The Politicization of Faculty Associations: What Are the Implications for Open Inquiry?

April 2020

On February 19, 2020, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) – the body that represents faculty associations in Canada - sent out a “news article” entitled “Solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation”. Even though the Wet’suwet’en “nation” (the application of this term to indigenous groups is contested) was itself divided as to whether or not to support the LNG Coastal Gaslink pipeline, CAUT “expresse[d]…solidarity with…Hereditary Chiefs” who were opposing it. The “Hereditary Chiefs” [sic], according to CAUT, should be supported because they were “insisting upon respect for their autonomy and sovereignty over their unceded land”.

CAUT’s intervention was supported by the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia, which asserted that it “stands in solidarity with Indigenous nations and peoples across the country who are insisting upon respect for Wet’suwet’en law, autonomy, and sovereignty over unceded Wet’suwet’en lands”. This also was the position of a number of faculty associations at particular universities across Canada.

But why would faculty associations declare support for this political position? Backing the views of some self-proclaimed hereditary chiefs, after all, is not even to express solidarity with the “Wet’suwet’en nation”, as is claimed, because many Wet’suwet’en people, including elected band councilors, actually support the building of the pipeline. And what about those members of faculty associations who are supporters of the elected councils and not these hereditary chiefs? Will they perceive their position as being less valid because it is not the one espoused by the body supposedly representing their academic interests?

Over the last few years it has become common for faculty associations to express support for a particular political perspective. Generally, this concerns support for identities perceived to be oppressed. The claims of these identities should be promoted, these faculty associations assume, because this is consistent with diversity, inclusion and equity (DIE) ideology. The negative impact that this ideology has for open inquiry can be illustrated by a number of cases that have unfolded in the last two years.

In the case of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW), for example, its president, Bryan Tolson, posted an article stating “FAUW Supports a Multicultural UW. Will You Help?”. This posting directly attacked the views of two speakers - Ricardo Duchesne, a professor at the University of New Brunswick, and Faith Goldy, a media personality – and claimed that they “do not reflect the views or the scholarship of our faculty, staff, or students”. Tolson also argued that “the messages that will be heard at this event will be offensive and harmful to our diverse campus community and go against the values of FAUW and the University of Waterloo”. Tolson maintained that the university and its faculty association were opposed to the ideas of the speakers, because they “cherished” multiculturalism, were “committed to improving diversity, inclusivity, and equity”, and believed that “[e]veryone on campus today deserves to be here and to be respected” [emphasis in the original].

But the “everyone” in this statement obviously doesn’t “include” or “respect” those who want to hear the views of Duchesne and Goldy, and come to their own conclusions. Making these blanket statements has the potential to negatively impact open inquiry. After listening to this declaration, professors at the University of Waterloo might doubt their union’s commitment to impartial representation. As it appears that their faculty association has an official view about “diversity, inclusivity, and equity”, faculty members critical of this position might feel that their union would not support them if their arguments were perceived to deviate from the party line.

A second case involves an even more strident reaction of a faculty association. This concerned the UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) and ideas critical of trans activism. In response to a talk that featured Jenn Smith – a trans person critical of gender identity doctrine - Bronwen Sprout, the President of UBCFA, made the following appeal to UBC’s administration: “[w]e urge you to investigate this matter and to overturn the decision to hold the event”. The faculty association demanded that the event be cancelled because “[a]ny event in which diversity in sexual identity or gender expression is rejected espouses views contrary to the substantive commitment to equity and inclusion UBC has undertaken”. Because Jenn Smith’s views were perceived as being contrary to equity and inclusion, therefore, the speech should be prohibited at the university because “the UBC academic community as a whole may be harmed by this event”. “Irresponsible, disrespectful, and discriminatory speech”, Sprout claimed, “harms the core academic activities of the UBC community.”

But what if ideas that are perceived to be “irresponsible, disrespectful, and discriminatory” are necessary for pursuing the truth? As John Stuart Mill pointed out over 100 years ago, often ideas that are thought to be false have some parts that are true, and this can be revealed through open discussion and critical analysis. And even if an idea is completely false, discussion of its premises can still confer important academic benefits by stopping existing knowledge from becoming dead dogma.

The final case concerns the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA). In this case, the URFA’s equity committee voted unanimously to recommend that a talk by the poet George Elliott Clarke be cancelled. The Faculty of Arts had invited Clarke to give the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture in January 2019, but, because Clarke had included the work of a man convicted of murdering an indigenous woman in a volume of poetry that he had compiled, many expressed concerns about what he might say. Claire Carter, the acting chair of the equity committee, maintained that this was due to the fact that “[t]here is not sufficient time to ensure that this [event] has the potential to be a healing or restorative or in the spirit of reconciliation event”. Indigenous peoples had not been consulted on the invitation, according to Carter, and “[i]t really isn’t for George Elliott Clarke or the committee to decide if it’s going to be a healing event. That actually needs to be decided by members of the Indigenous community”. The URFA’s equity committee, therefore, supported the demands of indigenous spokespeople for censorship over the rights of some of their members to hear what Clarke had to say.

URFA’s involvement in this controversy reveals another problem in the politicization of faculty associations. This is that faculty associations are now incorporating DIE ideology into their organizational structure. URFA, in this case, had developed an “equity committee” that saw its role as lobbying for marginalized groups on campus. This gave the ideology structural power in the faculty association to try to limit those ideas that it perceived to be inconsistent with the aspirations of identities that were perceived to be oppressed.

In looking at these three cases, many will not see a problem with these faculty association actions. What is the harm, they will ask, of taking a position against those who espouse white identity politics, are critical of trans activism, or insensitive to the sensibilities of indigenous organizations? But faculty associations are supposed to be representing the academic freedom and scholarship of all of their members. This duty of representation should not be compromised by considerations of whether or not a faculty member’s ideas are supportive of DIE ideology.

Others might say that these faculty association actions can be justified on the basis that it has been demanded by the membership. While it is not clear how many faculty are supporters of DIE ideology, this deference to popularity should be resisted. Faculty associations represent a community of scholars, and this requires creating a climate that respects intellectual autonomy and a diversity of ideas. If faculty associations take a particular political position, it will encourage groupthink and undermine the cultivation of the independent judgement needed to determine if support for a particular political position is warranted.

While these articles document only a few instances of the politicization of faculty associations, it is hard to deny that “diversity”, “inclusion” and “equity” are being widely promoted by faculty associations. This is due to what has been called “regulatory capture”, whereby the authority of faculty associations has been corrupted. Instead of representing the universal intellectual value of academic freedom and open inquiry, faculty associations have been co-opted to serve the political interests of a minor constituency that is intent on suppressing the exploration of ideas. Under the guise of combatting oppression, DIE proponents have inveigled faculty associations into accepting their ideology. This is creating a poisonous environment for scholars trying to pursue the truth.

Many faculty members support this ideology because they believe that it is an anti-discriminatory stance that welcomes a diversity of ideas. DIE ideology, however, actually tries to impose intellectual conformity in the name of “social justice”. This is because demands to “respect” the “ways of knowing” and “world views” of those perceived to be oppressed are a stalking horse for the actual focus of DIE initiatives – targeting. DIE ideology enables scarce university resources to be diverted for political purposes; it is a form of rent-seeking that puts up barriers to entry to those with “politically incorrect” views, as well as “tying” purportedly academic programs to goals like “reconciliation” and trans activism.