Review Of Peter MacKinnon, University Commons Divided

September 2018

Canadian university administrators weigh into internecine free speech and academic freedom battles only in response to political pressure. When forced, they invoke platitudes about embracing academic freedom along with prizing respect, diversity, and inclusion, expressing these sentiments with obtuse prose and policy decisions that invariably bow to illiberal forces. Wilfred Laurier’s Deborah MacLatchey provides an example of such bafflegab with her recent call in The Globe and Mail for “better” free speech. In an earlier incarnation MacLatchey was an accomplished scholar and one supposes that she understands what a university is meant to be. One wonders, therefore, what she and similarly accomplished administrators really think below the political façade?

In University Commons Divided, Peter MacKinnon, legal scholar and president emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, shines light on this question from a sample of one. In this brief read, MacKinnon tackles most major campus controversies of the last five years across seven chapters, leaving the impression that the themes were built around incidents rather than the other way around. Although not especially engaging, the prose is clear and free of academic jargon.

MacKinnon sets his arguments on the foundation of several demarcations. First, he argues that the academy should be characterized by difference (which it is not) and not division (which it is). Second, and expectedly, he provides his interpretation of the difference between free speech and academic freedom, contending that university professors enjoy more freedom from the latter than the former. Perhaps most important here is his contention that there is little agreement about what these principles mean and that this presents a fundamental obstacle to bridging the divide.

Another demarcation differentiates the quest for justice (a proper goal of universities) from the pursuit of social justice (a wrongheaded effort). One intuits that he intends to distinguish politically-based academic agendas from the pursuit of truth as a real basis for justice. His argument here appears in Chapter 6, “Making the World a Better Place,” where he also addresses the question of Indigenization. Although he supports the initiative in some regards, he is also clearly, albeit carefully, critical of other aspects, especially regarding calls to make actions compulsory. His distinction between the two types of justice seems to be an important one and not only for the Indigenization question. Unfortunately, if he really wanted readers to engage his argument he would have needed to lay it out in greater detail, clarity, and forthrightness.

MacKinnon’s remaining demarcation is most likely to generate disagreement with those who value academic freedom. While he extends the professoriate considerable freedom in teaching and research, he does not believe that this freedom extends to matters of university governance. To make his point, he devotes an entire chapter to Root Gorelick’s critical blogging about Carleton’s Board of Governors. Here, he suggests that Gorelick’s responsibility to the collective and to smooth governance takes precedence over academic freedom. His argument about Gorelick’s disruptive activities might gain traction with readers but only if they fail to consider that Gorelick’s actions largely took place outside of Board meetings. Had the Board not wished to spend precious time addressing the matter, members could have simply opted not to.

In another professoriate-governance conflict, MacKinnon’s opening chapter addresses Jennifer Berdahl’s claim that her academic freedom was curtailed by UBC Board of Governors’ Chair John Montalbano. MacKinnon has no sympathy whatsoever for Berdahl’s cause, not because of university governance exceptionality but because he considers it not a matter of academic freedom in the first place. His position here best fits within “the freedom to criticize is not accompanied by freedom from criticism” argument.

The clearest position that MacKinnon stakes out is against the tyranny of the social justice mob. In a related vein, faculty associations and student unions do not escape criticism insofar as they selectively wave the freedom flag when it suits political sensibilities while tolerating or even encouraging censorship when it does not. The bias of student unions and militant students are demonstrated with the Israel-Palestine focused conflicts at Concordia and the University of Ottawa and by efforts to purge pro-life activists at the University of Calgary.

Given these principles, it is easy to predict where MacKinnon comes down on other controversies. So, for example, he defends the academic freedom of Jordan Peterson, Laurentian’s Michael Persinger, and McGill’s Andrew Potter, though perhaps more tepidly than one might hope. He fully supports the right to host controversial speakers on campus (e.g., Ann Coulter, Marie Henein) and would take concrete actions to ensure that the de-platformers don’t get their way. Furthermore, he has little to no sympathy for calls against cultural appropriation or for safe spaces.

MacKinnon takes on two more controversies less obviously linked to academic freedom. Chapter 2 is devoted to the Dalhousie Dentistry School Facebook scandal where MacKinnon decries the rush to judgment made by those demanding that the male students be expelled and the less than balanced response of the local media. Here his argument is for a fair, measured, and proportionate response; he offers praise to President Florizone for not caving in to the mob and deems the restorative justice option employed as reasonable. In Chapter 5 he tackles the Trinity Western Law School controversy; his ultimate position on this matter is less interesting than his considered arguments aided by his legal expertise. He neatly extends his arguments here to burning questions about whether universities that fail to protect free expression should be defunded.

MacKinnon is not likely to find much favour with either side of the divide with this book. Some of us on the “freedom” side will undoubtedly fault him for imposing limitations on academic freedom and see, in his arguments, too much acquiescence to censors and controlling administrators. However, it is likely that even those positions viewed as disagreeable will be considered matters for collegial debate. By comparison, it is unlikely that those firmly stuck in the social justice camp will have anything charitable to say about this book.

One thing is certain. Were MacKinnon’s beliefs put into action, the Canadian university would take a significant step back from where it is presently situated on the precipice of irreversible illiberalism. To the extent we can extrapolate from this single case, other university administrators may also hold more liberal views than their public actions suggest. At the same time, the reality that MacKinnon is retired is inescapable, making questions about the actual views of administrators of little value beyond the context of a parlour game. Even if more administrators than we might suspect value the true purpose of the university, without the courage of their convictions their private views are of little value to the future of the university.