Beyond questions about the essence, scope, and limitations of academic freedom, are two issues that should be considered. One is what other university policies interfere with academic freedom. The other is what consequences should pertain to individuals and groups within the university who intentionally interfere with academic freedom through attacking and attempting to harm those who are exercising their academic freedom.
Problems that arise from official university positions on substantive social matters
Presumably, academic freedom involves that ability to discuss and explore issues that fall under the purview of academic disciplines. However, if universities take official positions on particular issues about nature, society, culture, government, economy, foreign affairs, and the like, academics are constrained to limit their opinions and explorations on the basis of official university policy.
By making official policy statements about public issues, universities are saying that the topics of the policy are “settled,” “closed,” and unchallengeable. Professors who wish to explore those topics, and even enunciate positions contrary to that of the university, risk retribution from the university. We have seen many professors across North America punished by ridicule, demotion, and termination for expressing views on matters relevant to their academic fields but which were deemed unwelcome by university administrations.
If a university were to declare officially that climate change is entirely natural and that there is no climate crisis, would that not inhibit academic explorations of climate change and possible human contributions to it? If a university were to declare officially that sex and gender are entirely “socially constructed” and have no other reality, would this not inhibit studies of the biological bases of sex and gender?
Leaving aside hypothetical examples, the reality of universities over the last years is that they have made official policy statements supporting what they call “antiracism” and imposing policies of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The Canadian Government has encouraged, or, more accurately, bullied universities to adopt their program, “Dimensions: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Canada.” Failure to obey the directives of this program would lead to the loss of Government of Canada funding, for example in the Canada Research Chairs program.
Most Canadian universities, including McGill University, have adopted “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as official policy. This means that they now admit, fund, hire, and promote on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. My point here is not to argue the substantive question of whether these policies are well founded and justifiable. Rather, I want to suggest that these official policies, offering alleged solutions to presumed social, cultural, economic, and political problems, result in a chilling atmosphere to consider these basic issues academically. Academics who wish to explore these questions, and who find results contrary to official policy, put themselves in jeopardy.
Political commitments of universities are not limited to declarations. Every Canadian university has hired, at great cost, dozens of “diversity and inclusion” officers to enforce politically correct ideas and speech. While part of their job is to pander to identity groups, leading to special privileges for some and to official segregation, the other part of their job is to police any deviation from the official political position. These are political bureaucrats, exactly the same as political commissars in the Soviet Union and Communist China, and fulfill the same role. These “diversity and inclusion” officers are a direct, daily threat to academic freedom. If we want to maintain academic freedom, no “diversity and inclusion” officers should be allowed.
My conclusion is that academic freedom is constrained, at the least, and suppressed, at the worst, when universities take substantive positions on social and cultural matters.
What consequences should there be for those who attack academic freedom?
There have been many cases in Canada and beyond of students and professors being attacked for their words, ideas, evidence, and conclusions. Listings of such cases are provided by the (Canadian) Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and the (American) National Association of Scholars. As an illustration, I can report my own direct experience of such an attack.
In November 2020, eight McGill student groups—the undergraduate student union executive, undergraduate and graduate anthropology societies, and five identity student groups—published a public letter condemning my writings and demanding that McGill University punish me by revoking my emeritus status, a status earned by fifty years of service to the university and to the profession of anthropology.
Apparently, an article that I wrote about tribal and state violence in the Middle East offended some students. The letter claimed that I am a “racist” and “Islamophobe,” in spite of the fact that my article mentioned neither race nor Islam. They further objected to other articles I had written on matters of public interest, although they characterized those articles falsely. How many of the students in those eight groups actually read my articles is unknown.
The eight groups claimed that the McGill Administration must revoke my Emeritus status, so that “Muslims and People of Colour [can] feel safe.” This particular demand was complemented by a more general demand that McGill’s position in favour of academic freedom be revised so as to preclude statements of which the students might disapprove.
While the McGill Administration replied that it supported academic freedom, and that expressing a point of view was not a violation of McGill rules of conduct, there was not even a comment about the student accusations, vilification, and defamation. Students, staff, and professors are apparent free to attack others for their views. The eight student groups that attacked me had every right to disagree with the views I put forward, and had every opportunity to provide contrary arguments and contradictory evidence, which would have been an exercise of academic freedom, as would have been an exchange of views. But, instead, they went from objection to ad hominin attack and demand for punishment.
False accusations of sexual assault, at least in some cases, have led to lawsuits and massive fines, and also to criminal charges and jail sentences. There may, therefore, be consequences for false accusations of sexual violence. In contrast, false accusations of “racism,” “sexism,” “Islamophobia,” “transphobia,” and other offenses favoured by “social justice” warriors tend to be accepted at face value, and accusers face no consequences for the unjust damage that they cause. Make no mistake: despite snowflake claims of being “unsafe,” accusers are identity activists and identity warriors, making war on anyone not surrendering to their narratives.
“Social justice” identity warriors are fierce enemies of academic freedom. And there is no inhibition to their terrorizing the academic world, because there are no consequences for their actions. If academic freedom is to be supported, there must be serious consequences for attacks on academic freedom. False accusers and academic witch hunters, whether students, staff, or professors, must be subject to a code of discipline which encourages academic exchange and punishes ad hominin attacks and demands for cancellation.