies there were experienced doctors arguing on both sides. These issues aren’t binary scientific facts like the laws of gravity, they are policy choices that involve trade-offs, contain dozens of overlapping factors and interests, and have implications that extend far beyond the field of expertise of the doctors recommending them.

One of the reasons those of us with experience inside government were so suspicious of giving complete dominion over our lives and societies to public health bureaucracies is because we knew that by and large these “experts” are merely policy advocates. Sure, they have training and experience, but that doesn’t mean their ideas and policies were written on stone tablets that emanated from the summit of the Mount of Objective Scientific Truth.

The same folks advocating during the pandemic that you could fly but not drive into our country(!?), that children couldn’t use a slide or a swingset, or that sitting in a restaurant for 90 minutes unmasked was fine as long as you wore a mask for the 14 steps to your table—these are the same people whose policy agenda in normal times focuses on restricting the use of smoking cessation products (but not cigarettes), wood-fired ovens, or the sale of sodas they deem to be too large.

This isn’t to argue that any of those policies are wrong (though they are), but merely to make the point that these are policy choices that should be hammered out and debated by politicians, who can and should be held accountable by voters. They should not be delegated to a supposed expert class of high priests.

Lest you think I’m too focused on re-litigating pandemic grievances, let’s take another example: economics. John Maynard Keynes was an expert economist. So was Milton Friedman. They disagreed about much of modern economics, monetary theory, and how government policy of all kinds should be crafted and implemented. If I agree more with Keynes and think Friedman is a radical who should be ignored or dismissed, am I a simple rube who is foolishly and dangerously waging war against “expertise”? How about vice versa?

Or how about those doctors who advocate for providing opioids to addicts to reduce the likelihood of drug overdose or other negative outcomes? Are they the real experts, or should that title sit with those doctors who oppose such practices? I have strong views on this topic, as there are strong views on the other side, and as much as slices of the academic, activist, and pundit class want to label those of us on one side or the other heretics for our positions, their appeal to authority should be viewed with deep skepticism.

There are smart and experienced people on all sides of major policy debates, and experts of all stripes inform those ideas. They often overlap, compete, contrast, and otherwise chafe against simple, non-nuanced solutions. Pick a fraught, contentious public policy and choose a side to argue from. You almost certainly have experts both for you and against you.

Political commentary is where this war on expertise becomes truly farcical. At the risk of offending many faculties and degree-holders, the truth is that political science is an oxymoron, not an objective discipline. Those who have the strongest academic credentials in this space are just as likely as your Uncle Dave to have a reasonable perspective on what the electorate is going to do, or why.

When it comes to political debates, life experience and common sense are at least as effective barometers of sound policy as your nearest poli-sci PhD, and your coffee shop chats with your colleagues and neighbours a better gauge of political sentiment than the latest opinion column you read (this one notwithstanding, of course).

We are not governed by experts in this country, nor should we yearn for that. We are governed by a broad cross-section of citizens from different backgrounds who bring the perspectives of their constituents to our legislatures and shape and pass laws on that basis. Experienced experts from relevant fields should inform our policies and legislation, but so should parents, business leaders, factory workers, and farmers. At the end of the day, it is not academics or the permanent bureaucracy who will be held accountable when policies succeed or fail, so Canadians should not, and do not, expect them to have the final word.

We are free people in this country. Free to inform ourselves and speak our minds. Free to research and advocate for policies and causes that matter to us. Perhaps we would take a little heat out of our public discourse and shed a bit more light if we grappled with ideas on their merits and educated ourselves deeply enough to do so, rather than blindly acceding to a notional expert class who attempt to claim the permanent and unwavering high ground.