Are campus free speech and inclusion incompatible?

After almost two years of controversy, Canadian universities are still simmering in the debate between free speech and inclusivity. Is academic freedom a platform to share any controversial ideas that come to light or must professors cushion their opinions to make class a safer place for diverse students?

Throughout 2017 several campus events across Canada brought these issues to the boiling point. In the summer, student groups took a stand against celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, decrying the history of colonial occupation. The autumn saw more fallout from the controversial Professor Jordan Peterson.

Perhaps the most interesting case was that of a teaching assistant who showed a controversial videoclip in which two professors on a talk show debate the use of gender-neutral pronouns and the rights of transgendered individuals.

The class got heated, the university reprimanded the teaching assistant, the teaching assistant recorded the meeting and released it online. The situation left most parties involved feeling alienated and at war with one other. The situation is worth a read.

As situations like this unfolded, a number of academics have tried to clarify exactly what is going on. Who should have a voice? Who should be protected? And what values need to be upheld to ensure the university fulfils its purpose?

Four perspectives worth considering

As the fires from the autumn were still blazing, the traditional perspective on academic freedom was heard from James Turk at Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression.

In a recent presentation at the University of Toronto, Turk focused on the importance of hearing all voices, even the ones we do not like, because free expression is at the centre of social democracy. Turk decried any form of policing since any regulations that are enshrined may be used to silence the marginalised should a less sympathetic leader take up power.

Turk’s talk was met with resistance by a number of faculty, particularly those from minority groups who have been historically unrepresented in the academy.

Rinaldo Walcott, from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said it best: “The languages of academic freedom and free speech, in the context of the university, have often provided pathways for straight white men to say really harmful and hurtful things.” (Watch the full discussion on The Agenda).

Walcott and his colleagues view this latest outcry over academic freedom as a battle for control of the university, waged by those who have historically held power.

Other faculty members frame this debate as a crisis of pedagogy, stating it is no longer acceptable to have lofty professors lecturing from a podium on controversial topics with little discussion or consideration of students’ views.

Rather than attempt to shock students with edgy subjects, controversies should be well presented and thoughtfully introduced in class. Ideally this would take place in classroom environments where students have developed a sense of community and are willing to respectfully listen to diverse opinions.

Although the tension at some universities makes these issues feel like a no-win situation, a hopeful outcome is possible. As I have argued before, not all professors struggle to balance academic freedom and diversity. In fact, the majority are not embroiled in controversies over whose freedom is paramount.

These faculty reflect the values for which Dr Sigal Ben-Porath of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) advocates: a healthy university is one that offers safe spaces of inquiry to all its members. Ben-Porath is chair of their committee on open expression at UPenn in the United States. She argues for a strengthening of both academic freedom and inclusion, reminding us that both are at the centre of the university’s mission.

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. On Thursday 5 April 2018 Dr Sigal Ben-Porath will give the 2018 Worldviews Lecture at the University of Toronto. This event is sponsored by University World News and is free to attend – both online or in person. Register here: