Illiberalism on Campus

Taking on “Repressive Tolerance” at Canada’s Universities

Ian Brodie
March 6, 2021
The closing of the campus mind is proceeding apace. Today more than two-thirds of right-leaning academics across North America consider themselves caught in a hostile workplace. While several Canadian provincial governments have unveiled policies to officially protect free speech at post-secondary institutions, Ian Brodie believes that the nature of the university governance model and sheer resistance doom this top-down model to failure. A new approach is needed. Otherwise, predicts Brodie, the “progressive” left’s campaign to impose its upside-down definitions of diversity and tolerance will continue to rack up wins.
Illiberalism on Campus

Taking on “Repressive Tolerance” at Canada’s Universities

Ian Brodie
March 6, 2021
The closing of the campus mind is proceeding apace. Today more than two-thirds of right-leaning academics across North America consider themselves caught in a hostile workplace. While several Canadian provincial governments have unveiled policies to officially protect free speech at post-secondary institutions, Ian Brodie believes that the nature of the university governance model and sheer resistance doom this top-down model to failure. A new approach is needed. Otherwise, predicts Brodie, the “progressive” left’s campaign to impose its upside-down definitions of diversity and tolerance will continue to rack up wins.
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The campus free speech issue is back in the news, this time in Quebec. Last month, after a Concordia University professor apologized for quoting the offensive title of a well-known political tract during a classroom discussion, Premier François Legault promised he would take action to protect free speech rights on la belle province’s campuses. In a February 13 Facebook post, Legault claimed that “more and more people are feeling intimidated” by radical activists “trying to censor certain words.” The scope for free speech was shrinking on campus and in Quebec society, the Coalition Avenir Québec Premier warned. He also called for better protection for victims of racism and for people who are bullied when they present facts and ideas.

Legault is following in the footsteps of the Ford and Kenney governments which, over the past two years, have forced their universities and colleges to adopt new campus free speech policies. Just weeks after taking office in June 2018, the Ontario Premier declared: “Colleges and universities should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debates.” Ford ordered college and university boards of governors to adopt the University of Chicago’s “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” and to report complaints about free speech issues to the province’s independent campus watchdog, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQCO). After it took office in April 2019, Alberta’s UCP government similarly ordered that province’s institutions to adopt the Chicago principles.

These policies were a response to almost daily news stories about public events, research programs and campus groups falling victim to what has since become known as “cancel culture” in the North American culture wars. The American headlines have been horrific. In one instance, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont was injured when protesters tried to shut down a speech by author Charles Murray.

Pushing back against censorship: Quebec Premier François Legault (left) recently vowed to protect free speech on campus. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s similar declaration in 2018 invoked the University of Chicago’s 2012 Statement on Principles of Free Expression (right). (Source of left image: Canadian Press)

Canadian campuses have been more peaceful but free speech problems are well-known here as well. In 2010, American political provocateuse Ann Coulter cancelled a campus speech after a University of Ottawa vice-president warned her to watch her words. Pro-life students are often harassed by student associations and campus administrators. Professors and senior administrators have been hounded out of their jobs or come under intense pressure for expressing heterodox views on anything from race relations to climate change.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has amassed an impressive record in its court challenges to campus free speech oppression. It also compiles an annual Campus Freedom Index that gives each university a grade on its free speech policies and practices. When Ford issued his campus free speech policy, JCCF President John Carpay praised it: “It is a huge step forward for Ontario to require that universities incorporate into their own policies the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.”

Censorship turns physical: A professor at Middlebury College in Vermont (above) was injured when protesters tried to shut down a speech in 2017; that same year the University of California, Berkeley campus (below) exploded in violence ahead of a planned visit by political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

HEQCO, the Ontario watchdog, has so far issued two annual reports on the issue, and if we take them at face value, the free speech problem has virtually disappeared from the province’s campuses. Its colleges and universities mount tens of thousands of public events each year. According to the HEQCO, they have received only a handful of complaints about free speech issues, and all have been easily resolved. But is it plausible to think that Ontario is immune to North American cancel culture and campus illiberalism? Did a simple ministerial order fix the free speech problem so easily?

