I joined SAFS in June 2020 after the Society sent a letter to Dean Lesley Cormack (now Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus) at the University of Alberta, asking that I be reinstated to the Undergraduate Chair position in the Department of Anthropology. Dean Cormack had dismissed me in reaction to student objections to my gender critical feminist views. My dismissal occurred in March, but my case came to wide public attention after it was written about by a colleague in English and Film Studies, Dr. Carolyn Sale, for the Centre for Free Expression blog at Ryerson University in early June, after which my dismissal received wide media attention (Barbara Kay, amongst many others) and due to which I was invited to write about my experiences in Quillette in mid-June. There have been several sequelae since June 2020 which I would like to share with the SAFS membership, as I believe they constitute additional grounds for concern about the current state of academic freedom.
First, in July 2020, I was contacted by Adam Lachacz, editor of the University of Alberta student newspaper, The Gateway, telling me he was preparing a story about a petition circulated by the University of Alberta Anthropology Undergraduate Association, and asking me for comment. This petition expressed support for the Dean for having dismissed me and charged me – in addition to “transphobic messaging in public spaces” – with “trivializing the lived experience of a Venezuelan student in her class, and denying the existence of a continuous Blackfoot cultural identity that has existed for thousands of years” (the full petition text can be found here). I responded as follows:
“As to my ‘denying the continuous existence of a Blackfoot cultural identity that has existed for thousands of years’, I urged an honors student who was using literature written about contemporary Blackfoot cultural practices to interpret archaeological data from around 1,000 years ago to be more cautious and nuanced in directly applying contemporary inferences to the past. Just as it would be inappropriate to directly infer from contemporary settlement and subsistence patterns in France the settlement practices and subsistence practices of people living on that same territory in the year 1020, it is similarly inappropriate to do so when interpreting the Indigenous Canadian past. It is vitally important not to treat Indigenous cultures ahistorically, as if they were static and unchanging across hundreds (let alone thousands) of years. This is a basic tenet of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.
“As to my ‘trivializing the lived experience of a Venezuelan student’, in this instance the student in question was writing about the experience of Venezuelan immigrants to Canada who work specifically in the oil industry, a community he characterizes as a ‘cerebral exodus’ from Venezuela and to which his family belongs. In an early draft of the thesis the student was using literature about the very recent experience of Venezuelan refugees in Brazil and Colombia and the discrimination they face there to interpret the experience of Venezuelan petroleum engineers who left Venezuela 10 or more years ago to come to work in Alberta. I pointed out that recent Venezuelan refugees in Brazil and Colombia are overwhelmingly poor and non-white and face a very different situation to that of the relatively affluent, mostly white Venezuelan immigrants to Alberta focused on in his study, though both groups undoubtedly face discrimination. Again, I urged that a more nuanced contextualization of the literature cited was necessary in the context of the thesis.”
As I awaited the Gateway article, I learned that my departmental colleague Dr. Kisha Supernant had posted the petition to her Twitter account and encouraged her Twitter followers to sign it and to circulate it widely. However, the article failed to appear. I contacted Mr. Lachacz repeatedly asking about it, eventually calling his editorial office phone number when he did not respond to emails. Finally, in late August, he wrote to let me know the piece had “fallen through”. This meant, of course, that my public response to the charges made in the petition – and also circulated by my colleague – never got any sort of public airing, even as the charges leveled against me had spread extensively over social media. I learned afterward that the new Dean of Arts, Steven Patten, had been aware of this petition but did not think it necessary to contact me to ask about the truth of the charges it contained. I only learned of its existence when Adam Lachacz contacted me for comment. Mr. Lachacz never explained why the article was spiked; he only told me “I am unable to provide you with an update regarding the article I originally reached out to you about in July. We may or may not be running it at this point. If we do decide to go ahead with it I will inform you promptly. Articles fall through all the time and it is completely normal for something we intended to publish to not happen”, although in his original contact email he had said “We are running an article on how the U of A Anthropology Undergraduates Association has started collecting signatures of students who show their support in ‘supporting LGBTQ+’ students while referencing your removal from the administrative position”. It is my view that he was discouraged by the petition organizers from running the article once he shared my response to it with them, which he would have had to quote at least in part. I also followed up in a department meeting in fall 2020 asking Dr. Supernant and the president of the University of Alberta Anthropology Undergraduate Association about to whom the petition was ultimately submitted; Dr. Supernant said she didn’t know and the undergraduate president responded via email that “there was no petition. The signatures I collected were to show support for unheard students from people within and outside of the university. Hopefully that clears up the confusion”.
