What are universities for?

April 2015

Here we go again: Riot police clashed with roughly 500 “striking” student protesters in downtown Montreal on Monday. There was tear gas. There were arrests. And student leaders vow there is much more to come unless the Quebec government abandons its austerity agenda.

The Université du Québec à Montréal in particular, while always a militant hotbed, seems of late to be going off the rails: Last month a group of professors complained that gangs of “sometimes masked commandos” had rendered the campus atmosphere intolerable with “intimidation, harassment, shoving, vandalism, looting and repeated strikes” — bursting into classrooms, shutting down classes — in name of their various radical causes.

The professors were moved to action after protesters successfully shouted down an event with the deputy minister of National Resources, political science professor Jean-Guy Prévost told the Montreal Gazette. “They came in with banners and screaming until the event had to be called off,” he said. “This is not good for the university.”

Indeed. And this culture of self-righteous lunacy is not limited only to the soi-disant “strikers.” As Judith Shulevitz observed in Sunday’s New York Times, university campuses are increasingly succumbing to the tyranny of a philosophy that believes students must be protected from unpopular opinions and speakers — not on grounds of political correctness per se but because they might be made to feel unsafe.

At Brown University, a debate on “rape culture” was challenged on grounds it might “serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” a member of the university’s sexual assault task force told Ms. Shulevitz. The university responded by staging a concurrent debate beginning from a more politically correct premise. A “safe space” for students was provided, featuring “colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music … and a video of frolicking puppies.”

In this case, at least, the debate went ahead, albeit in deference to a false perceived obligation for balance. (Healthy campuses should produce balance on their own.) At Christ Church, Oxford, of all places, last year a debate on abortion was cancelled outright amidst uproar that the two participants were men. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church,” said the student union’s treasurer.

There are myriad examples of this tendency in Canada as well, from National Postcolumnist Christie Blatchford being protested out of an appearance at the University of Waterloo, to the University of Ottawa’s toe-curling caution to Ann Coulter to mind Canada’s speech laws on campus, to any number of pro-life, men’s rights and other mal-pensant groups being harassed or denied standing outright in precisely the milieu that should be more open to free speech than any other in Western society.

There is no such thing as “mental safety” on university campuses — or if there is, then the university is failing wretchedly in its primary role. Meanwhile, on some Quebec campuses students and professors have reason to worry about their physicalsafety, should they dare insist upon a right to learn and teach even if the Bolsheviks-in-short-pants don’t like it.

The link between these two phenomena is that universities have in too many cases simply lost their nerve. In the name of hurt feelings or “security concerns,” they take the easiest way out of any sticky situation. Higher learning cannot survive such cowardice.