Defending Academic Freedom

Into Wokism’s Raging Maw: Frances Widdowson at the University of Lethbridge

Frances Widdowson
February 23, 2023
As wokism rampages throughout society, a few are attempting to fight it head on – and paying the price. One is political scientist Frances Widdowson, previously fired for sheer outspokenness from her professorship at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Earlier this month Widdowson was shouted down by a 700-strong mob at the University of Lethbridge as she prepared to deliver a talk to which a faculty member had invited her. Those tempted to wave off the incident as irrelevant might remind themselves that today’s out-of-control students are tomorrow’s managers, leaders and (presumably) parents. Widdowson describes the encounter, its place in the broader intellectual and moral degradation of Canada’s universities – and what might be done to begin restoring balance.
Defending Academic Freedom

Into Wokism’s Raging Maw: Frances Widdowson at the University of Lethbridge

Frances Widdowson
February 23, 2023
As wokism rampages throughout society, a few are attempting to fight it head on – and paying the price. One is political scientist Frances Widdowson, previously fired for sheer outspokenness from her professorship at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Earlier this month Widdowson was shouted down by a 700-strong mob at the University of Lethbridge as she prepared to deliver a talk to which a faculty member had invited her. Those tempted to wave off the incident as irrelevant might remind themselves that today’s out-of-control students are tomorrow’s managers, leaders and (presumably) parents. Widdowson describes the encounter, its place in the broader intellectual and moral degradation of Canada’s universities – and what might be done to begin restoring balance.
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When talking to people about the state of universities in Canada, many deny the negative impact of “woke-ism.” My current “lived experience” in a province with a reputation for supporting free speech, however, indicates otherwise. It was challenging sacred cows associated with the “woke” character of Indigenization, trans activism and “anti-racist” initiatives, in fact, that led to my firing from my tenured position at Mount Royal University in December 2021.

For those unfamiliar with the word, “woke-ism” (spelled wokism in this publication) is the colloquial term for the postmodern tactic of reducing scientific objectivity to subjective authoritarianism, imposing its arbitrary interpretation of what is acceptable. Also referred to as “reified postmodernism” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, the authors of the hilarious but revealing “grievance studies hoax,” this reactionary response to the intellectual progress driven by the Enlightenment tries to prevent certain ideas from being discussed under the auspices that the identities of oppressed groups must be “made real.”

Collision course: Frances Widdowson’s run-in with wokism got her fired from Mount Royal University in Calgary but she was still not prepared for the unruly mob of protest she faced in Lethbridge.

If, for example, a trans activist believes that they are completely debilitated as a result of “misgendering fatigue,” or if an Indigenous person is convinced that 215 students were murdered and dumped in a mass grave in a Kamloops Indian Residential School apple orchard, these views must not be contradicted because it is argued that such disagreement will “deny the humanity” of those who are oppressed, and disempower them. This, we are told, constitutes “hate speech” and “discrimination.”

Despite my costly collision with wokism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, I was still not prepared for what was to transpire at the University of Lethbridge earlier this month. I had been invited by philosophy professor Paul Viminitz to give a talk, to be entitled “How ‘Woke-ism’ Threatens Academic Freedom.” I was about to experience the fury of current wokism. UofL President Mike Mahon originally stated that the talk would be allowed to proceed because of the institution’s policy on freedom of expression. Woke faculty and students responded with intensifying pressure, leading Mahon to cancel my appearance a few days later.

Cancelled: University of Lethbridge (UofL) President Mike Mahon initially cited freedom of expression as the reason why Widdowson’s lecture should proceed; under pressure, he changed course and shut it down. (Source of photos: University of Lethbridge)

I remained adamant that I should go to the university to challenge Mahon’s assault on academic values (and repudiation of his institution’s freedom of expression policy). So on February 1 I arrived at the university to give my talk in a “Speakers’ Corner” type of format. But as I walked out of the elevator of University Hall and into The Atrium – a large public space on campus – I was amazed to see a crowd of about 700 people filling the main floor and upper level. While some in the audience had come to hear me speak, and a number were just curious onlookers, many were openly hostile to my presence, some brandishing signs declaring “RACISM IS NOT FREE SPEECH.”

