FRASER UNIVERSITY CONVOCATION ADDRESS
Madam Chancellor, Mr. President, distinguished guests and graduands:
I am pleased and honoured to be here today, and to be able to speak to you.
When I was about your age (many years ago), I went to McGill University in Montreal as an undergraduate, from my small hometown in Saskatchewan. Up to that point, it was the most exciting event of my life. McGill was at that time an intellectually active and stimulating place to be, with, I am proud to say, a very bad football team. I warmed to the fire of new ideas, lively discussions with fellow students and professors, and the sense of striving for excellence, which was everywhere apparent. Within the limits of common courtesy, there was no bar to what anyone might say in the heat of discussion, and even the beginning courses In Philosophy, English, Political Science, and so on were rich in argument and controversy.
I don’t recall anything sexist about that era, there was no demeaning concern about a “woman-friendly” atmosphere, no-one patronized me or other women in my classes, or made any special concessions to us as women. I was never insulted by an avoidance of topics, which nowadays might be considered sensitive. There was no Women’s Studies Programme, and no perceived need for any, since it was assumed that women, like men, had an interest in studying human beings of both sexes. I had the same opportunity and means for gaining respect from my colleagues as men had, and nothing less was expected of me. I was, in other words, an equal.
I hope that you will later look back with similar pleasure on your years at Simon Fraser, but I am also frankly concerned that the quality of university education is now being seriously threatened by considerations, which should be alien to an academic institution. I have therefore chosen today to say a few words on a topic dear to me, and, I think, important to the basic mission of every university. This topic is academic freedom. I choose this occasion, which of course is a happy one for all of you, because the torch is now being passed on to you, and the future of the university is in your hands. By alerting you to the problem, I hope you will be enabled to do something about it.
Most universities have in their mission statements, a defence of the right to academic freedom, usually a statement from the Handbook of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “Academic members of the community are entitled, regardless of prescribed doctrine, (this is very important, it means regardless of what the prevailing or popular opinion may be), to freedom in carrying out research and in publishing the results thereof, freedom of teaching and of discussion, freedom to criticize the university and the faculty association, and freedom from institutional censorship.”
Why is it felt necessary to explicitly ensure academic freedom in a university? (And note that students are included in this academic community.) Again, the Handbook makes a reasonable case: “Academic freedom and tenure exist…in order that society will have the benefit of honest judgment and independent criticism which might (otherwise) be withheld because of fear of offending a dominant social group or transient social attitude.”
Parents here today who have been to university many years ago may not be aware of the measures taken in recent years at most universities, which could significantly undermine this most essential principle. There has been an increasing tendency to become concerned with whether persons, as members of certain groups, might be “offended”. I don’t mean offended by a personally insulting remark, which of course we all agree is objectionable. I mean offended by ideas, or even by the airing of indisputable facts. Policies and tribunals aimed, for example, at eliminating sexual or racial discrimination, have been put in place, usually with the best of intentions. Very quickly, however, they have gone beyond questions of harassment or discrimination and have extended their mandate to the content of courses, the content of professors’ research, and have even attempted to dictate how adults in the academic community should converse with each other. Clearly, then, they impinge on areas where academic freedom is absolutely essential if we are to maintain the ability to search for the truth, untrammelled by prevailing social conventions.
Now I have taught at a university for over 25 years, and I hope that in that time I have offended many students; in the sense that I have suggested ideas to them that they had not entertained before and which they therefore found disturbing. George Bernard Shaw once suggested that all great truths begin as blasphemies. As a biological scientist, I elaborate in my classes, ideas founded in evolutionary biology, but which to certain religious fundamentalists might be disturbing. I do research on brain and behaviour, and the prevailing assumption here is that all behaviour is a function of the nervous system, not of an immaterial soul. Some people might find that disturbing. I also do research on how individuals differ from each other in their special intellectual talents, and in the way their brains are organized. One of the contributing factors to both of those things is the sex of the person, that is, whether male or female. Some people do find that disturbing.