Of course not. The threat to campus free speech is just as big a problem as we thought when Ford issued his policy. Ontario’s pro-life students report that they are still harassed when they speak out. Toronto-based pro-life advocate Blaise Alleyne reports that he and colleagues have even been physically assaulted for their displays at Ontario campuses. Ontario academic Debra Soh says she had to abandon her university career in sex research in order to continue speaking and writing freely about issues of gender. Jordan Peterson, a well-known refugee from the constrained atmosphere of Ontario campus life, is still on leave from the University of Toronto, while Cambridge University recently rescinded Peterson’s fellowship on that campus.

The Eerie Invisibility of Free Speech Issues on Canadian Campuses

Students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario protest a planned appearance by controversial political commentator Faith Goldy in March 2018. (Source: Canadian Press)

How is it, then, that HEQCO and Ontario’s post-secondary institutions get so few free speech complaints? And why is it that, two years on, the Ford policy has had so little impact?

When a political movement has the upper hand in a society, it never sees the free speech problems it generates. The tyranny of the majority afflicts the minority. On campus, free speech problems are essentially invisible to the progressive majority. It could be a measure of what we might call “progressives’ privilege” that they find it so easy to dismiss campus free speech as a fake issue invented by right-wingers.


In reality, problems with free speech – that is to say, the limitations upon or entire absence of it – are better perceived by those in the minority. And on North American campuses, that minority might once have been conservative professors and students. But as illiberalism spreads it tentacles, free speech is becoming a problem for more and more non-conservatives, including apolitical scientists like Debra Soh.  A recently released poll by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology of 40,000 academics in numerous fields across North America found that 70 percent of respondents who self-identified as right-leaning or conservative perceived a “hostile” work environment due to their political beliefs. Remarkably, 12 percent of the survey respondents admitted to discriminating against paper submissions and promotion applications they received from conservative academics.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ latest Campus Freedom Index. A-list schools demonstrate “a clear and unequivocal commitment to free speech on campus” while those with a failing grade “have one or more speech codes that prohibit speech based on subjective criteria and they fund bodies that engage in ideological advocacy.”

Seen in this light, campus illiberalism means the Ontario approach to campus free speech falls well short. By underestimating the problem, it depends on the victims of campus oppression to report their oppression to campus authorities, and self-reporting is well-known to result in the underreporting of many problems. Any feminist legal scholar can recite the reasons that some victims of sexual assault decline to report their attacks. Victims may feel a social stigma. A victim in a close relationship with the attacker may fear terrible consequences to reporting an attack.

Hounded off campus: Neuroscientist Debra Soh.

Depending on self-reporting as the primary means to ease campus free speech problems leads to similar challenges. According to Debra Soh’s cri de couer for freer inquiry into basic science, even tenured professors feel they cannot openly report research findings on gender and gender identity. As Soh wrote in the above-linked book, The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, the closing of the gender identity clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in December 2016 showed sex researchers how easily they can lose access to labs, research opportunities and jobs if they express unfashionable views in the free-fire zone of North America’s culture wars.

The power structure on campus can make self-reporting even harder. Campus policies on diversity, inclusion and equity can easily be administered in ways that oppress free speech. When that happens, only a handful of victims will have the courage to self-report the problem. University professors have tenure and that should protect their academic freedom, but tenure didn’t help my University of Calgary colleague and friend Tom Flanagan when his admittedly crude comments on John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” and the criminalization of child pornography during a campus speech led to calls for his firing by (Conservative) federal and provincial ministers responsible for higher education funding.

So, it is no surprise to find that Ontario’s system of self-reporting has seen few complaints. When McMaster University in Hamilton recently advertised for a dozen faculty positions that are only open to candidates of a certain race, no one on campus spoke up to condemn this blatant act of discrimination. Who would?

