It’s summertime, and senior high school students across Canada are now sorting through their university acceptance letters, deciding which institution will earn their loyalty (as well as access to their parents’ wallet) over the next four years. For most students, this decision will be based on factors such as career goals, campus tours, school reputations and recommendations from friends and family.
Students with a conservative worldview, however, must weigh an additional set of considerations. These students – perhaps they’ve been raised in a traditional religious family, or maybe they just reject a leftist conception of society – must also ask themselves: “To what extent will administration, faculty, and other students make my life a living hell if they discover I hold conservative beliefs and values?” This is not a flippant remark, but an observation based on solid empirical evidence and ample personal experience.
Anti-Conservative Campus Crusade
Research as well as reams of anecdotal evidence show that conservatives on North American university campuses, students as well as faculty, are likely to experience hostility and discrimination. Conservative Christians are the single greatest target. A 2015 study in the top-ranked journal Sociology of Religion surveyed university professors across North America about their feelings toward different faith groups. Of all faith groups, conservative Christians were the most disliked by professors. A majority of those who answered the survey expressed outright hostility toward this group, viewing them as “intolerant and unscientific enemies to be openly opposed.”
An unwelcome minority: Most North American university professors express dislike and outright hostility towards conservative Christians on campus, according to research in the academic journal Sociology of Religion.
As a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford, Ontario campus for the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed what happens when liberal professors deem their conservative students an “enemy to be openly opposed.” My public writing and presentations in support of conservative ideas often lead like-minded students to reach out to me. Many are Christians, although not all. Before Covid-19, it was common for me to have students sobbing in my office. Now I hear their stories via email. Many who write have never taken one of my courses; some don’t even attend Laurier. But their stories are always similar.
Typically, a professor will have brought up a social issue in class. Sometimes it relates to the course content but most times the issue is tangential to the pedagogical topic. The instructor is taking advantage of a captive audience to assert a personal conviction. The conviction, or claim, will include a contemptuous condemnation of one of the university’s approved scapegoats: white people, heterosexuals, men, Christians or Western society.
If a student falls into one or more of the groups approved for derision, they can either take the abuse in silence or speak up and become a target. Regarding option two, once a student is identified as a heretic, their grades may suddenly and mysteriously decline.
Research by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands shows that approximately one-quarter of North American social science professors who self-define as left-leaning – and in their study about 94 percent of all professors did so – openly admit that they would discriminate in hiring or granting research funds to a colleague they deemed a conservative. If professors are willing to sabotage an “equal” – and even to admit to such a willingness – it seems more than merely plausible to assume they’d be equally willing to sabotage a subordinate. Since the publication of Inbar and Lammers’ research, other studies have had similar findings.
The most recent and thorough scholarly proof of the discrimination that conservative faculty and students face on campus was published this March. Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination and Self-Censorship was conducted for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology by social scientist Eric Kaufmann of the University of London using data gathered from campuses across the U.S., the UK and Canada. Like Inbar and Lammers, Kaufmann found that social science and humanities professors are overwhelmingly left-wing: about three-quarters identify as such. Just 4 percent identified as conservative. Kaufman observed that this massive over-representation of left-wing views has led to pervasive, structural discrimination against conservative views. Sixty percent of conservative professors reported hostility towards their beliefs from faculty colleagues; just 9 percent of liberal faculty felt this way.
This prejudiced atmosphere has proved intolerable to many conservatives, Kaufmann found, accentuating the left-right imbalance on campuses. Conservative professors often deal with the situation by opting for early retirement. Many high-achieving conservative students, meanwhile, are avoiding academia as a career. This two-column exodus allows liberal intolerance to continue with ever-less resistance. It also means the few conservative undergrads who remain are less able to find like-minded mentors to offer support.
Kaufmann also found younger academics to be significantly more authoritarian than their older colleagues. Among American and Canadian professors under 40, the share who would support a campaign to fire a conservative colleague for espousing beliefs they personally found offensive ranged from one-third to half. The next generation of university leaders apparently believes that academic freedom, freedom of expression and open debate are tools of oppression when exercised by conservatives.
What most regular Canadians – that is, Canadians who haven’t had their common sense purged by taking a degree in the humanities or social sciences in the current climate – will find especially shocking is that the ideas now considered heretical were until recently regarded as rather mainstream. Not convinced? Consider that answering “Yes” to any of the following questions is likely to get you into a lot of trouble at university today:
- Do you think that merit and competency should be the dominant factors deciding who qualifies for a job or academic program?