Pushing through the crowd with my mouth figuratively agape, I reached the front and stood beside a number of people in “Every Child Matters” orange shirts. As I thought about how I would deliver my speech in this atmosphere, the drumming began and a jingle-skirt dancer energetically circled the space. I listened respectfully and even clapped for the performers, but began to suspect the spectacle would not end soon. I decided to try to find a quieter area of the building to speak. As I moved through the sea of people, I entered into two conversations with Indigenous people.

The first, with an Indigenous man, was cordial. We discussed my views on parallelism (the position that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples should exist separately in a “nation-to-nation” relationship) and I corrected his perception that I thought Indigenous peoples were “lazy.” I also shared my opinion that the capitalist context in which the residential schools unfolded had caused a great deal of harm. In the end, we agreed it was beneficial to discuss our different perspectives to gain a better understanding of what we believed to be true.

Determined to speak, Widdowson arrived at the UofL to a crowd of woke protestors shouting angry slogans; she did manage to have a polite exchange with one Indigenous man. (Sources of photos: (top) Tyler Hay/Woke Watch Canada Newsletter; (bottom) Eloise Therien/Global News)

As I went on my way, a second Indigenous person accosted me with the accusation, “Why are you doing this?” and then yelled, “You see that land out there? That’s my land!” She ended her tirade by screaming that I was a “stupid f—— bitch,” that she hated me – and that I was responsible for her use of swear words. I was shocked by her hostility, yet found it understandable given the vilification orchestrated against me over the previous week. I moved away to avoid escalating the situation and climbed onto an elevated platform to give my talk.

When I began to speak, I was able to utter about two sentences before I was shouted down by an angry – and seemingly hateful – crowd chanting, “No place for hate!” This led the UofL’s head of security to approach me, saying the unruly crowd was making his team nervous and asking if I would consider leaving if given safe passage. Although I did not feel threatened and saw the crowd’s opposition as largely performative, I didn’t want to worry anyone, so I agreed to be escorted to a “safe area” of campus and we went into a guarded corridor.

Although the “heckler’s veto” thereby prevented me from giving my talk on campus, that evening I was able to deliver the presentation on Zoom, a recording of which is on my YouTube Channel. The previous and next days I also gave two in-person lectures in Viminitz’s philosophy class on whether universities should “foster respect” for “Indigenous ways of knowing.” (These two lectures were recorded and also can be publicly accessed here and here.)  These recordings show that I expressed no “hate,” “discrimination” or “anti-Indigenous rhetoric.”

UofL philosophy professor Paul Viminitz had invited Widdowson to speak in an effort to intellectually engage the university community but was deprived of his academic freedom when the administration cancelled the planned event. (Source of photo: University of Lethbridge)

That I was able to deliver these two lectures on campus led some to assert that the UofL did not violate academic freedom. This view fails to consider how Viminitz, as a professor entitled to fair access to university resources, was deprived of his right to academic freedom. Viminitz had, in his capacity as a professor at the UofL, invited a speaker to give a lecture to faculty, students and the public on a matter of concern for universities, and had booked a room for this discussion. His effort to intellectually engage the university community was denied by Mahon’s actions.

Mahon had changed course under lobbying pressure from student and faculty activists. After my attempts to speak at The Atrium were shouted down, he stated that this indicated a “coming together of our community to show support for each other” and expressed his “sincere appreciation for our community members conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.” This was not only grotesque and ludicrous but disgraceful coming from a high official of an institution ostensibly committed to the search for truth. Worse, this sort of pandering to woke faculty and students will ensure that the loudest and most aggressive voices determine what can be said at universities. This is the beginning of ochlocracy, or rule by mob.

“Appalled”: Nathan Crow, Indigenous representative on the UofL Students’ Union said he supports “the notion of freedom of expression” unless, in his view, it “happens to discriminate [against] a specific demographic…[or] support false narratives.”

The most significant pressure in this regard came from the UofL Students’ Union. The group’s Indigenous representative, Nathan Crow, asserted that he was “appalled” by me being invited to speak. In Crow’s words: “I support the notion of freedom of expression, but when that happens to discriminate [against] a specific demographic of ULethbridge students, as well as support information and false narratives, this is not okay.” This self-contradictory position was supported by the University of Calgary Students’ Union. Some faculty members also supported the cancellation, even gloating about it on social media.