The Profound Challenge of “Repressive Tolerance”

In developing a plausible path forward, free speech advocates must first recognize that campus illiberalism has deep philosophical roots. They are fond of citing this famous passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” (Pp 30-31.) Mill was not arguing from sheer principle but from, as he saw it, utility. The free contest of ideas serves the search for truth. Taking part in the free search for truth is essential to human dignity. Mill even argued that the freedom to spread lies gives society the benefit of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

To seek truth, or to pursue power? English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and German-born American academic Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) embody opposing sides in today’s campus debate.
 But quoting Mill as if he is the end of the debate on free speech leads to certain defeat in the contemporary campus environment. Campus illiberals reject Mill in favour of Herbert Marcuse, a leading light of the 1960s “New Left”. In his 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse took dead aim at Mill’s argument. Even Mill, Marcuse noted, recognized that liberty can only be enjoyed as a social good by those who are “in the maturity of their faculties”. Liberty is not suitable for children or barbarians. Liberty only works in societies where free citizens are “capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” And while Mill was certain that his nation had “long since” reached this point (as he wrote in pp 18-19 of On Liberty), Marcuse was not so sure. 

“The function and value of tolerance,” Marcuse argued, “depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced.” Since capitalist societies are shot through with profound inequality and the – in Marcuse’s view – widespread ignorance, propaganda and social structures needed to perpetuate inequality, Marcuse called for replacing Mill’s regime of “pure” tolerance with a “liberating tolerance” that would mean “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” That would involve withdrawing tolerance from “regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right.”

The Mill-Marcuse argument about liberty leads us to a deeper argument about the purpose of education. Is it the role of higher education to lead students through the contending arguments of our society’s traditions towards an appreciation of truth, beauty and justice? Or is the “educational enterprise” one of “counter-education”, to use Marcuse’s term, “the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions and movements”?

Put another way, is education really about pursuing knowledge, or is it just the exercise of power in pursuit of a political agenda – albeit often cloaked in wordy intellectualism? Mill’s side is humble. Free speech advocates do not assume that any one group, no matter how enlightened, can be trusted to determine what is true and what is not. Marcuse’s side is arrogant. It assumes that one side has a monopoly on truth and right but, once the radicals have cleansed society of regressive structures and opinions, they will readily give up that power to police speech, debate and thought in favour of letting a thousand flowers bloom.

Fairness is so 19th century: Marcuse advocated “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”

The North American mania for ever-newer forms of social justice has given campus administrators and many professors new reasons to adopt Marcuse’s thinking. Demands to embrace “active” anti-racism measures and the multiplicity of gender identities on campuses could threaten the power of administrators. Campus figures who feel their “privilege” is under attack by escalating demands for “systemic” change in response to “systemic” discrimination may feel they can head-off calls for their heads by following the Marcuse plan which, after all, reinforces the power of those who are empowered to police the boundaries of free speech.

Some Advice for Monsieur Legault

Marcuse’s repressive tolerance also shows us that political leaders who want to “impose” free speech on campuses are playing a losing game. After all, political careers are short and academic careers are long. A few politically appointed university governors may pretend to knuckle under to their political superiors on the campus free-speech issue, but leaving the illiberal argument of repressive tolerance unmet means the illiberals will win out as soon as the political winds shift direction. The only way for the friends of free speech to prevail on campus is by sidestepping the power game of “imposing” and taking Mill a bit more seriously.

The problems with the Ford and Kenney approaches go beyond the flaws inherent in relying on self-reporting. Believing that a government can force any post-secondary institution to change its ways by top-down edict underestimates the durability of university and college cultures in the 21st century.

Canada’s post-secondary institutions were designed to make their academic operations independent. By law, even governors appointed by provincial governments cannot overstep that limit. Threatening to cut funding unless a board of governors adopts some statement or other encourages institutions to focus on narrowly complying with the edict while continuing to resist the spirit of free speech. The top-down approach, ordering campuses to secure campus free speech, secures the strictly legal compliance from boards of governors – and little else.