- Do you think that discrimination based on skin colour is wrong and that no race, not even whites, should face such bigotry?
- Do you think that cultural values and practices exist on a hierarchy and that those typically practiced in the Western world are best?
- Do you think that personal choices and not systemic oppression or institutional racism provide the best explanation for the differences in outcomes between various individuals and groups in Canada today?
- Do you think that biological differences, not just social conditioning, play a significant role in the way men and women think and act?
- Do you think that people born as biological men who transition to live as females have a significant physical advantage when it comes to participating in women’s sports?
- Do you think that the 4,000 percent increase in the last 10 years of teens claiming to have been “born in the wrong body” and wanting to transition may be due to psychological factors (similar to the social contagion that spread bulimia) and not solely physiological factors?
- Do you think that biological women housed in female prisons or a women’s shelters should be free to request that someone born a biological man – but now identifying as a woman – not be housed with them?
- Do you think that every Canadian should be free to express “politically incorrect” yet lawful ideas in a spirit of honest inquiry without fear of censorship or punishment?
Depressingly, ample real-life evidence reveals the risks entailed in expressing conservative views such as these on campuses in Canada, for both faculty and students.
Dr. David Lesbarrères lost his position as Chair of Graduate Studies at Laurentian University when, in response to racist comments about white students, he said on his personal Twitter account that all racism is wrong and that “all lives matter.” Medical student Rafael Zaki at the University of Manitoba was expelled from medical school for challenging the facilitator of a campus diversity and equity presentation about her claims and her lack of evidence.
Journalism student Jonathan Bradley lost his job on the Ryerson University student paper because he promoted his own legally-held conservative beliefs and values on his private social media feeds and in articles published on right-wing news outlets. Dr. Rima Azar, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Mount Alison University, an immigrant and person of colour herself, was suspended without pay for essays she’d written on her personal webpage arguing that Canada is not a systemically racist country.
The list goes on. University of Ottawa student Nikolay Stanchulov was disciplined for saying on social media that his university should only be using merit and competency, not skin colour, as hiring criteria. Dr. Kathleen Lowrey, Associate Chair of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, was forced from her administrative position for her views that being a woman is contingent on being born biologically female, not on having feminine-type feelings.
Dr. Tomas Hudlicky, research chair in chemistry at Brock University, was “excommunicated” from future academic conferences and panels, and was disavowed and threatened by his university’s administration, for comments he made in a peer-reviewed article in the respected German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie observing that the discipline of chemistry may suffer if professors are promoted due to affirmative action quotas rather than merit. Liberal academic activists also forced the journal to “unpublish” the offending article, ensuring no one else could see Hudlicky’s arguments.
Taking a Stand
As I mentioned earlier, my conservative identity is well-known at Laurier. My advocacy for freedom of thought and expression has often put me at odds with others on campus. Alongside Will McNally, a like-minded professor in Laurier’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, I have openly challenged numerous actions and claims made by our ideologically-intolerant colleagues and administrators. This includes speaking out against cancellation of speakers on campus and pushing back when student mobs have attacked conservative student clubs.
We also supported Lindsay Shepherd when a number of faculty members made false claims against this brave graduate student and the university’s administration stayed silent. When in the wake of the Shepherd controversy the administration instituted a security fee policy as a backdoor move to prevent conservative speakers from appearing on campus, we launched a complaint with the provincial government. Conversely, when they sanctioned left-wing politicization of Laurier’s classrooms we exposed it.
In June 2020 we wrote a public letter that garnered national and international media attention for contesting our school administration’s public claim that our campus is rife with “systemic racism.” The university statement, written by Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy, was issued in response to the death in Minnesota a month earlier of George Floyd. We noted that a claim of systemic racism requires strong evidence, which was absent in MacLatchy’s statement.
We also questioned her support for placing restrictions on free expression. In her statement she referenced examples that she held up for emulation. This included suggestions that classroom content should be censored if minority students perceived the content to be oppressive or invalidating of their lived experience. We pointed out that under such an approach a professor presenting peer-reviewed studies could be charged with racist activity if the facts of those studies offended any student.
It was this last public skirmish that pushed Laurier’s leftist community – students, faculty and administration – to undertake a more deliberate strategy against us. In their minds, some heresies are so great that purging by fire is necessary. And when we gainsaid the notion of systemic racism on campus, Laurier’s champions of diversity, inclusion and equity lit their flames.
