When Wokeism and the Corporate University Intersect

January 2022

In my (failed) attempts to grapple with the destruction of academic values and open inquiry at Mount Royal University (MRU) over the last five years, some have told me that reified postmodernism (“wokeism”) is just a “fad”. This, they argue, will “pass” when wokeism’s irrational and socially destructive character is inevitably recognized.

I, too, held out some hope that we were reaching the “end of [wokeism’s] pendulum swing” in my interview with I.J. Makan on the Kazingram Dialogue in June 2019. “What makes you hopeful that it’s coming to an end?” Makan asked me, somewhat skeptically. I mentioned some of the critical responses to the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls’ claim that the high numbers of murdered indigenous women was evidence of “genocide” (when, in fact, a RCMP investigation found that 70 percent of murdered indigenous women were killed by indigenous men). I also pointed to the great year that we had at MRU when the Rational Space Network was able to hold a number of events, where critical questions like “Is Canada’s Support for Israel Justifiable?” and “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?” were rationally discussed.

At the time, I even maintained that, while contract faculty members were right to be concerned about retaliation, tenured faculty members should not be afraid to speak freely about their views. I believed that their reticence was largely due to the negative career implications of poor student evaluations, being deprived of perks, or having grants dry up. I talked about how I had been encouraging tenured faculty members to be more outspoken by stating that “[t]his is your responsibility; you don’t just have a duty in terms of doing stuff on your own time. You have a responsibility to try to create an environment, which makes it possible for other people to be able to pursue the truth”. I went on to state that “it’s up to you to use your academic freedom – that’s why you have it. You should really gird yourself and just speak out and ... say ‘what’s the worst that can happen to me?’ ” Unless a tenured faculty member did something that was illegal or grossly unethical, I explained, it would be very difficult to remove them from their position.

Although I was aware of the cases of Denis Rancourt, Ricardo Duchesne, Rick Mehta and Anthony Hall, I still thought that tenure was a relatively strong protection for professors. I now realize that this assumption was wishful thinking. It was a seriously misguided view because it failed to understand the extent to which universities have become corporate entities and are mainly interested in protecting their brand and increasing market share. This has made administrators eager to embrace the totalitarian impulses of wokeism.

The phenomenon of reified postmodernism or wokeism has been outlined most comprehensively by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their book Cynical Theories. According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, postmodernism was originally a relativist position that focused on subjectivity in opposition to objectivity so as to contest The Enlightenment’s promotion of science, reason, and the pursuit of a universal truth. Its ability to disarm the academy, however, meant that postmodernism gradually became “reified”, leading to the aggressive demands that identities perceived to be oppressed be “made real”. For example, people who are born male must be declared to be women if they believe this is so, and no one can deny that any indigenous person is a “genocide survivor”. Today, this reactionary agenda has taken over all facets of university life, and can be seen in the burgeoning number of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE) initiatives and offices.

Although administrators are not really true believers of wokeism, unlike many of the vocal faculty and student activists, it is a useful tool for them because its celebration of subjectivity facilitates arbitrariness. This can be used against those who interfere with the capacity of administrators to manage their university’s reputation. The totalitarianism of wokeism has helped administrators to turn any threat to the university’s brand into a disciplinary matter. Wokeism enables administrators to use policies to paint intellectual disagreements as “harassment” and “discrimination”, making faculty members reluctant to criticize any initiative of their employer.

As a board member for the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, I see many of these cases. The latest concerned Daniel Page, an untenured faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Regina. Page simply said “Yikes” on a social media post in response to a university decision to award scholarships to LGBT individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. When the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning, Tony Pradhan, asked Page “What’s your problem?”, Page explained that universities should make decisions on the basis of “affordability/accessibility/standards” as opposed to selecting candidates because of their identities. Pradhan responded by accusing Page of “espousing homophobia”. In reaction to this name calling, Page got into a protracted discussion with a number of people. Throughout the interaction Page was respectful and rational, stating that there was nothing homophobic in what he had said and that he was just opposing discrimination and supporting fairness, accessibility, and high academic standards.

In spite of the fact that Page was criticizing university policy and not LGBT individuals, and was even doing so in a professional manner when being defamed, it was he who was called before the Dean of the Faculty of Science. Dean Douglas Farenick provided Page with a “letter of expectation” that warned him that his posts had created the “impression in the minds of our students and other stakeholders that members of the LGBTQ2IA+ community are not welcomed in your classrooms or, by extension, the University of Regina”. To rectify this situation, the Dean asked that Page complete online “Respect in the Workplace training”. The Dean also reminded Page that “as an academic staff member, it is important to understand how your conduct reflects on the University as a whole”.

The Dean’s response was one of a typical diversity managerialist whose main concern is how the university is perceived. In response to Page’s request that he retract his “letter of expectation”, the Dean compared academic freedom to firing a gun that can “lead to unintended collateral damage”. According to Dean Farenick, “one can exercise [academic freedom] with care and thoughtful purpose, or one can exercise it indiscriminately”. The “care” and “thoughtful purpose” to which Dean Farenick refers, however, means avoiding saying things that could upset “students and other stakeholders”. And as the woke are much more vocal and organized than scholars who value the pursuit of truth, the university inevitably becomes concerned with selling out academic principles to satisfy the demands of its most insistent “customers”.

Universities should be the intellectual leaders of society, and this can only occur when there are strong protections for academic freedom. Faculty members and students must be able to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and not have their investigations constrained by political imperatives. And while there are disagreements about how much academic freedom and freedom of expression overlap, support for the latter creates the fertile soil that nourishes the development and dissemination of knowledge.

It is perhaps possible for some universities to save their academic character by mobilizing the scholarly minded against the anti-intellectual diversicrats and woke activists. The problem, however, is probably much deeper. Universities are now only vaguely connected to their intellectual mission, and are more concerned with “putting bums in seats” and fundraising than any educational purpose. It is even possible that the scaffolding that has been historically developed to protect open inquiry and disputation has completely disintegrated, and all that remains is scavenging in the rubble.