Most significantly, the UofL’s entire Indigenous Studies Department put out a statement asserting the following:

“The Department of Indigenous Studies vehemently condemns the anti-Indigenous rhetoric routinely disseminated by former MRU professor Frances Widdowson and deplores the fact that she is being given a platform to legitimize that discourse on our campus. Widdowson has left us in no doubt as to her positions; she has regularly espoused these views through published articles, public speaking, broadcast podcasts, and other public forums. She specifically denounces the TRC’s classification of the Residential School system as genocide and disputes the veracity of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at the sites of multiple former Residential School sites.”

The denunciation went on to argue that Blackfoot people and “their traditional ways of knowing” must be “honor[ed]” by all people at the UofL. It appears, therefore, that my scholarly questioning of the TRC’s concept of “cultural genocide” and my critical analysis of the improbable claims about the “unmarked graves” at the Kamloops Indian Residential School are inconsistent with the “ways of knowing” of Indigenous people. As wokism demands that these “ways of knowing” must be “made real” to empower Indigenous groups, any critical analysis disputing them is now forbidden at the University of Lethbridge.

Notice also the Orwellian doublespeak and totalitarian thinking at work. Crow claims to support freedom of expression, at least as a “notion” – unless the speech in question bothers him, in which case it should not be allowed. The Indigenous Studies Department demands that everyone “honor” their particular worldview, i.e., they are attempting not merely to quash dissent but actually to compel the beliefs and conduct of everyone else.

Perhaps the most bizarre intervention came from Caroline Hodes, a professor in Women & Gender Studies. In a message to Mahon and the Dean of Arts, copied to many other faculty, Hodes claimed I had “been fired from academic institutions due to [my] racism, transphobia, and bigotry,” and asserted that Viminitz and I were “engaging in forms of hate speech.” She urged cancelling my talk as it was a “betrayal of the University of Lethbridge’s commitment to Indigenization and reconciliation.” She also demanded that Viminitz and his department be “held accountable” and he be subjected to “disciplinary action.” When I sent an email to Hodes asking for evidence of her assertions, she left in a huff after receiving a few replies from me and threatened to file charges of harassment against the philosophy professors copied on the exchange.

Caroline Hodes, UofL professor in Women & Gender Studies, accused Widdowson of “racism, transphobia, and bigotry” and demanded Viminitz and his department face “disciplinary action.” (Source of photo: University of Lethbridge)

This sort of behaviour from activist elements of the university is to be expected. What surprised me were the actions of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) and the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA). Instead of defending Viminitz’s academic freedom, the ULFA was worried about the “hurtful speech” that was expected of me and the need to “protect” faculty and students from it. CAFA appeared to support the ULFA’s position and even amplified the University of Calgary Students’ Union’s support for the students who shut down my talk.

My recent experience illustrates the forces amassed behind wokism in universities: administrators, student unions and faculty associations. While it is sad to see students, who used to fight to protect free speech at universities, and administrators (the supposed academic leaders) supporting the cancellation of my talk, the faculty associations’ stance is much more alarming. That is because Canada’s labour relations framework requires professors to fight violations of their academic freedom through the grievance process.

But if unions fail or refuse to perform their representational function due to capture by wokism, faculty members will no longer feel secure in their professional duty to pursue the truth and follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is already happening; some UofL professors expressed reluctance even to request the Zoom link for my lecture because they were “concerned about making their interest known publicly.”

“More alarming”: The UofL Faculty Association, which ought to have defended academic freedom, chose to pile on, saying students and faculty should be protected against “hurtful speech.”

We are witnessing the final chapter of a process begun in the 1960s with the intrusion of postmodernism into our institutions. Although postmodernism – the relativist (and reactionary) rejection of the human ability to search for a universal truth – was initially seen as a basically harmless flirtation with “fashionable nonsense,” it opened the door for activist elements to gain a footing in academic institutions. They did this initially with programs that were no longer primarily about inquiry, but about advocacy: first black studies and women’s studies, and then Indigenous studies, queer studies, disability studies and others.

The ideological mindsets driving these programs gradually began to take over the bureaucracies of universities in areas like “diversity and meaningful inclusion” offices, “women’s centres” and “offices of academic Indigenization.” Collaboration by activist professors with university “diversicrats” meant that woke ideas were increasingly encouraged, pushed and, eventually, imposed on all faculty members. Woke elements tightened their grip by encouraging student activists to take a place in various governance capacities.

