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Defending diversity and academic freedom

Are these cardinal principles of a university really at odds and is one really possible without the other?
By: Michelle Grady
January 26, 2021
A young woman at a protest speaks into a loudspeaker with a mask on

Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression hosted a panel discussion late last year on Cancel Culture, Censorship and Free Expression, which discussed whether there’s a rise in censorship or calls for cancelling. Ryerson Today considers this in conjunction with the core tenet of equity, diversity and inclusion.

One doesn’t have to look very far these days to encounter a lively discussion on the limits of free expression or the use of censorship. The riot on Capitol Hill and Trump’s subsequent deplatforming have brought the conversation to the forefront again, with some celebrating Twitter’s move and others ringing alarm bells.

But in the realm of public spaces like universities and libraries, this discussion started long before the birth of Twitter. Of late, much has been said of the contradictions between academic institutions’ core tenets of academic freedom and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). But are these notions really at odds?

Following on the heels of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression panel discussion late last year on Cancel Culture, Censorship and Free Expression, which hosted four panellists to discuss whether there exists a dangerous rise in censorship and public discussion that is chilling freedom of expression in universities, public libraries, arts and media, Ryerson Today spoke with James Turk, the centre’s director, Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president, equity and community inclusion, and associate professor, Child and Youth Care in the Faculty in Community Services, and Sanjay Ruparelia, the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair in the Faculty of Arts, to discuss how academic freedom can and should promote intellectual diversity and equality.

The limits of academic freedom

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are often conflated, but in fact are two very distinct concepts. “Academic freedom is a right of all academics necessary for them to fulfil their societal responsibilities to educate students and advance knowledge,” says Turk. “They have their academic positions because they've undergone a certain training and acquired certain qualifications in their discipline as recognized by their peers.”

In the defined rights of academic freedom according to UNESCO, external link, higher education teaching personnel have “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”

Ruparelia says that academic freedom is a cardinal principle of the university, and that it's vitally important that scholars are able to pursue their research and to organize their teaching in an independent way. “But, like any other value or principle, it's not absolute. It always has limits and constraints.”

Defining harm, reassessing its scope

What constitutes sufficient harm through words is an ongoing discussion, says Turk. “Harm traditionally has meant physical harm. Then it started expanding to psychological harm. At what threshold do we as a society say something is so harmful that we're going to make it illegal? It has to be a pretty high threshold. If you have a loose definition then a large part of public discourse becomes illegal.”

Those that protest things that offend them, say in the case of J.K. Rowling, external link, are exercising their right to free expression as well. “If people are calling for the cancelling of another person, or debating or boycotting, these are all forms of free expression and there’s nothing wrong with this,” says Turk. “The problem is when authorities act on those calls. Universities have the obligation to protect academic freedom, and I would argue that EDI is impossible without freedom of expression because it protects non-majoritarian views -- from both the left and the right.”

When scrutinizing what should be deemed harmful, though, Turk says it’s important to consider who gets to adjudicate what’s deemed hateful and harmful. Both Green and Ruparelia echo these sentiments.

“The concept of academic freedom was formulated under a particular worldview, and in the context of universities really being there to serve specific populations,” says Green, who hosted a Soup and Substance panel discussion on Freedom of expression, power privilege and perspective.

“Now that universities are becoming more diverse, they are struggling with these different canons of knowledge. If we really think about inclusion, it’s about disrupting an old system; disrupting a system that traditionally did not include racialized people.”

Addressing the outliers

Ruparelia says there isn’t an obvious conflict between academic freedom and the values of EDI. “On the other hand, there are cases -- and those are the ones that we keep reading about -- where certain things are said in a classroom that students or other faculty find harmful, which do not serve a necessary pedagogical function. In these circumstances, for a scholar to invoke academic freedom to justify their actions or their view can be problematic.”

When these cases crop up, Ruparelia says using ethical, moral and legal reasoning can provide clarity. “We can consider these things in context on a case-by-case basis. But I'm very supportive of those who say, ‘to hear certain utterances or statements is extremely damaging and undermines our standing as equals.’”

Vancouver Public Library’s chief librarian Christina de Castell, a panellist in the centre’s discussion, spoke of the increases they’ve seen for calls to cancel or deplatform: “The role of public programming for adults in libraries has dramatically increased. We deliver more than 2,000 programs a year for adults and they range from digital literacy to conversations about ideas. This means that people are being confronted by differences in their communities in much more public forums.”

De Castell says, like universities, libraries are confronting the fact that they are institutions built on Canada’s colonial history, and people who are marginalized often don’t see libraries as places where they belong. “We have to ask ourselves why it matters if people don't feel comfortable coming to libraries, and it matters because social infrastructure is a really important part of building community.”

A path forward

Cancel culture has been around for thousands of years, says Turk, and people have the right to protest in that manner. “Of course there are extreme forms of cancellation in history where these campaigns have succeeded, but because of our really strong protections for academic freedom, very few people are actually silenced in Canadian universities,” he says. Turk and his fellow panellists discussed the significant material repercussions cancel culture can have in individual lives, and what a way forward might look like.

For Turk, this might mean confronting those who cause offense head on. “If you silence those you find offensive, you diminish your ability to be critical or to articulate why it bothers you. When I talk about something a lot I get better at being able to articulate precisely what it is that bothers me.”

In this time of social change, de Castell says it's right to be questioning the way that we’ve done things in the past and what the harms may be. “Libraries have typically said that they're neutral; I don't think that libraries have ever been particularly neutral, but in times like this we need to set some kind of expectation on what's appropriate behaviour in a community. Everyone is part of our community, and we should look for ways to represent different voices in our spaces.”

As this discussion evolves, Green encourages the Ryerson community to think about what diversity really means in a university setting and to shift the conversation from having EDI and academic freedom at odds to a human rights centred space that considers the historical impact of slavery, colonization and dehumanizing practices that have seeped into the fabric of our public institutions, including universities. “While we say academic freedom is a principle we abide by, who in the academy really benefits from it and whose worldviews and knowledges are respected? When we consider diversity, we’re not just thinking about a mosaic of people with different views. It's really about valuing and respecting the diversity of knowledge, worldviews and experiences and the contribution that diversity can truly make to our organization and to our community.”


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