Institutional Neutrality: Do not block the way of inquiry!

Universities are supposed to be institutions of inquiry. My university’s enabling legislation declares its goal to be “the pursuit of learning.” Were universities to impede inquiry, they would betray this goal. As philosopher Charles S. Peirce admonished, “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Now more than ever, we need Peirce’s words “inscribed upon every wall” of university offices.

By now, readers are aware of the ideological cancer that has infected universities: critical social justice, also known as wokeism. During the pandemic, it was administrators, not faculty or students, who pushed woke ideas at universities. Their political proselytizing is blocking the way of inquiry, and it is time for university stakeholders to intervene.

Let me share a few examples from my institution, Wilfrid Laurier University, explain the problems found therein, and then offer some solutions.

In 2018, Lindsay Shepherd’s free speech group invited Professor Frances Widdowson to speak about indigenization and academic freedom. In response, the senior advisor of Laurier Indigenous Initiatives organized a competing event scheduled to conflict with Widdowson’s talk. When interviewed, the senior advisor asked: “What does freedom of speech even mean?”

Last winter, the office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organized a seminar series. At one session, the host and the main speaker were both employees of the Office of Human Rights and Conflict Management (OHRCM)—in other words, the seminar was organized by one woke office while featuring speakers from another.

Here are the host’s opening comments:

We must first ground ourselves in the understanding that colonialism shapes and impacts all aspects of the ways we enact change and how power imbalances and oppression is [sic] acted out. It is important to always incorporate this into our critical analysis. We are here as a result of blood that has been shed by colonization, and we must recognize and look to the efforts of those who came 7 generations before us.

By ‘critical’ the speaker means critical theory—in particular, postcolonial theory. The phrase “seven generations” refers to an indigenous creed. The host expects an intellectually homogeneous audience, and so she feels comfortable opening with a jargon salad. The statement resembles a prayer. But a prayer would violate the Wilfrid Laurier Act (s.6), which forbids that “any religious observance” be imposed on faculty or staff. More problematically, the opening statement blocks the way of inquiry—it telegraphs that one may not argue the merits of colonization.

[Related: “The Perils of University Indigenization”]

In March, Laurier’s administration celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD). The Advancement office organized a keynote address by Laurier’s president, and the OHRCM organized an Instagram campaign featuring women and non-binary people. (As usual, the LGBT crowd can’t let women have a day.) Meanwhile, the Laurier Centre for Women in Science moderated a panel discussion.

This a problem because celebrating IWD is a political act that emanates from critical theory. It is about recognizing the patriarchy’s alleged oppression of women. How do we know it’s political? Because Laurier doesn’t celebrate international men’s day.

It is wrong for a secular university to celebrate specific identity groups. This celebration sacralizes the targeted group, which blocks critical inquiry. For example, would a student feel free to question mandatory hijabs for Iranian women when the university celebrates Islamic Heritage month?

Last winter, Laurier announced that it would celebrate the first day of spring with a performance by professional drag artists. Laurier’s Campus Experience Coordinator planned the event. As one queer theory book explains: “drag … should be understood not only as a commercial performance but as a political event in which identity is used to contest conventional thinking about gender and sexuality.” Again we see a university administrator organizing a political event which emanates from critical theory.

Lastly, consider the recently announced non-credit course called “Writing with Inclusive Language.” The course was designed by multiple administrators from Writing Services, the OHRCM (again), the Accessible Learning Centre, and the office of EDI.

The course description reads, “… language can shape the way we perceive reality,” which blatantly reveals the course’s postmodern foundation. More than Derrida, this evokes Orwell: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

These university-led initiatives are a problem because they impede the process of knowledge creation, infringe on academic freedom, and besmirch the university’s neutrality.

The adoption of a position (or worldview) at an institutional level can only serve to block inquiry. The imprimatur of the university evinces an absolute assertion—that the idea cannot be questioned because everyone at the university agrees with it.

The scientific method is one of disconfirmation: hypotheses are true only until disproven. Silencing dissent stops disconfirmation from happening and thus thwarts the search for truth. It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to a university’s function.

[Related: “The Extended Parasite: On the Design of the Diversity Bureaucracy”]

Promoting political positions interferes with the academic freedom of students and faculty to pursue their own inquiry into whatever issues they choose. It tips the scales of discourse in favor of the university-approved position and so intimidates dissenting voices into silence. Students who do not support ideas like post-colonial guilt, systemic racism, campus indigenization, or gender theory might expect that the university will not tolerate their dissent, and many students will no doubt hesitate to raise certain topics in the classroom or corridor for fear of punishment.

These political statements and events also violate the principle that public institutions of education be non-partisan and take no specific stands on the issues of the day. This principle respects the fact that public institutions are funded by taxpayers of diverse political views for the common good.

Why are administrators doing this? Disrupting the university in its pursuit of truth is the goal of the critical social justice movement. Delgado and Stefancic say as much in their critical race theory primer, but this applies to all critical theories:

critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. … Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It not only tries to understand our social situation, but to change it …

What do we do about it? First, we must create new universities, like the University of Austin, committed to classical liberal principles. In existing universities, stakeholders (i.e., alumni, boards of governors, government education departments) must insist that administrators remain silent on all contentious issues. For public universities, this might require directives with financial penalties.

University administrators must stop promulgating statements and initiatives that celebrate identities, raise awareness, decry wrongdoing, protest injustice, right inequities, or signal virtue in any other manner. This means that the administration will not hold extra-curricular seminars or invite guest speakers to campus. As the University of Chicago’s Kalven report put it, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” The job of university administrators is to oversee the operations of the university, which means keeping the lights on and the Wi-Fi network running, not stumping for political causes.


Image: Adobe Stock

William McNally

William McNally (wmcnally@wlu.ca) is a Professor of Finance at Wilfrid Laurier University.

2 thoughts on “Institutional Neutrality: Do not block the way of inquiry!

  1. The difficulty of getting faculty to see that even if they are morally superior to anti-communist loyalty oaths the *effect on inquiry* of obligatory EDI statements is exactly equivalent, has been simply astonishing.

    Especially discouraging have been the number of critical faculty who say “viewpoint diversity” needs to be added to EDI style diversity. This is like saying “left anticommunism” needed to be added to right-wing anticommunism.

    although ha ha that is exactly what Cold War liberals did say, which suggests this sort of stubborn elision of first principle rolls along in very deep and well-established grooves.

  2. The events described in the article are precisely why college enrollment is falling. People are no longer going to spend hard earned money on this dribble. Moreover, the demographics are changing. People stopped having kids. There just aren’t as many 18 year olds around as there were 20 years ago.

    The demise of the university, in its current state, is something worth celebrating.

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