David Saxon may not be a household name, but among academics of the post-Second World War generation, Saxon was something of a hero. He joined the Department of Physics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1947 as an assistant professor. Three years later, he was one of 31 professors fired for refusing to sign California’s anti-communist loyalty oath, a “sign or resign” requirement imposed on all university employees beginning in 1949.
Like other older and more distinguished professors, including psychologist Edward Tolman and historian E.H. Kantorowicz, Saxon believed the oath was inconsistent with a university’s main mission. Universities were meant to be places where people could follow the evidence wherever it might lead, not places of enforced academic and political conformity. They were meant to be places that valued independent thought and intellectual autonomy, not places whose doors were open only to those having the right political views.
Advocates tried to make the case that the oath was necessary for maintaining high academic standards. At the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, loyalty to the Communist Party was believed to be in conflict with a professor’s most important responsibility: the free pursuit of objective truth. Paradoxically, scholars were to be free to pursue objective truth only so long as they were not free to hold beliefs of their own choosing.
Ultimately, proponents of the oath were unsuccessful. Three years after the oath was introduced, it was struck down by the Supreme Court of California. The enabling legislation was declared unconstitutional in a 6-1 decision 15 years later, in 1967. The lesson drawn was that someone’s political convictions and affiliations simply were not relevant for determining whether that person was a good mathematician or historian or physicist.
Saxon didn’t hold a grudge. After being rehired by UCLA, he eventually became chairman of the Physics Department and later dean of the Faculty of Physical Sciences. In 1975, he was appointed the 14th president of the University of California system, which includes UCLA as one of its constituent campuses. As Richard Atkinson, another University of California president emeritus has written, Saxon’s lifelong professional accomplishments “reflected a powerful intellect and a passionate commitment to science and the life of the mind.” Just as importantly, his honesty, integrity and thoughtful approach to understanding universities made him, not just a talented administrator and a much-valued colleague, but someone who “represented, quite simply, the best that academic life has to offer.”
Among academics of a certain age, Saxon’s story has long been, not just a testament to personal courage but a reminder of the importance academic freedom plays in any modern university. When a university adopts a political position of any kind, this makes it harder for students to hear alternative points of view. It makes it harder for faculty to follow the evidence wherever it might lead and harder to distinguish centres of higher learning from mere programs of indoctrination. Once a precedent is set, it also opens the door for universities to take the opposite position whenever the political or cultural winds might happen to shift.
The causes may change, but the tactics endure: A ‘Red Scare’ poster from the 1950s (left) and a Defund the Police poster from 2020 (right).
With Saxon’s death in 2005 and the passing of the academic generation of which he was a part, these lessons are on the verge of being lost. Today, fewer and fewer universities care about academic freedom as they once did. Statements of political principle, hiring policies, promotion practices and oversight mechanisms of various kinds have turned many university campuses into political echo chambers, reverberating to the sound of a single partisan note.
In recent years, political and intellectual conformity within universities has become more and more entrenched. In response to the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier this year, statements of institutional political commitment have become common. At the University of British Columbia, where I teach, the Department of Anthropology announced in early June that it “stands in solidarity and hope with protesters in the United States, Canada and across the globe.”
It turns out that this statement of political commitment is not something marginal to being an anthropologist at UBC: “As anthropologists, we are committed to taking part in dismantling persistent legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, within our discipline and in the world beyond it.”
The same week, UBC’s Department of Sociology made a similar announcement, stating not just that it stands “in solidarity with Indigenous, Black, Asian, and other racialized, migrant and minority communities that have been, and continue to be, subject to ethno-racial violence in various forms,” but that “As sociologists, our task is to identify, condemn, and work towards eradicating racism through our teaching, scholarship, and advocacy.”
The list of other UBC academic and administrative units making similar statements of political commitment is a long one. It includes the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, the Department of Asian Studies, the Department of Geography, the Department of Philosophy, the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, the School of Information and the university’s Faculty Association. The entire Faculty of Science has not only announced that it “stands in solidarity with the Black community,” but also that it encouraged colleagues around the world to participate in #ShutDownSTEM, an international one-day strike intended to allow researchers, students and others working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to participate in “direct action” to eliminate racism and bring about “profound and meaningful change.”
