The Colourful Doors Of Privilege

January 2019

A Google-search for news relating to “Academic Freedom” and “Freedom of Speech” generated 3.3 million and 39.2 million hits respectively on December 30, 2018. There are of course many news reports about threats to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in countries like Turkey (e.g., Turkey: Government Targeting Academics), India, (e.g., The Right-Wing Assault on Academic Freedom in India), Hungary (e.g. Academic freedom flouted in Hungary), Brazil (e.g., Bolsonaro poses a serious threat to higher education), or China (e.g., Beijing signals tighter control over dissenting scholars).

But an alarming number of stories concern threats to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech at universities in the United States (e.g., What Is Academic Freedom? Statement That Alarmed Professors at U. of Texas Sets Off Debate, or The dangerous silence in higher education) and Canada (e.g., Suspension of TRU professor could violate academic freedom, Head of UBC research institute resigns over academic freedom concern, Student group cancels event at UW over $28,500 security cost, and Controversial professor Rick Mehta fired from Acadia University).

I’ve selected these cases randomly. My citing them does not imply that I agree with any of the reported comments. But Freedom of Speech applies regardless of whether one finds said speech agreeable.

Despite all these stories, there are also articles by academics who claim there is no threat to Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at North American universities. One of the latter is by self-proclaimed Academic Freedom expert Shannon Dea (University of Waterloo). Alleging that the widely reported threats to Freedom of Speech at Canadian universities are hugely overblown, she uses her office door as the counterexample: “I wear my views on my sleeve and my sleeve is my office door … no one at the university has ever interfered with what I post there” (Dea 2018a). Her argument seems to be “I do not have any problems expressing my views, therefore no-one has problems expressing their views”.

The naivety of this argument would be surprising coming from anyone. But it is breathtaking coming from someone who has written as extensively on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech as Dea. Her office door shows that while some of her views may seem fringy to the general population, at most Canadian universities, and especially in feminist oriented philosophy departments like Dea’s, they are main-stream. So it is of course unsurprising that “no one at the university” has ever interfered with her postings. Professors who hold views diverging from the mainstream may be reluctant to post their views and if they do they might be asked to remove such postings. That has happened to Saint Mary University’s philosophy professor Peter March. When he posted on his office door the set of twelve cartoons originally published in September 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Terrence Murphy, the Vice President Academic and Research of Saint Mary’s, ordered Dr March to remove them. One may suspect that only the doors of the privileged main-streamers can be decorated without interference from their universities.

There are further privileges Dea enjoys. In another article Dea herself cites “a report released … by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [stating that] 53.6 percent of all Canadian university faculty appointments in 2016-2017 were contract – that is, non tenure-stream – jobs” (Dea 2018b). Here she acknowledges that the majority of Canadian academics lack the protection of tenure, a protection that offers Dea the freedom to express her views without fear of repercussions.

In addition, having an office door to decorate is unimaginable for many part-time academics. On my last part-time appointment at Mount Saint Vincent University, in Halifax, I shared an office with ten other academics. The office door was hardly big enough for our name signs, so we never had the luxury to post our views in a way Dea takes for granted. The office situation is even worse for graduate students who fulfill teaching or teaching assistant obligations. PhD students at the philosophy department at Dalhousie University occupy tiny semi-private cubicles and MA students have no designated office space. Former WLU graduate student Lindsay Shepherd told me that she didn’t have her own office but reserved a spot every week in a shared generic office. In addition, junior faculty and faculty at smaller universities and colleges often have shared offices. Dea brags: “Very few professionals outside of academe have office doors like mine” (Dea, 2018a). Yet, even within academe only a privileged minority enjoys private offices with the potential for doors like Dea’s.

Another problem with Dea’s argumentation is that, seemingly, she believes that only widely reported incidents are a threat to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech. Her determination to trivialize the actual threat to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech is quite remarkable: “… with thousands of students, professors, courses, and campus speakers across the country, free speech violations occur from time to time. But these are outliers. Unfortunately, they are the only stories we hear about. A controversial speaker whose talk doesn’t get shut down doesn’t make for much of a headline. A few days ago, in a heroic and carefully documented Twitter thread, Acadia University politics lecturer Jeffrey Sachs highlighted the media silence on the many controversial campus talks that proceed without incident” (Dea, 2018a).

But one wonders how Dea or Sachs would respond to a gun lobbyist in the US who argues “with millions of students and teachers, across the country, high-school shootings occur from time to time. But these are outliers. Unfortunately, they are the only stories we hear about. Yet every day millions of kids and teachers go to school without being shot. But the media are silent about that.” Would Dea and Sachs conclude therefore we should not be (overly) concerned about the high school shootings that do occur? I hope not. And, of course, the widely reported “free speech violations” have a chilling effect on students and academics that is difficult to quantify. When a tenured professor like Rick Mehta can be dismissed because of the free expression of his views, who is safe? When professor Rambukkana publicly apologizes to Lindsay Shepherd for intimidating her and limiting her Freedom of Speech but then turns around and sues her (Two Laurier professors sue former TA who recorded disciplinary meeting), how can any student in his classes feel encouraged to express disagreement? When universities slap hefty security fees on student groups who want to invite “controversial” speakers, how many student groups will not even try to issue invitations? The widely reported incidents are in fact like tiny visible tips of massive icebergs that have been chilling the academic climate for many years.

In her dismissal of any serious threat to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Dea argues “Human beings pay more attention to anecdotes than they do to other kinds of data” (Dea, 2018a). But her office door invocation is of just this order. She pays attention to those who feel compelled to comment on the door. Undoubtedly some students will feel encouraged and/or welcomed by the posters. But, presumably only a small number of her students will comment. How can Dea know that the door does not silence others? Would a young female athlete who lost a competition against a physically superior transgender athlete knock at Dea’s door? Would the son of Alberta oil workers who lost their jobs knock at Dea’s door? Would a young woman who struggles with infertility feel welcome into an atmosphere that focusses exclusively women’s “reproductive rights”? I do not pretend to know the answers to those (and countless similar) questions. But I know that, as a survivor of a totalitarian dictatorship who has been repeatedly called “colonizer” merely because of her skin colour, I would not knock at Dea’s door. The display would silence me and I doubt I am the only one on whom it has this effect.

I believe that to many part-time academics, PhD and MA students, or non-conforming members of minorities, Dea’s self-congratulatory musings must feel like a slap in the face: “I think that my office door nicely emblematizes just how much free expression is valued on university campuses … we expect professors and students to tell us what they think … Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine anyone with greater freedom of speech protections than university professors” (Dea, 2018a). This argument is virtually indistinguishable from that of an East German Marxism professor in the 1970s claiming that there is no Freedom of Speech suppression at his university because he always could express his views. But for anyone not as privileged as Dea on so many dimensions the concerns about the free expression of their thoughts remain.