A survey and the past that is still here

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Karen Dubinsky and Adele Perry

Surveys are a well-established research method. Twice in the last month or so, some (but certainly not all) academics in Canada received an email invitation to complete one such survey. For some, an email arrived on 9 February 2022, from “Leger au nom de l’Université Trent et de l’Université Concordia” (followed by English), with a subject line that read “Trent University and Concordia University want your opinion, (followed by French). The email opened with Trent, Concordia and Leger (the polling company) logos, and explains its contents in ten short lines. It’s a request for participation “in a survey on the role of university professors in Canada” and the purpose is “to understand how professors see the role of universities and university professors in Canada today.”

After several questions to establish demographics, the February 2022 survey offered twelve questions exploring political opinions and the role of faculty in the university and society. The questions pivot on a brittle binary axis: the purity of academic endeavour vs the messy grime of social engagement, the academic who either censors themselves or speaks their mind.

This was not the first survey that asked questions along these lines. Following public attention and debate around faculty using anti-Black slurs the classroom, Quebec premier Francois Legault announced his desire to “protect campus free speech from anti-racism activists” and funded[1] the Independent Scientific and Technical commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in Academia to survey tenure-track professors and contract lecturers in Quebec.[2] One of the survey’s most reported finding was that 60 percent of faculty reported avoiding using certain words in class.[3]  Critics pointed out problems with survey design, research ethics, the failure to note existing collective agreements and laws regarding academic freedom. The survey received a dismal response rate – only 1079 out of 33,516 people polled responded.[4]

What is the work being done by the February 2022 survey, the curious email that accompanied it, and the twelve brittle questions at the end of the link? We are interested in the trajectory of this survey, not because surveys are a bad method (they aren’t) or because the thoughts and opinions of academics are not worthy of scrutiny or public discussion (they certainly are). What interests us are the connections between the February 2022 survey and a range of efforts to locate faculty as victims of a social climate changed by anti-racism and feminism.

The February 2022 survey arrived in the wake of an American one that paid limited attention to Canada. This time last year, the researchers named in the Leger survey, Christopher Dummitt and Zachary Patterson, published an op ed in the National Post, applauding the release of a survey undertaken by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI). A right-wing California based think tank, the CSPI published 195-page report which compiled survey data from US, UK and Canadian universities. The op-ed explained that the CPSI report suggested that “the over-representation of left-wing views in universities creates an environment in which structural discrimination against conservative perspectives is pervasive” and made a pitch for the need for more Canadian data.[5]

In early March 2022, a revised survey was distributed by Leger. This version was introduced in greater detail, with an email noting that the survey was funded by the Heterodox Academy, a US based organization dedicated to “promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning” and providing a more detailed explanation of research ethics and practices, including confidentiality and data storage. Respondents can now skip questions or provide a partial one.

The core queries remain. Why this concern, now? In her chapter in 2017’s The Equity Myth, political scientist Malinda Smith explains that the growing demand for employment equity in Canadian universities in the 1980s and 90s was met with backlash that linked equity, diversity and inclusion to what some historians then worried was a “petrified campus.”[6] These concerns are echoed in the Leger survey.  In important ways, a similar set of anxieties seem to inform the February 2022 Leger survey. One question asks:

“If you had to choose, which of these do you think is more important?

  • The university course content should feature a authors/thinkers of diverse racial/ethnic/gender backgrounds
  • University course content should feature the most intellectually foundational knowledge in the field.

Diversity or excellence; the Black writer or the smart one; the Indigenous researcher or the important one. This is a false binary and a reminder that the past is far from over.  As University of Alberta Political Science professor Jared Wesley noted on the “Real Talk” podcast on anti-conservative bias in Canadian universities last year: “As a person of mixed race walking into classrooms, my first impression wasn’t whether my prof was conservative or progressive or not, it was they don’t look like people that I’m used to being with.” Those who received either of these surveys, whoever you are, might consider the context and history of the questions just as much as the answers.

Karen Dubinsky is a Professor in Global Development Studies/History at Queen’s University. Adele Perry is a Professor in History and Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.


[1] Jonathan Montpetit, “In vow to protect campus free speech, Quebec premier joins war on woke,’ 18 February 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-campus-free-speech-academic-freedom-legault-1.5917113

[2] The final report is available at https://cdn-contenu.quebec.ca/cdn-contenu/adm/min/education/publications-adm/enseignement-superieur/organismes-lies/Rapport_profs_public.pdf?1638545168, accessed 28 February 2022.

[3]See, for instance,  https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-quebecs-commission-on-academic-freedom-takes-a-courageous-stand/

[4] See the open letter regarding “Faculty Opposition to Survey by Quebec’s ‘Independent Scientific and Technical Commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in the University Environment, posted at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf2MQxEET3-mpey3OMLfuypHrkVQDy-GmCrpMV2G92HICfJMg/viewform?fbclid=IwAR1VePxXqgZTxw0XKAPF6PW3vPnGo7XNb9IUSQKcupw5PyXzBQ6CYMpOWn8.  The figures come from https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/opinion-when-it-comes-to-academic-freedom-universities-haven-t-been-asleep-at-the-switch-1.5727093

[5] See also Ryan Jespersen’s podcast, “Real Talk,” on “Are universities in Canada inherently biased against conservatives?”, 11 March 2021.

[6] David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell and Jack Granatsein, quoted in Malinda S. Smith, “Disciplinary Silences: Race, Indigeneity and Gender in the Social Sciences,” in Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Howard Ramos, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter S. Li, Carl James, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2017) 246.

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