Diversity In Everything Except Ideas

September 2020

Now that university presidents and faculty-association officials across North America have begun issuing press releases assuring us that their institutions stand in solidarity with one political movement or another, can we expect this practice to continue? Every time there is a major political upheaval, or a financial crisis, or a war, or a major religious dispute, can we expect our tax-payer funded universities to tell us what political or economic or religious positions we should support?

The University of California’s anti-communist loyalty oath is one of the most well-known violations of academic freedom in the twentieth century. Beginning in 1949, all University of California employees, including faculty members, were required to swear an oath stating they were not members of the Communist Party.

Defenders of the requirement tried to emphasize the importance of the oath for maintaining academic freedom. Membership in the Communist Party, it was said, was in conflict with a faculty member’s most important responsibility: ensuring the free pursuit of impartial scholarship and objective truth.

Even so, the oath was struck down by the Supreme Court of California three years after it was introduced. The enabling legislation was declared unconstitutional in a 6-1 decision fifteen years after that, in 1967. Among the 31 tenured professors who were fired for refusing to take the oath was David Saxon, a UCLA physics professor who, a generation later, would become the University’s 14th President.

Today, similar concerns arise about the political commitments many North American universities now require faculty members to undertake. Some universities require job applicants to include evidence of their commitment to affirmative-action policies as part of their applications. Others require evidence of various kinds of social activism, either inside or outside the classroom. At least one Canadian university has required job applicants to give evidence of their commitment to the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action (as they apply to universities) as a condition of employment.

Including such clearly political criteria in job advertisements is effectively equivalent to imposing a political test on hiring. It is effectively equivalent to requiring a loyalty oath from both job candidates and those already appointed faculty members who are responsible for carrying out the hiring.

Those of us who doubt that such an equivalency holds should ask ourselves whether instead of requiring job applicants to have an interest in, or an ability to teach from “a critical pedagogical stance,” we would welcome a requirement for applicants to have an interest in, or an ability to teach from, “a liberal or neo-liberal pedagogical stance”? Or from “a conservative or neo-conservative pedagogical stance”?

Such requirements are incompatible with academic freedom, despite the brazen, hollow claim that, like California’s anti-communist loyalty oath, this type of political uniformity is supposed to be necessary for maintaining academic freedom.

Such requirements also make it difficult for faculty to criticize their university. Being told when you apply for a job that appointments are being given only to those who hold certain political beliefs warns people that, if they want to get promoted, they will be wise not to question other university policies as well.

These points are especially worth noting at a time when so many university administrators across North America are releasing statements in support of various political policies and movements, supposedly on behalf of their institutions.

Some public policies and practices have a direct effect on the quality and inclusiveness of a university’s teaching and research. Others are to be commended since they are essential for achieving the goal of a colour-blind university. But much more often, press releases assuring readers that a university supports one political movement or another simply undercut the ability of a university’s members – students and faculty alike – to investigate such questions for themselves.

In some cases, they are also illegal.

In British Columbia, section 66(1) of the University Act explicitly outlines the legal obligation a university has to remain silent on even the most important and far-reaching political questions. According to statute, a university, unlike its individual members, “must be non-sectarian and non-political in principle.”

This means not only that a university may not admit or evaluate students on the basis of religious or political tests. It means not just that a university may not hire or promote faculty on the basis of political or religious criteria. It means that those who speak on behalf of the university – the university’s president and other administrators – may not present the university itself as holding or advancing views of a religious or political nature.

Groups and individuals often lobby universities in the hope that a university will help them promote their preferred social, political and religious causes. And of course, students, faculty and alumni should always be free to help advance such causes if they wish to do so, provided this does not involve acting in a way that prohibits others from also expressing their preferred points of view. Universities rightly encourage their members to investigate questions of their own choosing and to make public the results of their findings.

But this freedom means very little once a president or dean or faculty association announces that a university already has a fixed view about some political issue. It means almost nothing once we install mechanisms to ensure that only people who share a common set of political beliefs will be admitted to membership in the institution.

But perhaps today’s events are so momentous that they place special obligations on universities that have not been present in the past. Perhaps issues like racial discrimination and global warming are so important that universities need to take leadership positions and to announce publicly that the university itself (rather than its individual members) now holds a particular view on such matters.

Well, no. In these cases, like any other, university administrators need to step back and let individual members of their university get to work, do their research and present their findings to the public.

Historically, loyalty oaths and religious tests have been ways of ensuring political or religious conformity within the university. Today, many universities appear to be opening themselves to charges of wanting to do the same thing, of wanting to advance diversity in everything except ideas. If so, such a practice will invariably lead to a less inclusive, rather than a more inclusive university. This, in turn, will lead to a weakening of scholarly, research and educational capacity, to the detriment of the entire country.