Beyond academia: Wokism has infiltrated numerous areas of society, from children’s education and entertainment, to religious practices and advertising, to the corporate world. (Sources of images, clockwise, starting on top left: The Queer Kids Stuff YouTube channel; The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder by Disney; Toronto subway wall ad; missgreaterderrynh/Instagram; Starbucks Anti-Racism PlanFirst Church Somerville UCC)

Combating wokism will be very difficult, but I believe the key is organization. Individual faculty members cannot change anything because they will be either isolated or pushed out of the university.  One hopeful sign is the actions of two of the most significant organizations that defend academic freedom in Canadian universities.

The first is the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the national union representing faculty associations. It is still connected to its original mandate of protecting academic freedom. On February 1, 2023, CAUT sent a letter to Mahon “rais[ing] serious concerns about the University of Lethbridge’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.” CAUT, which is also providing and funding the legal defence in my arbitration case against Mount Royal University, asserted that my talk “should have been allowed to proceed” and that a university should “welcome controversial speakers and vigorous debate, not seek to restrict discourse or speakers.” While this is encouraging, in my opinion CAUT is somewhat compromised by its connection to “woke” faculty associations and its support of many activist initiatives.

A bit of balance: Mark Mercer, President of Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, said cancelling the talk was “an outrage”; the Canadian Association of University Teachers sent a letter to McMahon saying universities should “welcome controversial speakers and vigorous debate.”

Not so SAFS, the most principled defender of academic freedom and freedom of expression in Canada. It also sent a letter to Mahon but was more specific in its identification of how Viminitz’s academic freedom was violated. (I am a board member of SAFS but was not involved in the discussions about whether to send a letter or in the letter’s drafting.) The letter asserted that Mahon’s claim that my talk harmed reconciliation “is not only false but dangerous, for it militates against openness and candour in discussions of reconciliation. Reconciliation, which, admirable as it may be, is not an academic value, must respect freedom of expression and academic freedom if it is to be mutual and lasting.” According to Mark Mercer, the President of SAFS, “Cancelling Dr. Widdowson’s talk is an outrage that will stain the University of Lethbridge for years.”

Organizational opposition to these threats to academic freedom, freedom of expression and open inquiry must continue and be strengthened for us to have any hope of restoring universities’ intellectual character. This can occur through two processes: building organizations in individual universities and developing international linkages. At the local level, this is already unfolding with the development of local chapters of SAFS at Brock University, Wilfrid Laurier University, McGill University and Saint Mary’s University. The goal should be to build a local chapter in each Canadian university, so as to build a culture that nourishes the free exchange of ideas. Local entities can then link up with international organizations such as the National Association of Scholars in the United States and The Free Speech Union in the United Kingdom.

Although some have applauded the decision of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party to do more to protect free speech after the UofL debacle by developing “free speech reporting” for universities, this is unlikely to have any noticeable effect. The opposition to open inquiry and the hostility to academic freedom and critical thinking are so deep in today’s woke universities that this culture can subvert nearly any government intervention. What we need is hard work in the trenches that convinces professors and students that this problem must be addressed – and can be.

Finally, professors need to work much harder at communicating with the public about the importance of universities. As inheritors of the values of the Enlightenment, universities have two incredibly important social functions. The first is the development of empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding. If inquiry is closed off by predetermined answers – as wokism seeks to do – the quality of information provided by universities will be seriously compromised. Society at large will lose the high level of understanding required to live meaningfully and securely in the world today.

“Don’t let it happen”: That was George Orwell’s simple warning against assaults on freedom of expression and the very concepts of truth and objective facts.

Second – which is little recognized – is the important function universities provide as a bulwark against autocratic pressures on society. The granting of tenure was one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring that people could state unpopular things and not lose their livelihood. As my case demonstrates, tenure is no longer protected and so professors will be much more cautious when they consider speaking out against powerful forces in society. To paraphrase George Orwell, tenure gives professors the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

The importance of Orwell’s insights cannot be overstated when trying to grapple with the current woke assault on academic freedom, freedom of expression and the very concepts of truth, objective facts and empirical knowledge. Soon after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell gave the following warning in a BBC interview: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” The unhinged and at times hateful reaction to my presence at the UofL shows the prescient nature of Orwell’s warning. As I have said elsewhere: Totalitarianism is on the move. We need to fight back against it with everything we have before it is too late.

Frances Widdowson, PhD, is a political scientist who was fired from Mount Royal University in Calgary for challenging woke ideas.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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