What Is A University Student?

As a result of government and university policies in both the U.S. and Canada, university students are not seen as individuals with records of educational achievement and the potential for both success in higher education and for contributions beyond in the wider society. Instead, they are reduced to no more than members of census categories defined by race, gender, sexuality, ability, and economic class, and as members of local identity interest lobbying groups.

This collectivist frame has been mandated by national governments in the United States under the label “affirmative action,” and in Canada under the label “diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).” These policies have been enthusiastically implemented by university administrations, who have appointed dozens and even hundreds of “diversity officers” to pander to certain categories of students and professors, and to police thought and speech so as to conform to the policies.

The justification of policies such as “affirmative action” and DEI is the now-dominant Marxist class-conflict framework that divides the population into “oppressors” and “victims.” All people are assigned to one or the other category, as oppressor or victim, depending upon their race, sex, sexuality, ability, economic class, legality, and ethnicity. “Intersectionality” allows for a further step, in which favored and disfavored identities are combined to create gradations of oppression and oppressiveness. As we have been told repeatedly, white people, males, heterosexuals, the able, the middle and upper class, legal citizens, Christians and Jews, and the police are all heartless oppressors, while people of color, females, LGBTQ++, the disabled, the poor, illegal aliens, Muslims, and criminals are harmless victims, sometimes referred to as “racialized,” “marginalized,” and “underserved” minorities.

“Affirmative action” and DEI are programs to benefit and award members of the “victim” category and marginalize and punish members of the “oppressor” category. Members of the “victim” category are regarded as “diverse” and thus desirable, and members of the “oppressor” category are deemed “non-diverse” and undesirable. “Inclusion” means inclusion of members of desirable categories and exclusion of members of undesirable categories. “Equity” is the imposition of equal outcomes between the categories, irrespective of the performance of the individuals. The justification of “equity” is disparities of outcome when only merit and achievement are considered. Weaker performance of members of some categories is (falsely) alleged to be the result of “racism” and “discrimination.”

In the university setting, these policies mean that members of “victim” categories are given preference and benefits. They are admitted while others with stronger academic claims are rejected. They are actively recruited, better funded, provided with special offices to pander to them, given separate facilities, invited to exclusive ceremonies, and generally celebrated. They are preferentially hired, given tenure, and promoted. In contrast, members of “oppressor” categories are systematically disadvantaged, in many situations not even allowed to apply for benefits and posts, passed over in selection, and generally vilified and discouraged.

In this context, students are encouraged to hone their census category “identity” into a rare and beautiful thing, so sensitive that even a gentle breeze is a threat of death. While not all students are narcissistically obsessed with their identities, many have succumbed to the professional agitators masquerading as academics in “studies” departments such as Gender Studies, Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, Hispanic Studies, Queer Studies, Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Palestine Studies, and Native Studies, or those who have wormed their way into departments such as Sociology, Anthropology, Criminology, and really everywhere in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Students themselves have formed identity groups parallel to the studies departments and operate independently as vigilantes in defense of their identities and in attack on any view and any person who does not bow to their views. They are not like street gangs, competing over territory and honor, but, thanks to the magic of intersectionality, unite together like BLM and Antifa to attack students of the “oppressor” categories and professors who do not express solidarity with their identity crusades. Their battle cry is “we feel unsafe,” and their goal is to punish anyone who expresses disagreement with them, or anything that they can pretend offends their precious identities. Students complain that anyone who will not accept their dictates deny “the dignity of their identity and personhood.” Make no mistake: the “diversity” in DEI does not mean “diversity of opinion,” which is no longer allowed.

Weaponizing their proclaimed offense, these student groups bully others into conformity or silence. They do not hesitate to cancel others, which in most universities and colleges takes little more than a complaint alleging violated identity. Other students must be rebuked or terminated in order for the complaining students to “feel safe.” Whether student vigilante groups bent on destroying anyone whose ideas they disagree with make the student body and the professoriate “feel safe” is highly doubtful. Aggressive attacks on other members of the academic community are generally accepted at face value and are not challenged by university administrations. Those who engage in this destructive behavior do so scot-free and are never penalized or otherwise held responsible. This is a formula for increasing aggressive attacks on academic freedom. Until unwarranted attacks are punished, there will be more and more such attacks and cancellations of students and professors.

A recent article by a Quebec author claims to debunk the idea that cancel culture exists at McGill University:

For a situation to involve “cancel culture,” someone must actually be cancelled. For “the freedom to teach” to need protection, it must first be in danger. But McGill’s administration seems to be siding with its tenured staff. None of the McGill professors cited in La Presse have faced repercussions.

It is true that the McGill Administration is relatively more sane than administrations in many other universities, reasserting the necessity of protecting academic freedom even in the context of DEI mandates, but the cancellation of academics has nonetheless been widespread in both Canada and the U.S. The National Association of Scholars lists 176 victims of cancellation. The Quebec author who dismisses cancel culture claims that the working principle at McGill and, presumably others, is, of course, “systemic racism.”

