Robert Birgeneau's Legacy at U of T

September 2004

This week, the University of California, Berkeley named Robert Birgeneau as its new chancellor. The 62-year-old Canadian-born physicist is no doubt thrilled by the honour -- not to mention the US$390,000 salary that goes with it.

As for Berkeley, I hope it knows what it's gotten itself into.

When Birgeneau became University of Toronto president four years ago, he promised to "transform" the institution. His previous job had been Dean of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he'd faced discrimination claims by a handful of vocal female science professors. In response to the controversy, Birgeneau appointed chief complainant Nancy Hopkins to investigate -- with predictable results. Birgeneau's solution included hefty pay hikes, larger offices and more research funds for Hopkins and her fellow complainants.

Overnight, he became the darling of North America's radical feminists. Before he took office at U of T, Birgeneau announced that "diversity" would be the centrepiece of his presidency, though women and visible minorities were already well represented at all levels at his new home. Soon after his arrival, Birgeneau announced a settlement of a long-running dispute with physicist Kin-Yip Chun, who alleged his failure to secure a faculty position stemmed from racism. Successive investigations failed to turn up any convincing evidence beyond the predictable conclusion from the Ontario Human Rights Commission that the phantasm of "systemic discrimination" was somehow implicated. Along with a faculty position Chun received $100,000 in compensation and $250,000 to cover legal expenses.

A year after his U of T appointment, Birgeneau made a major speech warning department heads that "one of the critical criteria" in the assessment of their success would be their recruitment of a "diverse faculty." In 2002, Birgeneau recruited a new senior academic officer. Provost Shirley Neuman, a long-time feminist activist, had been a founder of the Women's Studies program at the University of Alberta and former chair of the university's English department, a department that came to be seen as increasingly inhospitable to male faculty.

Neuman, who resigned earlier this year, shared with Birgeneau a commitment to diversity, though like Birgeneau, the diversity in question is not intellectual but biological. Their ethos is eloquently captured in the university's faculty recruitment materials; applicants are advised that U of T "especially welcomes applications from visible minority group members, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, members of sexual minority groups, and others who may contribute to further diversification of ideas." The idea that biological diversity is the key to ideological diversity -- absurd on its face -- is simply assumed.

Such "biopolitics" is central to the development of new study areas at U of T, which now proudly boasts programs in Equity Studies, Women's Gender Studies, Women's Studies and Gender Studies (a different program), Sexual Diversity Studies and so on. Central to the selection of teaching staff is not only a deafening similarity of perspective (not least the belief in a pandemic of racism and sexism) but also the requisite biological claim to expertise.

Last month the university added to its minor in sexual diversity studies a major in the same subject. The director of the new sexual diversity centre is a prominent gay rights activist; the undergraduate program director is a lesbian. Those looking for scholarly detachment may be surprised to read the logo on the program Web site: "great minds for a queer future."

Criticism of such course offerings at U of T is muted: Diversity does not extend to tolerating dissent from the new biopolitical orthodoxy. President Birgeneau made this clear before taking office, advising those who failed to share his enthusiasms to seek work elsewhere.

More recently, provost Neuman called criticism of the new programs evidence of "systemic discrimination." In the present climate, only the most reckless scholar would risk a charge of that nature.

Perhaps the focus on biological diversity at U of T might be justified if it served to redress years of neglect and exclusion -- as supporters claim. But in fact, visible minorities are highly successful in Canadian education. They represent 13% of the Canadian population but a majority of U of T students. Women are 40% more likely to be admitted to the university's undergraduate program than men, and about 35% more likely to be admitted at the graduate level. In many departments, women are twice or three times as likely to be appointed as male applicants. More than 30% of new U of T faculty appointments are visible minorities.

As he heads to Berkeley, Birgeneau is emphasizing what he calls "equity and inclusion." But his record at U of T and MIT suggests his goal conflicts with the more traditional academic principles of merit and detached scholarship. Given his track record, we can only guess what social engineering plans he has for his new university. But we can at least be thankful that the fallout will be California's problem, not ours.