Affirm the Statement of Academic Freedom at McGill

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On November 30th, several student organizations at McGill University published an open letter asserting that the school is “built on a history of oppression,” and that it owes its existence to “the labour of enslaved and marginalized peoples.”

The signatories further claim that McGill’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom serves to perpetuate “acts of rhetorical violence against marginalized communities,” facilitate “racist, sexist, and transphobic speech,” and threaten the “safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour.” This situation will persist, the authors argue, until McGill overhauls its Statement of Academic Freedom in a way that allows the university to sanction those with unpopular viewpoints.

Such rhetoric—insisting that academic freedom is in zero-sum conflict with the wellbeing of minorities—puts McGill in an apparent double-bind: Forfeit McGill’s commitment to academic freedom and sacrifice research excellence, or uphold McGill’s commitment to academic freedom and be complicit in perpetuating systemic oppression.

In your October 26th letter, you referred to the “tension between academic freedom on one hand, and equity and inclusiveness on the other.” We would urge you to rethink this premise. Fairness and justice are the bedrock values upon which policies that promote equity and inclusiveness must be based. But determining what is fair and just is impossible without developing an accurate understanding of the world—which, in turn, requires that thinkers be afforded the freedom to speak their minds, follow their ideas wherever they lead, and express their conclusions to both fellow scholars and the broad public.

The other objection to circumscribing the speech rights of students and faculty at McGill is the perennial objection to curtailing free speech: Who decides? In this case, it would be the university authorities. The signatories of the open letter believe this is the best way to protect marginalized communities and people of colour against “rhetorical violence” and “discriminatory dialogue”. But it is surely naive of them to believe that the politics of the university authorities will always align with theirs—and you have a responsibility to point this out to them. As Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the ACLU, says: “Speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.”

The November 30th open letter called specifically for Emeritus Professor Philip Carl Salzman to be stripped of his Emeritus title, on the basis that several of his articles contained comments that some perceived as distasteful and offensive, including his views on sensitive topics such as immigration, social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A university cannot allow emotional appeals to replace scholarly debate. If students are permitted to censure scholars or banish their ideas because the mere utterance of certain points of view causes some students to feel “oppressed” or causes them psychic pain, then it will not be long before all arguments are settled by recourse to this kind of emotional appeal. Furthermore, once the principle of academic free speech has been abandoned, students will not be able to rely on the university’s commitment to protect free speech if the political wind shifts and their views fall out of fashion.

As you know, it is the speech of marginalized groups, of dissenters, and of those espousing unpopular beliefs that has historically been curtailed; a commitment to free speech protects minority opinions and allows for the kind of open debate and protest necessary for progressive change.

The open letter, and your response to it, go to the larger question of why universities exist at all. Embedded in stone on the exterior of McGill’s Redpath Library, one may find Milton’s exhortation to behold “the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” But why bother with the hard work of truth-seeking and study, students will reasonably ask, if the search for truth can be stymied by hectoring and claims to victimhood?

The signatories should be encouraged to respond directly to Prof Salzman’s claims by deploying evidence, logic and persuasion—not by seeking his silencing. We urge you to defend Professor Salzman, without qualification, and to ensure that he will not be stripped of academic titles, nor of the privileges and distinctions that attach thereto. In this regard, you may choose to inspect the statement issued recently by University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, following efforts by a group of academics at that university to censure and humiliate one of their colleagues.

No reasonable and informed observer would interpret your decision to uphold academic freedom as tantamount to an endorsement of Professor Salzman’s views. McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom reflects the idea—long taken for granted in liberal societies, but now under threat—that one need not agree with a person to defend that person’s right to speak freely. It is an approach rooted in the Enlightenment, when reason and science replaced religious dogma and authoritarian fiat as our primary means of establishing truth. Surely a McGill Vice-Chancellor should not have difficulty determining which of these two incompatible paths best serves her university’s purpose.

Given that political tensions and polarization is at an all-time high, it is especially important to resist such demands to curb academic freedom, as freedoms lost are rarely regained.