A month later, the editor of The Cord, Laurier’s student newspaper, offered her readers advice on how to get a conservative professor fired, notingthat “many students are calling on the school to reprimand professors…who participate in and instigate harmful…discussions around race.” While the article doesn’t name us as the offending professors, the intent seems clear enough: it’s a how-to guide on getting rid of McNally and me.
The article acknowledges that academic freedom and tenure provide a certain level of security for full-time professors, but then offers tips on how students might work around those pesky protections. “Professors at Laurier are also responsible for creating an environment that is free of harassment and discrimination,” it states. Such an atmosphere does not, it warns, include “matters of fair and free expression.” It seems to signal to students wishing to take down a professor that they must instead build their case on claims of harassment and discrimination.
How to fire a conservative professor: Laurier’s student newspaper The Cord and campus social media campaign WLU Change is Due offer advice on how to remove tenured professors who express opinions some students find objectionable.
One week after this “instructional” op-ed, an activist group calling itself “WLU Change is Due” started a social media campaign to convince Laurier to fire McNally and me for our “racist and white supremacist ideas and values.” In their eyes, a call for open debate equates to bigotry. The group purports to be a collective of faculty, students and concerned citizens, yet its membership remains anonymous.
Their anonymity speaks to their cowardliness and to the fact that their claims are false and defamatory. One example:
“Like the famous case of Neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier David Irving (who stated that Jews were never gassed and systemically murdered at Auschwitz) and the illegality of yelling fire in a crowded theatre, there are consequences for one’s hateful speech. These two mediocre white men essentially cower behind their tenured position which allows them to suffer virtually no repercussions for their actions. This must change. Immediately.”
Another article in The Cord gave this anonymous mob a higher public profile by denouncing McNally and me – this time by name – as “open racists” and “white supremacists.” Contrary to the practices of good journalism, we were never even given the opportunity to respond.
While the rise of “WLU Change is Due” and the journalistic support it received on campus didn’t elicit a response from us – our lawyer advised against taking legal action despite its obviously defamatory statements – the university administration eventually responded. But not in the way McNally and I would have hoped.
Prior to the fall 2020 semester, someone in upper administration added an extra page to the university’s official website entitled “The Intersection of Freedom of Expression and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” This official statement echoes the student newspaper editorial in providing apparent instructions on how to work around academic freedom to target, for example, a conservative professor. It begins: “Wilfrid Laurier University is aware of the outrage, frustration and sadness being expressed in response to comments by some faculty members on social media or in other public forums.”
The statement next implicitly connects our public comments to the unscientific, leftist nonsense that words are equal to violence and that our expression of conservative values – our words – are causing harm to those who hear them: “Laurier acknowledges the harm online comments can cause…This harm must be collectively mitigated by fostering a campus environment in which all members of the Laurier community feel safe, welcome and valued.”
While the bulk of the document goes on to explain how the university’s key mandate is keeping students safe from ideas they might not like, there is the briefest nod to free expression. This nod becomes a wink and a nod, however, when the document concludes that academic freedom and free speech rights do not protect a professor engaged in “racism, hate, or oppression in the classroom or in student-advisor interactions.”
What constitutes racism, hate or oppression is never defined. (Although precedent suggests that common sense and historical definitions need not apply.) Students who feel that a professor’s “speech or actions promote or engender violence or physical harm” are encouraged in the statement to “raise issues or complaints” related to discrimination and harassment. Contact details for the numerous venues Laurier provides for such complaints litter the bottom of the page.
When we first became aware of this web page, McNally remarked that, “With this document, it’s clear that upper administration hopes to weaponize the students as tools for our harassment or dismissal.” My experiences in class over the past two teaching terms have proved him right.
The Covid-19 pandemic meant that my teaching this past year was online, not in-person. Perhaps the anonymity of distance learning emboldened students inclined toward activism. There were many small instances, but I’ll focus on the two most dramatic examples.
The first incident of antagonism involved a female student and began in early March. What started as an email complaining about a mark she’d received on an assignment in my class turned into an official complaint claiming that I’d discriminated against her because of her ethnicity and sexual orientation. It’s not my intent to dox this student, so I’ll avoid disclosing any of her personal details. But I will discuss some of the more bizarre bits.
