ACADEMIC FREEDOM PUT AT RISK
p. A5 Repr. as “Academic
Black Eye”, Kitchener
“By identifying harassment and
with that which simply causes offense we inevitably reduce what were
serious allegations to trivial matters of subjective preference.”
student admissions to the graduate programs in the Department of
Science at the University of British
temporarily frozen. The basis of this action was a report written
by Joan McEwen charging the Department with widespread, systemic sexism
disquieting aspects to this affair. Not the least of these is that
of discrimination and harassment are always serious, and that
reputations and aspirations, of professors and students alike, hang in
is the abandonment of due process on the part of the UBC
the now common practice of identifying harassment and discrimination
virtually any comment or action which causes people to be offended. By
abandoning due process we begin the dangerous slide towards the view
it takes to prove an offense is to make an allegation. And by confusing
allegation with evidence we abandon a cornerstone of natural justice.
harassment and discrimination with that which simply causes offense we
inevitably reduce what were once serious allegations to trivial matters
subjective preference. And by giving these preferences such prominence,
advocates of reform inevitably do their cause a significant disservice.
the student who was offended by the professor who asked her what she
do with her degree when she completed it, or to the incoming student
offended by the professor who commented upon her age, the typical
inclined to reply, “If that’s all there is to harassment, who cares?”
one’s political coinage in this way is never good strategy.
that the UBC administration has taken unjustified punitive action
entire Department—consisting of faculty and students alike—rather than
only those individuals whose alleged actions might require genuine
Rather than attempting to determine individual culpability, the
has been content to take the easy way out. In doing so it has
unjustifiably harmed the reputation of, what was until recently, a
perhaps the most
discouraging aspect of this entire episode is the chilling effect that
bound to have on academic freedom all across Canada. By
identifying discrimination and harassment with comments or actions
cause subjective offense—rather than with comments and actions which
significant differences in treatment, disadvantage or harm—the McEwen
the door to the worst kinds of disciplinary abuses.
that someone is offended because only 20% of a Department’s faculty
women constitute a good reason for implementing a program of reverse
discrimination? Does the mere fact that someone is offended because a
and a student, two consenting adults, might be having an affair,
good reason for disciplinary action?
philosopher and famous defender of liberty, John Stuart Mill, advocated
tolerance in society for individuals to be able to practice what he
“experiments in living”, or what we today might call “alternative
What this means in practice is that we often have to tolerate comments
actions which may offend, but that fail to cause harm.
contrast, if all
it takes for an individual professor or for an entire Department to be
guilty of harassment or discrimination is that some person or persons
offended, then freedom of speech is inevitably threatened. After all,
McEwen report shows, almost any comment in any context might be viewed
someone to be offensive. And because offense is necessarily a
matter, there will be no end to the number of unjustified allegations
harassment and discrimination under such circumstances. Like issues of
generally, the much discussed “ideally positive teaching environment”
is not a
matter appropriate for legislation.
this, it has
been this type of reasoning that infects the mind-set of many
harassment offices across the country. At a number of universities the
situation has degenerated to such an extent that professors often feel
they have much less academic freedom today than they once enjoyed. They
are able to exercise much less freedom of speech than the newspaper
and editorialists who now comment upon their plight, or than the
writers of a
typical episode of the television show Roseanne.
which comments may or may not cause offense takes on major proportions
minds of many university instructors.
someone such as
myself who stands up nine times a week to lecture to between 100 and
undergraduates, this issue becomes crucial. Of those several hundred
how many might take offense at the fact that some article or book is
not) included on a required reading list? Of the many students whose
exams I grade, how many may become offended by the fact that I haven’t
their views about abortion (either pro or con), or about Naziism
(either pro or
con), or about why the earth is flat (either pro or con) as seriously
might have hoped?
This is not some idle concern. In a
philosophy course that discusses the merits of abortion on demand or
or religious fundamentalism, some people will inevitably take offense
material under discussion, no matter how carefully or sensitively it is
presented. The same will be true in an English course where the reading
includes authors ranging from Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut. It will
true in a psychology course that discusses differences between the
such courses, contrary opinions are not occasional occurrences, they
norm and the fact that some people will find some remarks or writings
topics offensive is inevitable. Trying to decide whether such offense
well-founded soon becomes a fool’s game.
identifying discrimination and harassment with actions or comments that
subjective offense are thus perfectly predictable. Some university
will modify their course curricula to avoid possibly offensive topics.
will simply stop teaching certain courses, opting instead for less
end, it will
not simply be the professors and students who suffer from such
but society as a whole.
teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University
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