The Perils of University Indigenization

While attending the Academic Freedom Conference at Stanford University on November 4–5, I heard for the first time about the Kalven Report. In his presentation, University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot explained that the Kalven Report was part of the “Chicago Trifecta.” Along with the Chicago Principles (promoting free speech) and the Shils Report (defending merit-based hiring), the Kalven Report was argued to be one of the foundational documents for protecting academic freedom and open inquiry at universities.

The Kalven Report is the product of a committee formed by University of Chicago President George W. Beadle in 1967. It sought to address demands that UChicago oppose the Vietnam War. The report concluded that the university should avoid taking an official position on social or political issues. “The mission of the university,” the report reads, “is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge,” a mission that could be compromised by administrators signalling that there is a “correct” position on a particular controversy. The report argued that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting,” and that official support for a political cause might discourage members of the university community from critically analyzing it. It noted that

[t]he instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Although there are many initiatives in Canadian universities today that violate these sentiments, none is more damaging to academic freedom, open inquiry, and critical thinking than what has been called “indigenization” (which now often includes the added component of “decolonization”). The political pressure for this initiative surged in 2015 with the release of a new report by the government-funded  Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After several years of emotionally charged hearings, the Commission recommended that “[t]he education system itself must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.”

[Related: “When Questions Become Harassment”]

At Mount Royal University (MRU), where I was fired from my position as a tenured professor in December 2021, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report was treated like a sacred text. This resulted in the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan 2016-2021. The Plan had five “goals”:

1. “cultiva[ting] respectful and welcoming environments …”;

2. “foster[ing] respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge-production …”;

3. “build[ing] strong relationships … with [indigenous] … stakeholders …”;

4. “enhanc[ing] the … cultural experience of indigenous learning”; and

5. “promot[ing] culturally responsible and respectful curricula that integrates Indigenous pedagogies and ways of knowing.”

Since the Indigenous Strategic Plan was proposed, I was a vocal critic of it on grounds similar to those expressed in the Kalven Report. I argued that the plan would result in a politicization of the university because “documents exhorting university indigenization” imply “that respect for aboriginal people entails an acceptance of all of their ideas.” In other words, the directive to “foster,” “cultivate,” and “promote” the “ways of knowing” of indigenous peoples means that critically analyzing these ideas would put one at odds with the official position of the university.

My critical analysis of indigenization had major implications for my position at MRU. Many faculty members and students thought that I tarnished the university’s “You Belong Here” brand. Instead of seeing my dissent as scholarly independence and an important check on “political fashions, passions, and pressures,” they claimed I held “anti-indigenous views.” They even labeled my academic questions about “indigenous science” as “racist,” disciminatory,” “insulting,” and “laughable.”

The most extreme opposition to my critical analysis of indigenization came in March 2021, when MRU indigenous studies professor Renae Watchman filed a 25-page complaint against me alleging 15 “examples” of harassment. While some of these allegations—e.g., my refusal to capitalize I in the word indigenous, my reference to diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives as “DIE,” etc.—can only be characterized as bizarre, other examples can be directly explained by MRU’s Indigenous Strategic Plan. Because the plan claimed that MRU officially endorsed indigenous “ways of knowing,” it was predictable that some faculty members and students would come to believe that my dissent violated professorial obligations.

Watchman argued on multiple occasions that my critical questions directed toward indigenous spokespeople amounted to “targeting” them and compromising their “personal safety.” These questions involved trying to understand how indigenous “ways of knowing” could be reconciled with scientific research and scholarly standards. For example, in response to a question from the audience during a presentation at MRU, an indigenous elder argued that “gut problems” in children should be treated by rubbing corn pollen on the child’s feet and performing a sunrise ceremony. Because I was not supportive of this view—and because the Indigenous Strategic Plan directs that it be “respected” and “valued”—an indigenous scholar-activist like Watchman sees this as a violation of university policy and an attack on indigenous people.

[Related: “Indigenization Has Poisoned Mount Royal University’s Academic Environment”]

Because of the propagandistic nature of indigenization, Watchman felt no need to understand my arguments or substantiate her opposition to them. The investigator examining Watchman’s complaint found that, despite her complete rejection of my views, she admitted to not having read any of my academic “stuff.” This meant that she was unable to articulate any reasons for why my arguments were invalid.

According to the investigator, Watchman consistently responded to his requests for clarification with the automatic reaction that I was “complicit in racism.” The investigator pointed out that this was indicative of an “intellectually lazy false equivalence exercise to protect one’s viewpoint as some sort of sacred cow.” And even when Watchman declared that my perspective was “problematic, hateful, [and] ignorant,” she refused to provide evidence showing how this was the case. Instead, my demands that she substantiate her claims resulted in further allegations that I was harassing her.

Most significantly, according to the investigator’s report, Watchman asserted that MRU should not give any space to my “voice” criticizing indigenization. This was because, in Watchman’s view, “white people can be too fragile to learn some of the tough lessons” indigenization provides. This reference to the “fragility” of “white people” gets to the core of what makes indigenization incompatible with the requirements of an academic institution. Indigenous people are to be revered, not challenged, as they are assumed to have insights that cannot be accessed by non-indigenous people. Such a racially essentialist position prevents scholars from coming together to search for truth.

I had predicted this kind of intolerant reaction in my criticism of the plan’s initial proposals. As indigenization constantly conflates respecting people with valuing their ideas, one could see that MRU was encouraging faculty and students to view criticisms of the initiative as a denigration of the people who embrace indigenous “ways of knowing.” This is because indigenization is an example of what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call “reified postmodernism.” In this reactionary anti-Enlightenment framework, indigenous peoples’ identities must be “made real,” which includes uncritically accepting their belief that they have a special “way of knowing.”

