Letters to the Editor

April 2004

Wednesday, 21 January 2004

Dear Editor:

I was pleased to receive the SAFS newsletter for January, 2004.

Immediately I received it, I started reading UWO's Statement of Academic Freedom. I had thought academic freedom dead on Canadian campuses.

I continued reading, in some disbelief, asking myself "where's the catch?" There is always a catch in such documents. I had thought academic freedom dead.

Finally I came to Clause 8. In it I discovered that academic freedom is only "credible" when it is exercised according to an "obligation. . . [toward] an honest and ethical search for knowledge."

I take, from this cavil, that no research is done, nor opinion expressed, that has been deemed in advance "dishonest." Similarly, unethical, whatever that means.

I went on to read of the tortuous Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, its various agendas. Academic freedom, as suspected, is dead on Canadian campuses.

Walter Bruno
Walter is a SAFS member.

To the Editor,

The article by Peter Kirsanow in the January 2004 issue makes several telling arguments against the notion that attaining a "critical mass" of students from various races justifies preferential admissions policies. Here is one argument it misses:

The claim is that all students benefit from a diverse student body, which is one that contains a "critical mass" of students from as many different races as possible. A "critical mass," in turn, means "meaningful numbers of minorities ─ enough that they'll contribute in the classroom and won't feel isolated." A critical mass is achieved "at the point where there are enough minorities that they'd be comfortable participating in class without feeling as if they were spokesmen [sic!] for their respective races."

While generally reluctant to put precise numbers or percentages on what the critical mass might be, university administrators who support this argument for preferential admissions policies seem unanimously to agree that the numbers and percentages vary from race to race. Thus the critical mass of Native Americans is alleged to be only around 1%, for Hispanics it is about 5%, while for blacks it is between 11% and 17%.

Now, what could this possibly mean? Is a Native American student expected to feel comfortable participating in class without feeling isolated or having the weight of their race on their shoulders even if he or she is the only one in a class of 100; while a black student cannot be expected to feel the same comfort level even if he or she is surrounded by 9 other black students in a class of 100? The assumption seems to be that Native American students are made of much sturdier stuff than black students. How racist is that?

On the other hand, if the assumption is that the races are equal, then if it takes 15% for blacks to feel comfortable in the class, then likewise it should take 15% for Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics, whites, and every other identifiable group to reach the critical mass. Problem is, we can only accommodate at most 6 different groups feeling comfortable in class before someone necessarily starts to lose their critical mass. Should universities restrict their admissions to students of only 6 identifiable groups, then? That's some diversity.

It amazes me that the logically self-defeating "critical mass" argument survived all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which accepted it.


Grant A. Brown, D.Phil., LL.B.
Barrister and Solicitor, Edmonton.
Grant is a member of SAFS Board of Directors.

To the Editor, Support for same-sex marriage has become official policy at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, at least according to its president, Robert Birgeneau, who has issued a formal decree titled “Celebrating Sexual Diversity” that was published in both the U of T staff Bulletin (October 20, 2003) and the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest selling newspaper (October 27, 2003). [SAFS NL, January 2004].

For those still unfamiliar with current campus politics, Dr. Birgeneau’s position that the U of T has become a national “social leader” in promoting the contentious moral and public policy view that “society should both cherish and solemnize long-term, committed loving relationships between two people, whether of the same or the opposite sex” may seem rather presumptuous. His comparison of the struggle for the equality of all forms of sexual behaviour to the American “civil rights movement in the 1960s” will also not endear him to that large fraction of the Black community that has repeatedly rejected what they believe is a misplaced metaphor linking ascribed racial identity to voluntary erotic activity.

As a reflection of post-modern campus political ideology, however, his views make perfect sense. This is because the rallying cry of university leaders like Dr. Birgeneau has become “Our campus must be an inclusive and welcoming community.” The result is that universities are now voyeuristically and narcissistically preoccupied with how people have sex with each other and how they and others feel about their sexuality. This means that all erotic practices must be accepted as worthy of equivalent amounts of praise and encouragement, regardless of their actual personal or societal sequellae.

Dr. Birgeneau is a physicist by training. But his dictum on sexual diversity forecloses any critical scientific discussion of the causes and consequences of diverse sexualities by arguing that the overriding issue for the university is, “Would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer (LGBTQ) student entering the University of Toronto this fall feel as comfortable ‘out’ as heterosexuals are about themselves?” Conversely, those who reject the notion of the equivalence of every possible or imaginable form of sexual expression are said to hold “inflexible positions” and “dissenting views” or are guilty of “homophobia” or “acts of exclusion.”

What Dr. Birgeneau fails to appreciate is that the celebration of sexual diversity has come at the loss of the kind of diversity that used to be the hallmark of a liberal education - the intellectual clash of ideas. Thus my own conspicuously conservative position on marriage and human sexuality would earn me nothing but scorn at the U of T – as it has at my home institution, the University of Manitoba – even though it is based on my reading of the medical and cross-cultural literature rather than on allegedly outmoded religious or moral convictions.

President Birgeneau also proclaims that the U of T needs “to move beyond the institutional level of acceptance to broaden awareness and to celebrate sexual diversity on our campuses in much the same way that we celebrate our remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity.” Not only does this position spuriously conflate ethnicity (an immutable birth trait that marks an important part of a person’s public identity) with sexuality (a nebulous, often shifting, drive based on acquired forms of supposedly private behaviour), it insists that mere indifference to a person’s sexual habits is no longer acceptable. Now we must all think alike by celebrating each other’s dissimilar sexualities or suffer being vilified as old fashioned, bigoted, sexually repressed, homophobic, or fanatically religious.

This is why Dr. Birgeneau's claim that “The University of Toronto is about diversity in all of its dimensions” is so disingenuous because this diversity is narrowly limited to “creating a community of people with varied backgrounds” who “feel comfortable” about their behaviour.

How the encouragement and celebration of behavioural diversity based on a unitary policy of groupthink contributes to a higher education is left unstated. What is clear is that a policy of trying to make people feel comfortable about themselves represents a repudiation of the traditional (but apparently outmoded) mandate of higher education to challenge, even repudiate, comfortable ideas and established dogma. If it were not for the new group- this would even include questioning the idea of sexual diversity, a notion based on the contestable idea that despite their obvious differences, all forms of carnal behaviour are equally natural, normal, and healthy, and hence equally deserving of celebration. By shutting off debate about the nature of human sexuality, President Birgeneau has shown contempt for his role as the intellectual leader of Canada’s premier institution of higher learning. He has also marginalized dissenting alumni like me who hold different views about the human condition.

How inclusive is that?

Hymie Rubenstein.
Professor of Anthropology, University of Manitoba.
Hymie is a SAFS member.

Editor’s Note: We were pleased to receive letters in response to items in the last Newsletter and would like to encourage further input from our members – in the form of letters or the submission of articles. We would also appreciate hearing about books that we can have reviewed or reviews of books that you believe would be of interest to the membership. NKI.