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Can academic freedom make space for minority groups?

As many Canadians have watched the election drama in the United States with considerable surprise, things at home have been relatively quiet. So quiet, in fact, that a small-scale protest at the University of Toronto about the use of “gender-specific pronouns” has been front page news.

Or perhaps, in light of the conservative rise south of the border, Canadian students are pushing at any door that might support a sense of inclusivity on campus. Although this debate may appear strange to those outside the university campus or in other countries, the situation raises some important questions about academic freedom, freedom of speech and human rights.

The gender-pronoun debate

Here is the controversy in short: there is a small but vocal group of undergraduate students who do not identify themselves as male or female and request that others refer to them using gender-neutral pronouns (they, them) instead of gender-specific pronouns (he, she). Award-winning psychology professor Jordan Peterson from the University of Toronto has stated, also rather vocally, that he will not use gender-neutral pronouns if asked.

As one can imagine, the responses have been many:

  • Frustration from students who feel excluded;
  • Outright hostility from those who feel the political correctness of the university has gone too far;
  • And incredulity from those who feel this debate would never have occurred “outside the leafy confines of university campuses, with their tenured professors on comfortable salaries and student agitators in search of a utopian culture”, (Kelly McParland in the National Post).

The debate, however, has definitely taken hold outside the university. Two significant events have heightened this controversy beyond a hypothetical, classroom debate.

First, the University of Toronto sent two letters to Peterson asking him not to refuse students’ requests. This was quickly labelled as an attack on academic freedom because Peterson backs up his position by saying there is little research to confirm people can be transgendered and he states this from his position as a psychology professor.

Student advocates responded citing Harvard research to the contrary, but Peterson’s supporters contend it is fundamental that professors be protected from censure when researching or communicating on controversial topics.

The second event that has heightened this controversy is a proposed amendment to the Human Rights Act in Ontario, the province in which the University of Toronto and Peterson are located. The amendment, Bill C-16, adds gender identity and gender expression to the Act prohibiting discrimination against those whose gender may be out of the norm.

Pronouns aside, in a diverse, multicultural province, where one person’s understanding of what a woman should be can be very different from their neighbour’s, this amendment is important. It has already passed the first level of government approval, but Peterson is being held up as the face of the opposition who fear a society in which they are penalised for inadvertently using the wrong pronoun to refer to their neighbours.

Academic freedom and inclusivity

Although the details of this case might raise eyebrows, it is not as unusual as one might think. In fact, it is merely the latest case in a debate that been going on for 30, some might say 50, years. At the heart of the debate is the tension between inclusivity and academic freedom.

Patrick Blessinger, in the 4 November World Blog in University World News, highlights the importance of inclusivity since World War II and suggests that: “The growing equality-equity requirements brought about by human and civil rights reforms, together with the unprecedented demand for higher education, continue to drive educational institutions to create more inclusive learning environments.”

In the field of student services, this push for more inclusive campuses is accepted, universally. Institutions go to great lengths to ensure that residences, athletic centres and washrooms make space for students who have been historically excluded from higher education. Ramps are added for those with mobility challenges or private change rooms for women.

Likewise, many professors willingly adapt their behaviour. While gender-neutral pronouns may be less widespread, no one questions the importance of correctly pronouncing the names of students from different cultures. At the centre of all these efforts is the belief that students who have been historically excluded from higher education should find a safe, welcoming space.

Yet this increase of human rights advocacy has been criticised for threatening academic freedom on several occasions over the past few decades. In Canada, some interesting cases have drawn significant attention.

Perhaps the most well-known surrounds the late J Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor whose work on race in the 1980s examined IQ and criminal behaviour. Like the current situation, Rushton’s university was stuck between defending his academic freedom and ensuring his controversial research did not pose a risk to students.

The necessary evolution of academic freedom

Too often this tension between academic freedom and inclusivity is presented as a fatal competition where one survives only if the other dies.

In this vein, the doomsday writing of psychologist Professor John Furedy likens inclusivity policy to the laws of a totalitarian regime. But while this sort of sensationalism may be appealing in its support of academic freedom, it overlooks a significant difference between inclusivity policy and other legitimate threats to academic freedom.

The difference is that inclusivity policy is often the result of student movements. And students are members of the university community. They are not big pharmaceutical companies who censor research that exposes negative side effects, they are not industry leaders attempting to hide the effects of global warming, and they are not university administrators chastising faculty for speaking out against an institution’s risky global ventures.

To paint student protests in the same light as these cases raises defences on both sides and stops any meaningful conversations about how we might expand our current definitions of academic freedom to account for inclusivity.

Indeed, students’ requests that they not be harassed for their diversity are a good deal closer to professors’ requests that they not be harassed for stating their controversial opinions than either party allows.

Perhaps it is too divergent to drag philosopher John Dewey into this debate. But simply put, he was critical of universities where academic freedom existed in its purist form, Humboldt-style, where research was fully protected but also very detached from society. Instead, he promoted research that informed society.

And while academic freedom was still essential to Dewey’s university, it had evolved from its earlier form to a place where it accounted for the closer relationship between scholars and society.

It should not be too much to suggest that understandings of academic freedom need to evolve again. What should it mean and how can it be protected in an era of student diversity and student movement, where the relationship between scholarship and society is closer than ever before and the debates on who should be included are not merely theoretical?

Beyond the controversy

Despite the hype surrounding these cases, Canada has only faced a few each decade. And while those at the centre would say this is still too many, it does mean that there are thousands of other professors across the country who somehow manage to balance inclusivity and academic freedom.

It is time to learn from these professors, to watch how they get down from their podiums and dialogue with their students. Because when academic freedom is truly under threat, students are often our best allies, bringing their numbers and energy to our cause. We need to see inclusivity and academic freedom as parallel, complementary forces that allow every voice on campus to be heard and protected from harassment.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.
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