Aping the flash protests that now accompany most conservative speakers on campus, the student hijacked my online class on March 3 and defamed me during her disruption of my lecture. Admittedly, her use of technology was clever. When you’re teaching online there is a text message feature that allows written chats during the lecture. Students or the professor can write public comments to others in class. Just as I commenced my live video lecture, this student began firing off text comments to everyone. I didn’t know how to disable the chat – I had never needed to turn it off previously – so the comments kept coming. I did my best to rein in the student by asking her to stop and warning her that she was in breach of student conduct codes. To no avail. She stayed off her mic, preferring to cut-and-paste a long series of what appeared to be pre-written comments into the chat.
One comment said that I practised discrimination in “all examples of conduct” and another that I had specifically discriminated against her because of her religious faith. (Ironically, I had no knowledge of her faith prior to her outburst.) Another comment referenced my personal Twitter account noting that I identify as a conservative and a Christian, to which she quipped “LOL.” She cut-and-pasted other tweets from my account that showed me criticizing the use of race or gender as criteria for hiring or social advancement. She seemed to think that anyone who supports merit-based advancement should not be welcome in a public university: “Just interested in who Laurier is keen on hiring nowadays.I think it’s a little rich.”
Before leaving the virtual environment that day, she warned that an official complaint of discrimination was coming. For my part, right after the lecture, I alerted my dean and other appropriate administrators about what had happened in my classroom. I had screen captures of all of her chat comments, so I sent those along too.
The student’s interruption of my class was clearly contrary to Laurier’s non-academic student code of conduct, which states that prohibited conduct includes “Disruption or obstruction by action, threat or otherwise, of any University activity including teaching…or any behaviour or conduct that disrupts the normal operations of the University.” Accordingly, I formally requested that the student be disciplined for her breach of that policy.
Over a week passed and I heard nothing about my request, so I followed up. I was told my submission had been accidentally misdirected by administration and that was causing delays. On March 15, 12 days after my complaint was filed, I received an update on its status: university officials rejected it out-of-hand, saying the student had not transgressed the policy. On the other hand, her complaint against me was deemed worthy of exploring further.
Eventually, when it became apparent her accusations could not be corroborated, administrators decided not to allow her case to advance. Mind you, they did their best to avoid revealing this fact to me. On March 19, I was sent an email confirming that a complaint against me had been filed; however, it left out the most important information. It was only after I replied seeking clarification about whether the school intended to proceed that Laurier’s dispute resolution apparatchik informed me the complaint had been rejected for lack of evidence.
When I called her out for this omission, she insinuated that the case might not actually be closed. Her email said: “We aren’t moving ahead at this point…” (Emphasis added.) It wasn’t clear what this could mean, other than attempting to save face or maintain the pressure on me, for it seems unlikely that the student’s lies will somehow be transformed into truth in the foreseeable future.
Amidst Laurier’s myriad and overlapping policies is one stating that students who bring false, frivolous or vexatious complaints against faculty or others are to be disciplined. I asked if the university would be acting on that policy. It would not. Nothing ever happened to the student, although I now have an official reprimand from my dean because I didn’t do enough to accommodate her participation in my class: “There is no finding that the student breached a university policy…For that reason, I have determined that you have failed to discharge your teaching duties.”
While the first complaint involved the propagation of lies, the second involved an even more worrisome suppression of facts. This past term I received an email from my dean saying that certain students in my public speaking class had raised serious concerns about the final assignment in the course. The nature of the concerns meant I’d be hearing from the same apparatchik who had steered the discrimination complaint against me. When I got her email, I saw it for the serious threat it was. She told me that my course requirements were potentially in breach of Ontario’s Human Rights Code. This can be grounds for firing, just as The Cord had so helpfully explained.
The final assessment in question required students to write and deliver a persuasive speech. The speech must use research and emotional appeals to convince an audience to accept a particular position. The students were to choose from a list of topics I supplied. I intentionally included several issues that had, in the recent past, been deemed politically incorrect and thus off-limits by censorious liberal faculty at various North American universities.
Among the controversial topics I suggested, students could argue that the gap between women’s and men’s salaries was due to sexism and discrimination, or they could argue that other factors were the cause. Similarly, they could choose to do a speech on police shootings of blacks arguing that such shootings are racially motivated or, conversely, that race is not a motivating factor. They could write and perform a speech on transwomen competing in women’s sports arguing that such competition should be allowed, or that it should not.
