Congress 2020 is cancelled. But before the conference is forgotten, let’s ponder the anti-racism Congress that never was.
At last year’s gathering, in a brazen act of racial profiling, a participant harassed political scientist Shelby McPhee and falsely accused the Black graduate student of theft. Following an investigation, the perpetrator was issued a ban for violating the Congress Code of Conduct.
The Black Canadian Studies Association led the way in demanding redress. In part, it challenged the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences to add anti-Black racism to the theme of Congress 2020.
Before the response to COVID-19 intervened, about 8,000 academics were set to attend Bridging Divides: Confronting Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism, the re-titled event hosted at Western University (commonly known as UWO prior to its rebranding in 2012).
Holding an anti-racism Congress at Western was going to be a little on the nose. It was a remarkable opportunity for a university whose reputation has previously been tarnished on that front.
In the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps no other Canadian university saw more intransigent resistance to anti-racist efforts. Some professors vigorously opposed new policies aimed at reducing racism and sexism on campus. And two notable UWO professors put racism at the core of their intellectual projects.
Keeping Congress in mind, I offer a three-part series on the history of racism at UWO.
Today’s post examines university codes of conduct, April 28’s the intermingling of academic racism and far-right activism, and the final post, on May 5, will address an institutional memory problem in Western’s Department of History.
Codes of conduct are an important part of university anti-discrimination policies.
Yet some professors strenuously resisted the introduction of such policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The opposition was especially pronounced at UWO, and critical to the debate was the question of academic freedom.
In 1958, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) asked a committee of UWO professors to draft an inaugural statement on academic freedom.
Though a valued principle for much of the early 20th century, academic freedom was far from assured. University presidents and governors summarily dismissed professors who held leftist and religious heterodoxies, or who were simply considered insubordinate.
CAUT argued that academic freedom conferred a faculty right to teach, research, publish, and discuss without fear of dismissal or sanction, including when professors criticized their own universities.
But CAUT acknowledged that such freedom existed within the framework of department, faculty, and university governance, as well as the limits of the law. Academic freedom came with embedded professional responsibilities.[i]
Codes of conduct, which stipulated that academics who engaged in discrimination and harassment were violating their professional responsibilities, came later.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Canadian universities implemented both codes of conduct and employment equity programs.
The employment equity regulations of the Federal Contractors Program provided a push in 1987. But university policy reform also involved local-level institutional activism. In 1986, the London Urban Alliance on Race Relations prodded UWO to formally study racism on campus.
Law professor and historian Constance Backhouse also took initiative. She produced a report detailing UWO’s history of hiring, pay, and other discrimination against women scholars.
In 1989, Backhouse and three colleagues followed up by interviewing women teaching staff. They concluded that beyond prejudicial employment practices, recurring social barriers – from sexist language to academic isolation to harassment – fostered a ‘chilly climate’ for women faculty.
A UWO policy-making process culminated in an anti-discrimination policy and an employment equity program in 1990-1991. Their implementation was contentious.[ii]
Many professors supported the remedies, at UWO and more widely. On the question of employment equity, proponents agreed that steps should be taken to rectify inequitable hiring patterns and to ensure the fair treatment of previously marginalized scholars.
Detractors suggested that sexism, racism, and ableism in the university were being exaggerated. They felt that principles of individual merit and equal opportunity should be preserved. Some went so far as to argue that employment policies designed to counter systemic inequities were themselves forms of ‘reverse discrimination’ penalizing white men.
Codes of conduct also received conflicting appraisals.
Advocates sought to curb language and behaviour that demeaned, harassed, or excluded individuals or groups. They argued that one person’s academic freedom should not interfere with the right of others to participate in the university. They emphasized that while universities should continue to debate difficult subjects, professors occupied positions of power and therefore had a special obligation to respect the students who were a ‘captive audience’ in the classroom.
Opponents claimed that they sympathized with the goals of anti-harassment policies. But they stressed a faculty-centered version of academic freedom. They warned against the inhibition of free inquiry and felt that universities risked limiting teaching and research to uncontroversial subjects.
Some professors argued that the measure of offensive language and behaviour was subjective, and that faculty were set to be hassled by unaccountable human relations officers pressing the unsubstantiated complaints of disgruntled students.
At the extreme, dissenters defended overtly ‘insensitive’ and ‘offensive’ speech, going to exaggerated lengths to assert that ‘political correctness’ posed a grave danger to academic freedom. They insisted that ‘speech codes’ were ‘Orwellian’ measures that would censor scholars and bring about a ‘totalitarian’ university by instilling ‘ideological conformity.’[iii]
UWO was one of the few Canadian universities where strident professorial opposition took durable organized form. A group of UWO psychology professors formed the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) in 1992. (Rooted in the wider ‘culture wars,’ SAFS mimicked National Association of Scholars, a parallel organization in the US.)
SAFS was reactionary. It categorically opposed university anti-harassment and employment equity measures.
But most importantly, SAFS conflated academic freedom and free speech. Its members invoked ‘real’ academic freedom: liberty of speech and thought shorn of the professional responsibilities that the principle of academic freedom actually carried within the university.
Members were quick to draw a distinction: SAFS defended free speech for all professors, but did not endorse any viewpoint.
Members still suggested their racial anxieties when they cited incidents that spurred SAFS’s creation. UWO psychology professors formed SAFS partly to protect their colleague, Philippe Rushton. In this respect, SAFS was a defense organization which objected when Black activists and their allies denounced Rushton’s racist theories, picketed his classes, and sometimes called for his dismissal. SAFS members also invoked the case of Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist who faced protests at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus following her muddled curation of a Royal Ontario Museum exhibit which reinforced colonial representations of African peoples.
SAFSer and aerospace professor Philip Sullivan claimed that he was defending academic freedom. But he was really trying to discredit Black protest. He argued that “the right to unfettered debate” had been under attack ever since Black students occupied Cornell University to contest professorial racism in 1969.[iv]
Most SAFS members nonetheless recognized that race was a delicate subject. They preferred to attack feminists.
In the 1990s, SAFS was on the losing side of the university policy debate at UWO and more generally. As the Congress Code of Conduct reminds us, academic freedom did not mean license for all forms of discrimination in the university.
Will Langford is a historian of grassroots politics and social movements. He is currently a Grant Notley Memorial Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Alberta.
[i] See Michiel Horn, Academic Freedom in Canada: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).
[ii] See The Chilly Collective, eds., Breaking Anonymity: The Chilly Climate for Women Faculty (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995).
[iii] David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J.L Granatstein, Petrified Campus: The Crisis in Canada’s Universities (Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1997), 92-95, 100-113; Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
[iv] P.A. Sullivan, “Ukrainian Catholic Priest Threatened with Expulsion,” Toronto Star, 26 October 1998, A19.