Have you noticed that something is missing from the discussion so far? The point of the university is to educate; the point of a student is to be educated. Students are in the university to study and learn, not to form identity mafiosi to extort obedience and impose mob power over other students and professors. In one of my senior seminars toward the end of my fifty years teaching at McGill, one of my students said to the class, “You can’t say anything at McGill without being attacked by other students.” Student terrorists were waiting for their chance to crush their peers. The idea of a university as a place for the civil exchange of ideas has been canceled in practice by student bullies claiming to be victims of “racism,” “sexism,” Islamophobia,” “transphobia,” “ableism,” “heteronormality,” “settler colonialism,” “capitalism exploitation,” etc.

The obvious giveaway when eight—eight!—student identity groups attacked me for articles I had published on public affairs was not that they called me nasty names, but that no one from those groups provided a substantive critique of the articles they were condemning. All they said was that my articles were unacceptable and harmful to McGill’s reputation, and that McGill should revoke my emeritus status, which, by the way, I had earned for my long service to McGill and the profession (as it was then) of anthropology.

It would have been academically respectable, even constructive, to engage my work intellectually. If the eight groups, or one of the groups, or even one individual of the eight groups, had offered challenges by way of alternative analyses, contrary evidence, and evidence-based contradictory conclusions, they would have been fulfilling their responsibilities as members of a university. I would have welcomed the challenge and would have been willing to exchange views at length. But they were not academically serious; they were just ideological bullies trying to punish me. Extremist activist professors are very much in the same game, as seen in many other cases of cancellation, although, as it happens, not in my case.

We have seen our universities abandon Enlightenment ideals and follow the road taken by Fascist, Soviet, and Chinese Communist universities, where only the correct ideological stance is acceptable. Many of our students, while claiming to fear for their “safety,” emulate the Red Guard students advancing Mao’s cultural revolution. Our legacy of intellectually open higher education is in severe jeopardy; perhaps our universities are corrupted beyond redemption.

But, wait, there is more. Thanks in part to radical faculties of education in universities, the neo-Marxist identity class conflict theory is spreading to K-12 schools, where it will have an even more susceptible audience. Once ingested, this poison will inflame racial, gender, and other divisions, defame the country, destroy the cultural heritage of Western Civilization, and encourage attempts at establishing an illusory socialist utopia. Destruction and decline will follow.


Image: Min An, Public Domain

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

4 thoughts on “What Is A University Student?

  1. I think that the problem is even deeper — students have become a fungible resource to be exploited for the benefit of the university.

    In decades past, the attitude was that a university was a charity that would largely be funded by the alumni — and at some point in the mid 20th Century, the attitude shifted to that of the fungible student, the horde, from which considerable financial resources could be leveraged.

    Compare, for example, faculty pay and workloads circa 1960 to today — not to mention the bloated administrations we have today. And once students became fungible, once they no longer were individuals, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate that they would seek to obtain at least a group or tribal identities.

  2. So, I am wondering, what actually has happened to Professor Salzman? The link ‘attacked me’ says he was “canceled,” but what does this mean? It looks like 8 student groups attacked him verbally or in writing, and tried to get his emeritus status removed. I am sure this was very unpleasant, and probably deplorable, but it seems to me it is within their rights. But was Professor Salzman actually “canceled”? i.e. did McGill take away his emeritus status? If not, this seems to me like another case of nasty hardball academic politics, as played by radical students. Again, very unpleasant, and deplorable. But judging from the info under his byline for this article, it seems like he retains several fora for taking positions which are controversial (though I would proabably agree with many of them myself).

    Speaking of politics, is anyone who should be supporting Professor Salzman doing so? If not the academic senate, or the union, or something like that, any prominent politicians? Or are they all leftists in Quebec? Quite possibly so, my condolences.

    1. The article headlined with the statement that I was being cancelled was written before there was any institutional response. Eventually McGill stated that it upheld academic freedom and that within McGill, people, including emeritus professors, were not disciplined for their opinions. The student groups were not named, nor was I.
      A small group of colleagues wrote a very good letter, which I also signed, in support of academic freedom. No other support was forthcoming, but I imagine (and that might be the right word) that some colleagues, most of whose views differ from mine, felt they were being virtuous and broadminded (if you can still use that word) by abstaining from supporting the student groups and by not condemning me.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. It sounds to me then that the McGill administration basically did right by you and by academic principles. When one plays in this game, somebody is going to get bruised. I know this myself from experience years ago that was much less unpleasant than yours. Since then, I’ve kind of decided to stay out of this stuff, for the most part, partly I suppose out of a selfish concern to avoid a nasty environment for myself, and partly out of a sense of futility. Plenty of people know my views, but I don’t go out of my way either to spread or hide them. I’ve known professors who got less support from their erstwhile friends than it sounds like you got. I do have to say that these people brought trouble on themselves by speaking or acting in an unnecessarily provocative or stupid way. It doesn’t sound like that with you, from what I can tell.

        I do strongly support what you’re doing with SPME. I think that is worthwhile in part because I think it is having a positive effect.

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