And just in case someone might be unsure about how to turn statements of political commitment into concrete political action, in mid-June the UBC Office of Equity and Inclusion issued an online resource entitled Activating Solidarity: A Guide to Anti-Racism Work, “designed not only to educate, but to inspire action regardless of where you currently are on the spectrum of allyship and building relations and spaces of solidarity.” At the same time, UBC’s Office of Regional and International Community Engagement posted its own list of political resources, encouraging members of the university community not only to browse the titles of these resources but “to fully engage with at least one per day.”
All this, in a province whose University Act requires its tax-payer funded universities to be “non-sectarian and non-political in principle.” Apparently, an obligation to be non-political in principle (and in law) need not bring with it any such obligation in practice.
UBC of course is not unique. At the University of Calgary, the dean of Arts wrote in June that “I know that I speak for the whole Faculty of Arts when I say that we condemn anti-Black racism, and racism and prejudice in all forms.” At the same university, the dean of the Werklund School of Education wrote that, henceforth, she will ensure that her instructors will “embed the values of equity, diversity and inclusion” and that she and her colleagues will “act as allies to support and advocate for those who may have less voice and agency.”
At the University of Toronto, the president, the vice-president of human resources & equity, the Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity and the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design have all similarly crossed the line from discussing educational issues to demanding various types of political action.
In 2020, it appears that the challenge is to find a Canadian university that has not compromised its academic freedom by abandoning its political neutrality. Perhaps it is not surprising that, just as there have been calls to defund the police, the first calls to defund the universities are now beginning to be heard in both Canada and the United States.
Of course, there is nothing wrong – and a lot right – with individual members of a university investigating issues of public concern and then making public their views and findings. This is what scholars and researchers are paid to do. University administrators are also right to make it a priority to identify and eliminate systemic racism and other shortcomings within their institutions. This, too, is part of their job.
What is not helpful is when university students, instructors and administrators co-opt public institutions into becoming partisans in the broader political, religious, social and scientific disputes of their day. No less than California’s anti-communist loyalty oath, today’s institutional statements of political affiliation effectively bring with them a diminishment of academic freedom for both students and faculty alike. For those of us who want to support a political cause, no matter how noble, we make a mistake whenever we think universities are just political parties waiting to be activated.
One might want to argue that even if an institution adopts a political point of view, this need not mean that its members will be required to share this same commitment. In practice, however, it is a small step from announcing a statement of institutional political commitment to forcing this commitment on an entire university community.
At McMaster University, for example, job advertisements now announce that the university is seeking to hire “qualified candidates who share our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.” At the University of Manitoba, applicants for the position of dean in the Faculty of Education were required to show their political commitment to the Calls to Action arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. No longer is it enough for job applicants to be good teachers, researchers, scholars and administrators. Just as in California in 1949, they now need to be committed to advocating a preferred set of political beliefs.
At UBC, internal documents given to search committees show that job candidates are expected, not merely to teach in an inclusive, non-discriminatory way but to have an interest in, or an ability to teach from, “a critical pedagogical stance.” For the “unwoke” among us, teaching from a “critical pedagogical stance” is the latest terminology embraced by the progressive left to indicate that someone is committed to any of a variety of social movements that have emerged from the Marxist tradition originally known as the Frankfurt School. It is a tradition that often denies the very idea of objective knowledge and instead focuses on alleged power imbalances and the promotion of politically active universities as the key to achieving social change, hardly the kind of requirement expected from a university that is required to be “non-political in principle.”
Do today’s universities really take action to try to enforce this type of political uniformity among their members? Recent examples show that they do.
In June, Professor Kathleen Lowrey was removed from her position as associate chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta because one or more students reported they felt “unsafe” having her as an advisor. These feelings arose, not because of any action or threatened action on Lowrey’s part, but simply because they found some of her scholarly views to be objectionable. Lowrey, it appears, holds the view that human beings as a species are sexually binary. She is thus skeptical of the idea that gender fluidity triumphs over human chromosomes. Regardless of whether Lowrey is right or wrong about such matters, it is unfortunate that the University of Alberta was unable to turn this into a “teachable moment,” pointing out to its students that dealing with people with whom we disagree is a normal part of what is required of adults in an intellectually and culturally diverse society.