Second, in June 2020, the head of the Research Ethics Office – Susan Babcock – contacted me saying that “It is the normal practice of my office to verify that ethics approval requirements have been satisfied when university researchers who conduct work involving human participants or the use of animals are the subject of news-stories.” This surprised me as I had appeared on CBC’s The National in late 2019 explaining my opposition to Confucius Institute programming in Edmonton public schools and Babcock had not been in touch at that time, but only after I became publicly known as a critic of trans ideology. I explained to Babcock that I had conducted twenty-five interviews with disability support workers in fall 2019 and winter 2020 without having gone through the human subjects review process at the University of Alberta, though I had begun each interview with an explanation of the aims of the research, an explanation of the uses to which the interview would be put, a promise of anonymity and a commitment to sharing any publications (which I had not yet begun to generate on their basis) with the interviewees. At the start of the process, Babcock said it might be possible to “reconsent” these interviews, and she asked me to submit relevant materials within two days of our first meeting over Zoom.
I did so and awaited word. In July. In August. In September. During this time, I was unable to contact my interviewees and explain to them what was happening. I followed up repeatedly over the summer; Babcock explained that a changed living situation, a much-needed vacation, and a heavy workload made arriving at a decision impossible, urging me each time to “Be Well” in closing salutations. Finally, on September 21st, Babcock wrote to me directing me to destroy all the interviews by September 30th. I wrote back pleading for reconsideration: that each interviewee be given the opportunity to confirm or withdraw participation via a new consenting process. Babcock responded on October 8th that were we to proceed in that fashion it would risk my realizing a “scholarly benefit” and asked me to confirm destruction of my materials by October 16th. I said I needed time to contact all the interviewees and explain what had happened and would destroy the materials by November 6th. Babcock initially insisted on a quicker timeline but later relented. I contacted all of the interviewees and destroyed the interviews. It is my view that this draconian decision was retaliation for my gender critical feminist views, and not justifiable on the grounds of any ethical risk to my interviewees.
Third, although my faculty association, the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA), initially launched a grievance process relating to my dismissal, in early December they contacted me to let me know that on the basis of external legal advice they had determined my grievance was likely “not viable”, though a final decision had not been reached. They said they could not share this legal advice with me unless I agreed not to share it with any third parties. I responded that I could not agree to these terms, which I considered unreasonable given that the advice was paid for with my association dues over many years and those of my colleagues over many years. The reaction of the association to this was, in my view, unsettling: they said I should consult with my “personal legal counsel” about civil action against the University. I explained that I had no “personal legal counsel” (nor am I in a financial position to acquire such), and that I objected to the stipulation of confidentiality because I wanted to be free to write about the entire experience for academic and other audiences. AASUA then responded with a message indicating it was going to pursue an additional legal opinion about my case. At the time of this writing, I have not heard back from AASUA with any final decision regarding whether or not they will pursue my grievance. In my view, my case involves a very clear violation of the collective agreement’s academic freedom protections, and I wonder whether the Association’s reluctance to treat it as such has to do with the public opprobrium directed at gender critical feminists.
I was fortunate that in the near-immediate aftermath of my March 2020 dismissal, a colleague with outstanding writing skills chose to write about my case in a public forum and that her account received wide public attention in June 2020. Professor Sale, for her part, has been subjected to vile abuse on social media for merely articulating this defense of my academic freedom. Her write-up did not ally itself with the particulars of my views.
But the backlash to that June attention has unfolded in the shadows. In July, students and a colleague circulated damaging assertions about my classroom conduct to which, I learned in August, I would be provided no platform for response. In September / October, I was obliged by a university administrator – with no possibility, at least as the process was articulated to me, of appeal – to destroy a year’s worth of research as a result of an investigation set in motion by that since-vanished June attention. In December, my faculty association indicated it would probably be dropping a case that – when wide attention was focused upon it – many observers agreed involved a clear violation of academic freedom.
Although “cancel culture” is often figured as punitive, key to its thriving is an atmosphere of impunity. I have certainly appreciated the solidarity offered to me since March 2020 by many, many people (it has been huge and heartening). But the fact remains that my situation has been made materially much worse by my having articulated heterodox views on gender identity ideology. I have not been restored to a service position of a sort that is vital to building a dossier for promotion from associate to full professor. I have been vilified on social media and not been permitted to answer scurrilous charges made regarding my pedagogy. I have been obliged to destroy a body of research. I have not had anything like the legal support I would have expected from the faculty association to which I have paid over fifteen years of dues (and to which, on various occasions, I have extended my service).
It is my belief that many of the people responsible for these sequelae have behaved unjustly toward me secure in the knowledge that their actions would not face outside scrutiny. The damage done to me thereby is more or less at an end at this point, or I hope so anyway. But seeing this ethos of impunity in action has been genuinely frightening, as is the knowledge that it remains operative going into 2021 when it will inevitably be turned on new dissenters.
- Kay, Barbara (2020) “U of A Professor Holds the Line on Free Expression” National Post, June 9th.
- Lowrey, Kathleen (2020) “From South American Anthropology to Gender-Crit Cancel Culture: My Strange Feminist Journey” Quillette, June 12th.
- Sale, Carolyn (2020) “Academic Freedom and Perceptions of Harm” Centre for Free Expression blog, June 2nd.