In a piece for Minding the Campus, Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley overviewed the circumstances that led to my firing. He noted that “Widdowson’s collision course with her spiraling university was foreseen in 2016 when it abandoned the Enlightenment for a plan to ‘indigenize’ learning.” Given what transpired, one could be forgiven for thinking that an impetus for the Indigenous Strategic Plan was a desire to push me out of Mount Royal University. Although there was no official directive for me to be removed, MRU’s declaration that indigenous “ways of knowing” would be “respected” and “valued” obviously put a target on the back of any professor daring to critically analyze the initiative. The Kalven Report warned us of this. Universities which seek to uphold their academic mission would do well to seriously consider its arguments.


Image: Adobe Stock

Frances Widdowson

Frances Widdowson is a former professor of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. She was fired by the university in December 2021 and is a vocal advocate for academic freedom and free speech. You may find more information about her case at www.wokeacademy.info, which is going to arbitration January 16-27, 2023. She is a co-author of "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry" with Albert Howard, editor of "Indigenizing the University" and author of "Separate but Unequal."

10 thoughts on “The Perils of University Indigenization

  1. This is disgusting, and very scary . We have gone from dropping the term Indian( which btw is used by natives themselves) to this ridiculous point, thanks in part to the likes of Senator Murray Senator who sits in his posh office collecting Federal govt( albeit taxpayers dollars) indexed pensions …continuing to push this apartheid crap to divide and segregate Canadians !

  2. If you want to teach indigenous “ways of knowing”, then create a class for that purpose. But keep that nonsense out of STEM courses. Folklore has no place in engineering, science or math classes.

    1. “folklore” kept the local populations thriving for thousands of years, in less than 500 years “science” has almost completely destroyed nature AND culture. hahahah this debate is silly.

  3. There is an end-of-empire feel to this, as barbarians circle its weakened perimeters and a Christian insurgency wipes out the ‘pagan’ culture that made the empire great in the first place.

    The fate of the pagan Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, was emblematic of the coming post-imperial ‘devolution’ (The Dark Ages).

    She was murdered by a Christian mob, because the Imperial Prefect could no longer protect her from the power and antagonism of the local Christian bishop, who was no longer prepared to compromise with still extant pagan intellectual and religious traditions, or allow them to challenge his authority…..and worse, to be challenged by an uppity woman who refused to accept her ‘real place’ in a world of Christian piety and obedience.

    All one has to do is replace ‘Christian’ with ‘reified postmodernist’ and the story looks much more familiar. And like Hypatia, you dear Frances are going to need some retired gladiators at your side, which if Hypatia had had in place, the story might have been a little different, even if the larger emerging narrative continued apace.

    We, like Hypatia’s generation, while we know the empire is in trouble, we cannot know what the ending is going to be until it happens. Thus every voice speaking up for the traditions of The Enlightenment and the science that it spawned against the rise of heresy sniffing neo-clerical dogmatism, the authoritarian oracularism of its sermonizing, and the untouchably sacred character of its texts and idols that it uses to bolster its faith narratives, is critically important, because there are so few with the courage you have, to stand up to it.

    Most people, when it comes to the crunch, are cowards and sheeplike conformists to the loudest, most authoritative and aggressive voices in their heads. That is the way of all pack animals, which is why enemies always go after pack leaders first; i.e., you.

    If or rather when you go back and confront the likes of Watchman, there is going to be the mother of all shit fights. She and her friends will behave just like the Christian community of Alexandria in 415 AD.

    You will need security, and your friends will need to pay for it, because the university has already lost too much of its traditional brief already to do what is necessary to expel people who no longer have any respect for that tradition, and whose rage and indignation will breach it, knowing it can do so with impunity, because the university authorities are ambivalent at best and hostile to you at worst.

    Universities can become very dangerous places, as they did when the Reformation broke out inside them, as the ideas of Zwingli, Luther and Calvin broke in and disrupted the status quo…riots, murder, exile….

    You will need to be very clear about that dear Frances, which is why you will lean on your friends even harder once you have won this case and return to kick out the campfires of not opponents, but your enemies, which is what you will be doing, whether you like it or not.

    You are going to be telling The Woke that a fundamental article of faith, indigenization, is a heap of blathersome crock and if they cannot use the university system to get rid of you, they will almost certainly ‘take matters into their own hands’ because their agenda isn’t up for debate at all.

    You are hopefully going to be crystal clear about this, and prepared.

  4. I worked at Denton’s, huge law firm. In Canada the most profitable practice was the Aboriginal Law Team, a huge department with lawyers across Canada. They ensured no aboriginal band lost any sort of claim, and they did it largely using canadian tax payer money. I detest lawyers after working there, nature of my job meant i was privy to many situations that coloured me against the aboriginal industrial complex as well as other egregious things.

    1. The lucrative “Aboriginal Industry” of lawyers was the motivation of our book – Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. This group, along with the consultants, accountants and other opportunists contribute to the dependency and isolation of native people.
      Perhaps Frances’ battle with the anti-Enlightenment woke forces will illuminate the truth, as the commentary here encourages.
      Albert Howard

  5. I hope when I see a medical person, it will be someone steeped in western modern science not “indigenous ways of knowing.”

    By the way that “Euro-Canadian science” is kind of cheeky.

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