As the National Association of Scholars has observed, “Removing Professor Lowrey from her position is a blow to academic freedom at the University of Alberta. … The University of Alberta will not benefit either in reputation or in substance if it becomes known as a place that is hostile to intellectual freedom, and especially not if that hostility is based on the desire to avoid offending politically motivated actors.”
While Lowrey’s teaching position was protected by tenure, Lowrey herself has noted that this is cold comfort. “The university has taken the position that if you’re not specifically covered by academic freedom, you can be fired,” she told the National Post. “I think that’s terrifying, I think that’s really horrible.”
At Brock University in St Catharines, Ontario, when Professor Tomáš Hudlický, one of that university’s most prominent and accomplished chemists, dared to express his concerns about various hiring practices, Angewandte Chemie (the prestigious German chemistry journal in which he published his comments) withdrew his article. Because of his observation that equity, diversity and inclusion policies may sometimes “have influenced hiring practices to the point where a candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications,” his university publicly reprimanded him for advancing views that might be “alarming to students and others.”
As the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has observed, Professor Hudlický’s published comments discussed “what he considers to be the major drivers of change in the profession over the past 30 years. In his opinion, these include new scientific technologies, the emergence of on-line journals, the corporatization of universities, the diversity of the workforce, and the training and mentoring of new professionals.” In CAUT’s opinion, the university’s statements reprimanding Hudlický, were “a clear violation” of the university’s obligation to uphold academic freedom. “By publicly attacking Professor Hudlický, without even the courtesy of consulting with him beforehand, the University administration has failed to respect and defend his academic freedom. This threatens to have a chilling effect across the institution.” As Hudlický has concluded, “The witch hunt is on.”
At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in February, the university’s head coach in cross-country and distance track, Steve Boyd, was dismissed for engaging “in public commentaries that do not reflect the values expected by representatives of Queen’s University.” The issue turned out to involve social media comments Boyd made with regard to a sexual harassment scandal involving the University of Guelph’s former track coach, Dave Scott-Thomas. To the outside observer, Mr Boyd’s exchanges on social media appear to have been models of passionate but respectful discussions on socially significant issues. As the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has observed, “The topics Mr Boyd addressed in his remarks, including whether athletes who recruit friends into programs might be complicit in abuse, are serious topics that demand to be discussed candidly and openly.” Still, merely discussing such controversial matters was enough to have the two-time Ontario University Athletics Coach of the Year and member of the Queen’s Track & Field Hall of Fame fired.
What we lose by enforcing conformity
In all of these cases and others, many of our institutions of higher learning appear no longer to tolerate independent thought and intellectual autonomy. They no longer take it to be part of their mission to encourage students to hear from diverse political voices so they can make up their own minds about controversial issues. They no longer take it to be part of their mandate to teach students how to disagree without being disagreeable. In many colleges and universities, academic freedom is now under serious threat. In others, it effectively has been lost.
What do defenders of the politically partisan university say about this loss? Some are not troubled by reductions in academic freedom at all. Others regret the loss but see it as only temporary, in much the same way that authoritarian governments promise that restrictions on civil liberties during times of crisis will be only momentary.
Yet others argue that permanent reductions in academic freedom are essential for creating, not only a more just society but a better, more inclusive university. Just as defenders of California’s anti-communist loyalty oath believed that the free pursuit of objective truth could only be achieved by ensuring members of the university were not free to hold beliefs of their own choosing, many university administrators now favour permanent reductions in academic freedom to ensure that their own preferred political views can be voiced without ever encountering opposition.
The cost of this lack of intellectual opposition can be enormous. Unless students hear from a wide variety of voices, they leave the university knowing very little about the actual world around them. Unless our future scientists, historians and politicians are required to learn about competing views and theories, it is inevitable they will get important things wrong.
