Letter to the Editor: McMaster University Faculty Association Newsletter

September 2004

The Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship (SAFS) held its annual general meeting (AGM) at the University of Western Ontario on Saturday 8 May. Why, one may well ask, should MUFA members care? I shall try to explain.

SAFS has exactly two goals (see

  1. maintaining freedom in teaching, research, and scholarship;
  2. maintaining standards of excellence in decisions about students and faculty.

In 1994 the Ontario NDP government threatened to impose a politically-correct speech code on Ontario colleges and universities. No college or university, no organization of any kind, complained about this threat to free speech — except SAFS, 90 faculty members at Trent University who signed a statement "On Free Inquiry & Expression", and MUFA, who endorsed the Trent statement. As a result, I joined both MUFA and SAFS. When I learned of SAFS's two goals, I began to understand that they expressed principles deeply shared by MUFA, as presumably they would be by any faculty association.

The SAFS AGM featured a lecture of great interest by Professor Jamie Cameron of Osgoode Hall Law School on "Equality, Affirmative Action, & Faculty Hiring". Notwithstanding its title, Professor Cameron's talk was really about NSERC's University Faculty Awards (UFA) programme, that is restricted to faculty members who are either female or native persons. Since NSERC is legally constrained by the Charter of Rights & Freedoms (as participating universities probably are also), and since the Charter prohibits discrimination based on gender or ethnic origin, the UFA programme would therefore seem to be in "blatant" (Professor Cameron's word) violation of the Charter.

Alas, it is not so simple. The Canadian Supreme Court has, according to Professor Cameron, introduced the idea that to be considered discriminatory, a rule must lead a "reasonable person" to take the view that the discriminatory action would violate the "human dignity" of the person supposedly discriminated against. What "human dignity" has to do with it, or how such a thing might be determined or measured by that supposedly "reasonable" person are questions that the Supreme Court apparently does not address. Also unaddressed is the question of how discrimination against women could violate "female dignity" while the same discrimination against men would leave "male dignity" intact.

Professor Cameron's careful and scholarly exposition clarified many of the legal issues raised by the UFA progamme; although she clearly disagreed profoundly with the Supreme Court's obfuscation (my word, not hers) of the discrimination question, her presentation was dispassionate and precise.

Given its history as a defender of faculty rights and freedoms, it could be supposed that MUFA might also have connections to discussion of the UFA programme. In fact, in August 2000, Professor Lorraine Allan, twice President of MUFA (1994/95 & 2002/3), in her capacity as President of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour & Cognition Science, wrote Dr. Thomas Brzustowski, President of NSERC, objecting to the UFA programme. She said, in part: "We believe that NSERC's guiding principle should be the support of research excellence, based on objective evaluation."

Professor Allan's letter and NSERC's response can be found on the SAFS website: I find it hard to believe that a "reasonable person" could find Dr. Brzustowski's reply to be convincing.

Like MUFA, SAFS has in the past defended the rights of individual faculty members as well as dealing with more general issues such as UFA. Those who wish to consider membership in SAFS as well as MUFA (SAFS membership, being optional, is much much cheaper) should access the SAFS website. Those interested in the affirmative action issue might consult Thomas Sowell, "Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study", Yale University Press (2004).