To challenge themselves and best hone their skills, I encouraged students to take the side they thought would be the harder to argue, but I left the choice up to them. I’m sure that if, in the assignment, I had compelled the students to argue for the “woke” side of each issue – that is, for the side most aligned with the claims promoted by diversity and equity offices across the country – my assignment would not have drawn any attention. Instead, it apparently raised alarms because students could choose to research and argue the “wrong side” of a controversial issue.
Having now come to the attention of Laurier’s version of the “equity police” for my assignment, I suddenly felt like Shepherd, the Laurier grad student, when she had been called into the office of her professor, Natham Rambukkana, to be told that “in the classroom some ideas create an unsafe learning environment for students.” Apparently channelling the spirit of Rambukkana, in her correspondence with me, the administrator wanted me to believe the same thing. More than that, she wanted me to believe that if I allowed my assignment to go ahead with the topics as they were, I could be in for some serious consequences from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). She made it clear: “it is the topics and not the assignment itself that raise concerns about the possibility of complaints related to the OHRC.”
Her email to me on March 15 reveals the scope of forbidden subjects on campus today:
“I was hoping to be proactive given the concerns that have been raised with [your dean] and in light of the topics that are directly referenced as part of the prohibited grounds under the OHRC. Specifically, those grounds are gender identity and race. Students who may identify with a particular race or sexual identity may feel disadvantaged or impacted by listening to or participating in certain speeches. My aim, as I am sure is yours, is to create a positive and meaningful experience for all students while protecting individuals from disadvantage based on their lived experiences.”
“What you are saying is that the topics of my assignment might infringe on, or ‘impact,’ the sensibilities of some students which, in turn, would make them feel uncomfortable.
I have reviewed the OHRC. The OHRC prohibits discrimination. It is not discriminatory for students to engage in persuasive speech about public policy issues. It is not discriminatory for students to hear empirical evidence and rational argumentation in the respectful forum of a university classroom. The OHRC does not provide that students (or anyone) must not be exposed to ideas with which they disagree or find ‘impactful.’
On the other hand, there are specific provisions within the Wilfrid Laurier Act of 1973 (see Section 4) and the faculty collective agreement (see Article 7) that specifically speak to my right to academic freedom.
It is my firm belief that the most ‘meaningful experience’ for students comes from engaging, in a respectful and academic way, difficult ideas that they otherwise would not have sought out. The notion that students must be ‘protected’ from ideas is antithetical to the idea of a university.”
I concluded with a question for her:
“Is it the official position of your office that empirically-verified material and philosophically sound arguments related to race or gender, if they might offend the sensibilities of one or more students, should be removed from course content as a means of protecting students you deem vulnerable?”
I never received a reply to that last question, but the answer seems obvious. Despite having a few fig-leaf policies related to free inquiry and free expression on campus, the actions of faculty, staff and administration at Laurier – and at many other universities across Canada – show that censorship, on pain of punishment, is the order of the day. Ideas that challenge liberal claims about the world are not welcome in our country’s university classrooms.
More worrying for conservatives, neither are the professors or students who voice them. As with the case of the outburst in class, only after repeated queries from me asking about the nature of the complaint was the truth finally revealed. In the end, my dean told me by email that no students from my public speaking class had actually come to her or made any formal complaints. Instead, the dean said, “Concerns have been relayed to me by two faculty members in the [students’ home] program who wanted me to know that they had heard concerns.”
So two professors from another program had heard about the assignment and insisted my dean take action. My dean then passed it along to the official who polices such matters, who then threatened me with human rights enforcement.
After pointing out that I had done nothing to violate my students’ rights, the administration appeared to drop its objections to my assignment. I didn’t change the topics and the speeches proceeded as planned. One might be tempted to conclude that on this score it was a victory for freedom of thought.
Maybe. But it was a hollow one. Out of a class of about 20, only two delivered a speech arguing the politically-incorrect side of a controversial topic. A few students told me in confidence that they feared the consequences of arguing the “wrong side” and thus steered clear of controversy. But more let me know they opposed the unrestricted airing of both sides of a debate and that their convictions led them to their politically-correct choices.
Long before they signed up for my class, these students had not only formed left-leaning views on key issues but had been thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief that no other views should be tolerated because, to repeat Rambukkanna’s warning, “in the classroom some ideas create an unsafe learning environment for students.” No one should consider this to be a victory for freedom of expression or open inquiry.
David Millard Haskell is associate professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University. Will McNally contributed files to this article. Both encourage Canadian professors and university students who value viewpoint diversity to join the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
Source of main image: Shutterstock/ Kiev. Victor