The mid-twentieth-century agricultural theories of Trofim Lysenko are a sobering case in point. During the Soviet era, Lysenko ruled as an autocrat over biological research. Among his many crackpot ideas, Lysenko claimed that plants of the same species did not compete with one another, but instead provided each other with mutual support. He also held that plants acquired new characteristics because of their surroundings. Incredibly, he even claimed that wheat could be turned into rye, depending on where it was planted.
All this fit neatly with Communist doctrine and was wholeheartedly enforced by Stalin. Scientists who offered contradictory evidence or competing theories were often secretly arrested and disappeared into the Gulag. Partly as a result of Lysenko’s unscientific claims, both Russia and China suffered terrible famines with death tolls running in the millions. Dogma can have tragic consequences.
By hindering the normal process of public conjecture and refutation, political ideology has the potential to impede scientific progress. In John Milton’s famous phrase, knowledge advances only when truth and falsehood grapple. Any university that allows university officials to make decisions about what ideas may and may not be discussed fails to understand this important lesson.
Fortunately, other better models of the university are available.
What a university can be
Like David Saxon, Jonathan Jansen is not a household name. Even so, he is a giant in the academic world. After being refused admission to South Africa’s University of Cape Town because of Apartheid, he graduated with a science degree from the University of the Western Cape. Later, he obtained graduate degrees from both Cornell University and Stanford University. Eventually he became, not just president of the South African Academy of Science but the first black rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. It was in this capacity that he helped oversee the racial integration of one of South Africa’s most famous all-white, Afrikaans-language universities – something Oprah Winfrey called “nothing short of a miracle.”
Today Jansen serves as a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University. Having played such a prominent role in beginning the healing of a post-apartheid South Africa, he is arguably now one of his country’s most internationally respected educators.
Also like Saxon, Jansen didn’t hold a grudge. When he returned to the University of Cape Town to receive an honorary degree in 2019, he made it clear that good universities require more than just racial inclusivity to succeed. They also need to be places where there is no official party line, where any topic is open to debate.
As Jansen told his audience, “A university, in essence, is a place where reason triumphs over rage. It is a place where our common humanity matters more than our racial nicknames. It is the only place where anybody and everybody can speak without the fear of being shut up. This is what makes a university different from a church or a political party or the Boy Scouts. Your membership does not depend on shared beliefs. There is no party whip to keep you in line. There is no secret oath that binds members to a common cause.”
As Jansen also explains, in South Africa as in so many other countries, this idea of a university is now under threat. “When you burn down things at a university because you’re angry, you undermine what a university is for. When you hide and conceal artworks you do not like, you threaten the idea of a university. When you tell white students and white colleagues that they cannot speak in the learning commons, you make a mockery of what a university stands for. … The idea of a university was never simply to hand students a degree after three to five years or for academics to notch up ‘research outputs’ as if this were a canning factory. No, the idea of a university was also to produce leaders who stand for something and who are prepared to stand alone.”
This bold, inclusive vision of the university requires that we always be able to hear from competing voices, that we always try to seek out and learn from alternative points of view. In helping to advance this vision, Jansen is in good company – not just with Saxon, but with other intellectual giants including the scientist Charles Darwin and the philosopher John Stuart Mill.
As Darwin writes in the introduction to On the Origin of Species, the task of advancing knowledge “can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” As Mill writes in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
The question we face thus becomes clear: Will we stand with Jansen and Saxon, Milton, Darwin and Mill? Will we stand with those who encourage us to investigate issues of our own choosing and then, after hearing from all sides, do our best to proportion belief to the available evidence?
Or will we stand with those who prefer that universities hire only those who promise to embrace and promote the political views of their employers? Will we side with those who favour reductions in academic freedom, so their own preferred political, scientific or religious views can be voiced without ever encountering opposition?
The future of our universities and our society depends in large part on how we choose to answer these questions.
Andrew Irvine is a professor in the Department of Economics, Philosophy and Political Science at UBC’s Okanagan Campus. He is a past vice-chair of the University of British Columbia’s Board of Governors and a member of the Board of Directors of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.