How to disagree without censoring: The University of Waterloo’s faculty association created an online fundraising campaign, donating proceeds to multicultural causes.

At most Canadian universities, academic policies are entrusted to the collegial work of professors and students. A reasonably large university disperses many decisions about academic programs to dozens or even hundreds of individual departments, and these departments in turn are at least as sensitive to the normal practices of their academic field as to their board of governors. Newcomers to university boards are often shocked at how little influence they and the institution’s leaders can exert over the research and teaching done on campus.

Premiers, ministers or political staff who think that a simple directive from Queen’s Park or Quebec City’s Colline parlementaire will fix the campus free speech problem are vastly overestimating their power and misapprehending how things work in those institutions. It is foolish to pretend that a board of governors with only a thin connection to an institution’s academic policies can enforce the “Chicago Principles”, given the decentralized nature of campus decision-making, the internal political skills of legions of academic administrators and over the objections of most academics and student groups. Changing campus life requires a bit more respect for academic ways.

Although the campaign to “impose” campus free speech from above claims to be inspired by Chicago Principles, it could not be farther from it in implementation. The Chicago Principles were originally drafted through an academic process by a committee of University of Chicago professors who were well-aware of the Mill-Marcuse debate. And committee members were well-versed in their university’s longstanding commitment to free inquiry. The Chicago Principles built on a 1967 report, the Kalven Committee, which concluded amidst the Mill-Marcuse debate that:

“To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views…”

This scholarly approach to protecting scholarly freedoms works in Canada, too, and even in Quebec. In 2012, after riot police used pepper spray to end an occupation of McGill University’s Administration Building, the then-Dean of Arts, Christopher Manfredi, was asked to lead a campus-wide reflection on his university’s commitment to free expression. Manfredi’s report is just as admirable the Chicago Principles.

In a cheekier example of academic reactions to academic challenges in April 2018, the University of Waterloo’s faculty association responded to a campus event featuring what its leaders considered to be a pair of white nationalists by raising money to support Indigenous students and others. When asked to rise to the occasion, a real academic community can articulate and protect its mission. Manfredi’s report and the Waterloo fundraising campaign will not be the last words on campus free speech in Canada, nor should they be. Every generation of scholars must restate the mission of higher education if the academic world is to remain true to its purpose.

Fighting the fabricated monoculture: Diversity of opinion is essential to the university’s mission of open inquiry, genuine academic research and the search for truth.

Playing a power game against the power games of campus illiberals is pointless, and a losing strategy. Campus free speech will not flower simply because political leaders are pulling on the green shoots. Instead, perhaps governments could contribute to the campus debate by documenting the truth: that a minority of academics with minority viewpoints simply feel they cannot speak freely.

Quebec’s government, for example, could commission an independent survey of everyone associated with its university and college campuses, paying particular attention to those who likely fall outside the mainstream of campus opinion. Those surveys should also include people who have felt they needed to leave campus life to enjoy greater freedom of speech. Even if such a survey showed that a handful of scholars feel they cannot speak freely, Legault could challenge Quebec’s academic communities to confront, explain and then debate their illiberalism.

As colleges and universities everywhere expand their diversity, inclusion and equity efforts, boards of governors should insist that they start by protecting the most important type of diversity: diversity of thought, belief and viewpoint. No one is well-served by a campus that may fully reflect the physical ethnic and gender diversity of its society – but where essentially everyone espouses the same views, often without reflection.

Campus pluralism, arising from a genuine diversity of academic viewpoints, is essential to the university’s academic mission. A campus monoculture hobbles its research and teaching. When it comes to campus life, Mill set the higher standard. Friends of campus free speech can help reinforce that standard in campus debates. And as far as campus life is concerned, even Marcuse conceded that repressive tolerance has limits. A broader-scope tolerance, he wrote, “Is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; [and] it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise…” Insisting that academic communities confront that caveat to Marcuse’s argument is the beginning of rolling back campus oppression.

Ian Brodie has found a comfortable perch for his academic work at the University of Calgary.

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