The capacity to disturb and offend is by no means exclusive to science. Professors of almost any discipline will, in the course of their legitimate research and teaching functions, potentially offend. Philosophers may question the very nature of our basis of knowledge and belief, for example; a professor in Political Science might dispute assumptions we make about the advantages of democracy. Yet both would be dealing with the abstract truths and emerging ideas of their disciplines. Students may certainly argue with these ideas, they are generally encouraged to do so, but arguments must be based on reason or evidence. I see the offending of students in an intellectual sense as a positive sign that coming to university has made a difference to them. In my own classes, students may argue the issues, and they are permitted to have their say. Whether they end up agreeing with my position or not, they have at least understood it by the time they are finished the course. I consider that I am doing my job best as a professor when I have opened the door to a point of view, which has not been considered before. In the process, there may initially be some confusion and distress but I hope also, in many cases, excitement about ideas which are controversial. This is the only way to fulfil the mission of the university, which is to pursue and create knowledge, as well as to disseminate old wisdoms.
It surely would be a tragedy and a paradox if controversial or unpopular ideas could become censored by policies, which originally were intended only to protect individuals from unfair treatment or harassment; if a potential source of justice for some became a means of injustice to all. In fact if I were not a woman, and a senior professor, I might myself in these politically correct times have suffered from institutional harassment. I unfortunately know of colleagues both within and outside my own university, who have had their courses invaded by members of special interest tribunals, merely because they were socially controversial. A professor at York University has had “observers” stationed in his class on a day on which he discussed the evolution of behavioural differences between men and women. A watchdog committee has been set up at the University of Toronto to ensure that no reference is made in textbooks that could be construed as unfavourable to any minority, no matter how factual or well established such references are. These are not isolated events, but are commonplace now, at least in eastern Canada.
The graduands of today will be too young to recall the reports of invasion of university classes by fascist partisans in Europe in the 30’s, but some of the parents here today may recall such tactics. In fact, totalitarian regimes typically begin with the suppression of free speech. Can we honestly claim that there is any fundamental difference between the Communist or Fascist control of academia in the past, and the suppression of ideas, which is spreading throughout our campuses today? Intimidation against speaking freely is reprehensible, whatever label we give it, and wherever it occurs. Alan Borovoy, head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has warned, “One of the most critical dangers to freedom of speech is the existence of laws that impel us to look over our shoulders for engaging in normal democratic discourse.” Thought police have no place in a free society, much less in a university.
Infringements of free speech, of which academic freedom is a special case, generally operate out of fear. But the basic assumption of a rational society is that we can hear and discuss opposing points of view, and ultimately make intelligent choices. Surely then, we have nothing to fear from the truth? But to ensure that the truth can be told, we have to allow a wide margin of error, sometimes suffering the expression of ridiculous or even repugnant ideas, in the certainty that if thoroughly discussed, bad ideas will fall by the wayside, and good ones remain. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States perhaps phrased it best many years ago when he said that freedom of speech means freedom not only to speak the things we agree with, but “freedom for the thought we hate”. Remember that we are never called upon to defend freedom of expression for popular ideas. It is always for the right to utter unpopular ideas that we must be on guard.
My depiction of what has been happening in universities recently may sound rather negative, but I have taken the trouble to do this because I believe that the situation, although critical, can be reversed. And I believe that you can play an important part in doing so, because today you become alumni of this university, as well as citizens of the broader intellectual community. As alumni, you will be asked to contribute financially and in other ways to the maintenance of excellence at your alma mater. This gives you the opportunity to influence university policy for the better. Either as an individual, or through your alumni or other associations, you can express your concerns about the maintenance of impartial standards of excellence, and of academic freedom. University administrations do listen when money talks.
Today as you look back on the courses and professors you encountered over the past few years. I am sure there will be some that come to mind that initially outraged you, because of ideas that were new or even unacceptable to you at the time. If not now, then in the future, you may find that these were the courses that had the greatest impact on you, because you were forced to seriously rethink your values or beliefs. Whatever your ultimate conclusions, the intellectual and emotional challenge as you worked your way through, should have been invigorating and instructive. This is the kind of educational experience you would want the next generation to enjoy, that you would want your children to have; and you can, and I hope you will, do something to ensure it.