Institutional Neutrality: Do not block the way of inquiry!

January 2023

Universities are supposed to be institutions of inquiry. My university’s enabling legislation declares its object to be “the pursuit of learning”. Were universities to impede inquiry they would betray their object. As philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce admonished: “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Now, more than ever, we need Peirce’s words “inscribed on every wall” of university offices.

By now, readers are aware of the ideological cancer, critical social justice (aka woke), that has infected universities. During the pandemic, it was administrators, not faculty or students, who pushed woke ideas at universities. Their political proselytization is blocking the way of inquiry and it is time for university stakeholders to intervene.

Let me share a few examples from my university, Wilfrid Laurier, then explain why this is a problem and close with some solutions.

One early example occurred when Lindsay Shepherd’s free speech group invited Professor Frances Widdowson to speak about indigenization and academic freedom. In response, the senior advisor of Laurier Indigenous Initiatives organized a competing event scheduled to conflict with Widdowson’s talk. When interviewed, the senior advisor asked: “What does freedom of speech even mean?”

In the winter, the office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organized a seminar series. At one, the host and main speaker were both employees in the Office of Human Rights and Conflict Management (OHRCM)—a seminar organized by one office featuring speakers from another.

Here are the host’s opening comments:

“We must first ground ourselves in the understanding that colonialism shapes and impacts all aspects of the ways we enact change and how power imbalances and oppression is acted out. It is important to always incorporate this into our critical analysis. We are here as a result of blood that has been shed by colonization, and we must recognize and look to the efforts of those who came 7 generations before us.”

By ‘critical’ the speaker means critical theory—in particular, post-colonial theory. The phrase “seven generations” refers to an indigenous creed. The host expects an intellectually homogeneous audience and so feels comfortable opening with a jargon salad. The statement resembles a prayer. But a prayer would violate the Wilfrid Laurier Act (s.6) which forbids that “any religious observance” be imposed on faculty or staff. More problematically, the opening statement blocks the way of inquiry; it telegraphs that one may not argue the merits of colonization.

In March, Laurier’s administration celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD). The Advancement office organized a keynote address by Laurier’s President. The OHRCM organized an Instagram campaign featuring women and non-binary people. (Queers can’t let women have a day.) The Laurier Centre for Women in Science moderated a panel discussion.

This a problem because celebrating IWD is a political act that emanates from a critical theory. It is about recognizing women as oppressed in the patriarchal system. How do we know it’s political? Because Laurier doesn’t celebrate men’s day.

It is wrong for a secular university to celebrate specific identity groups. The celebration holds the targeted group as sacred, which blocks critical inquiry. For example, would a student feel free to question mandatory hijabs for Iranian women when the university celebrates Islamic Heritage month?

Last winter, Laurier announced that it would celebrate the first day of Spring with a performance by professional drag artists. The event was planned by Laurier’s Campus Experience Coordinator. As one Queer theory article explains: “drag … should be understood not only as a commercial performance but as a political event in which identity is used to contest conventional thinking about gender and sexuality” (Rupp and Taylor 2003).

Again we see a university administrator organizing a political event which emanates from a critical theory.

As a final example, consider the recently announced non-credit course called “Writing with Inclusive Language”. The course was designed by multiple administrators from Writing Services, the OHRCM (again), the Accessible Learning Centre and the office of EDI.

The course description says: “…language can shape the way we perceive reality,” which blatantly reveals the course’s postmodern foundation. More than Derrida, this evokes Orwell: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

These university-led initiatives are a problem because they impede the process of knowledge creation, infringe on academic freedom and besmirch the university’s neutrality.

The adoption of a position (or world view), at an institutional level, can only serve to block inquiry. The imprimatur of the university creates the impression of absolute assertion—that the idea cannot be questioned because everyone at the university agrees with it.

The scientific method is disconfirmation: hypotheses are true only until disproven. Silencing dissent stops disconfirmation from happening and thus thwarts the search for truth. It is hard to imagine something more damaging to a university’s function.

Promoting political positions interferes with the academic freedom of students and faculty to pursue their own inquiry into these issues. They tip the scales of discourse in favour of the university-approved position and so intimidate dissenting voices into silence. Students who do not support ideas like post-colonial guilt or systemic racism or campus indigenization or gender theory might expect that the University will not tolerate their dissent, and many students will no doubt hesitate to raise certain topics in the classroom or corridor or to defend their beliefs for fear of being punished or ostracized.

These political statements and events also violate the principle that public institutions of education be non-partisan in politics and take no specific stands on the issues of the day. This principle respects the fact that public institutions are funded by taxpayers of diverse political views for the common good.

Why are administrators doing this? Disrupting the university in its pursuit of truth is the goal of the critical social justice movement. Delgado and Stefancic say it in their critical race theory primer, but this applies to all critical theories: “critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. … Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It not only tries to understand our social situation, but to change it.…”

What do we do about it? First, we must create new universities, like the University of Austin, committed to classical liberal principles. For existing universities, stakeholders (i.e., alumni, boards of governors, government education departments) must insist that administrators remain silent on all contentious issues. For public universities, this might require directives with financial penalties. What this means for university administrations is: no statements or initiatives that celebrate identities, raise awareness, decry wrong-doing, protest injustice, right inequities, or signal virtue in any other manner. It means no seminars or guest speakers invited by the administration. As the University of Chicago’s Kalven report put it: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” The job of university administrators is to oversee the operations of the university, which means keeping the lights on and the wifi system working.