In her piece on the problems of diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives in the sciences, University of Southern California chemistry professor Anna Krylov compares the USSR, which she left in 1991, and modern universities. Krylov notes that universities are plagued by an “atmosphere of fear and self-censorship” and “an intolerance of dissenting opinions.” This, she writes, is linked to ideological imposition and “the use of social engineering to solve real and imagined problems.”
Although Krylov’s piece provides many excellent insights into how totalitarian regimes use ideology to restrain open inquiry, she leaves out an important piece of the puzzle: autocratic legal processes’ role in rejecting the “rule of law.” This feature of relatively free societies creates predictability amid legitimate coercion, which in turn gives individuals confidence that they will not be punished arbitrarily for, as George Orwell puts it, “tell[ing] people what they do not want to hear.”
Two of the most significant elements of the rule of law are legal equality and “no punishment without law.” Equality under the law ensures that powerful members of society, especially those in official positions, are not “above the law” and are unable to coerce people for simply having a dissenting position. “No punishment without law” is an equally important feature because it checks arbitrariness. With the rule of law intact, anything that is not prohibited by law is permissible, and any violations of the law must be responded to with a recognized procedure. Without these clearly defined parameters, members of society are afraid to do or say anything, as it may provoke the wrath of the authorities. “Better safe than sorry” is the motto in such circumstances; people become reluctant to state what they believe when it challenges the “politically correct” dogma.
In modern universities, the self-censorship and intolerance of dissent that Krylov details are directly related to the disintegration of the rule of law. I have witnessed this personally at Mount Royal University (MRU), where I was eventually fired from a tenured position in December 2021 after being subjected to a number of star chamber investigations. In these inquisitions, funded and controlled by MRU, I got to see first hand how the corrosion of the rule of law enables totalitarian impulses to gain a foothold.
For many years at MRU, I was protected by a principled faculty association and our strong Collective Agreement. To prevent faculty members from being subjected to arbitrary punishment, Section 25.4.1 of our employment contract states the following: “An Employee may not be disciplined for violation of a rule, regulation or instruction unless that rule, regulation or instruction has been promulgated, and communicated to the Employee, by the appropriate authority … .” In my case, this protection was completely ignored in the year leading up to my termination—this was enabled by a faculty association that had been ideologically captured, compromising its ability to fairly represent me.
Until 2020, MRU said that it would not regulate the private social media accounts of faculty members. This policy abruptly changed, specifically for my case, when MRU notified me without any warning of an impending investigation on November 16, 2020. As a result of this undisclosed change in how the Personal Harassment Policy was interpreted, I was subjected to three investigations for my social media activities before I was fired on December 20, 2021.
In my final disciplinary meeting with the acting provost, she asserted that I needed to “accept responsibility” and “show remorse” for my conduct. I replied that I could not accept responsibility for a rule that I did not know existed, and that remorse was not possible because I was merely defending myself from a mob that was trying to get me fired. My reasoning, which I clearly articulated over and over again for almost an hour, was completely ignored. MRU’s termination letter, compiled one week later, included the following two “examples” for why my employment relationship had been made unviable: “You have indicated that you will not take responsibility for your conduct” and “You have indicated that you have no remorse for your conduct.”
In addition to violating the “no punishment without law” principle, my coerced participation in three investigations paid for by MRU showed me that legal equality had been undermined. This was due to what Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Michael Rectenwald have identified as an autocratic or “reified” form of postmodernism. Also known colloquially as “wokeism,” this anti-Enlightenment reaction to intellectual progress maintains that equality under the law is oppressive because it upholds the inequities of the existing system. Instead of seeking to address these inequities economically, however, the woke argue that legal systems should favor subjective, allegedly oppressed identities so as to invert their position in the existing hierarchy.
In my own case, I found out early on that I would not be treated equally. For example, I was told by MRU that I would not receive the complaints against me in the first two investigations because “the release of the document of complaint could result in issues of procedural fairness for the complainant.” This raises the question of why “issues of procedural fairness for the complainant” would be seen as more important than protections for the respondent. Although it is not known for sure why this was the case, it is perhaps explained by the fact that the two people complaining were a trans activist and an indigenous academic. Since they are allegedly more oppressed than me on the intersectional scale of wokeism—which was, presumably, why MRU suddenly changed its policy of regulating social media in the first place—the need to elevate their identities would justify withholding certain details.
Not receiving the complaints had serious consequences, as it prevented me from having access to the information that I needed to defend myself. Although I was told by one of the investigators that I had been provided with all of the details that existed in the complaint, I found out after the investigation, from a freedom of information request, that important information had been withheld. One of the complaints, for example, was filed a few days after I had demanded transparency and accountability for a workshop alleging the existence of “white supremacy culture” in the Mount Royal Faculty Association. The complainant, who was a board member for the faculty association at the time, had facilitated this workshop with an honorarium that the union leadership refused to disclose, thus raising the possibility that the complaint was retaliatory in nature.
In addition to not receiving the complaints, I was told that I could not be investigated using the procedures attached to MRU’s Human Rights Policy, which contained natural justice protections, because this was “not an issue in [Widdowson’s] case.” I discovered, however, from a freedom of information request, that MRU had explicitly directed the investigator to “examine the Allegations in the context of … the Human Rights Policy ... .” Furthermore, since I had to receive the investigation reports through freedom of information requests, all of them contained significant redactions. What was withheld often pertained to the legal reasoning used by the investigators to determine if employees should be disciplined. It was only after I had been fired and had began the arbitration process that I was able to see all the documents that had been used as the basis for terminating me. I had to wait over two years to gain a complete understanding of all the allegations.
This inability to receive the complete investigation reports meant that I could not understand what MRU believed to be a “frivolous and vexatious” complaint, which directly contributed to my firing. In MRU’s termination letter, one of the “reasons” for my firing was “Bringing forward a complaint that was deemed frivolous, vexatious or malicious and not in good faith.” But because of the lack of investigation procedures, a report and its appendices that addressed the nature of “frivolous and vexatious complaints” were delayed for three and a half months. As a result, I was unable to review the university’s legal reasoning before deciding to file a complaint of my own.
This also meant that I had to glean the legal reasoning from the unredacted portions of the documents I received. For instance, I found that one Tweet satirizing the concept of “misgendering fatigue” and poking fun at the ever expanding LGBT initialism violated three MRU policies and two laws. Because the subject of my complaint was much more significant than this one Tweet, it did not seem to be “frivolous, vexatious or malicious” by the standard that had been set in an earlier investigation of my conduct.
A second piece of information with which I tried to understand the nature of a frivolous and vexatious complaint was the Renae Watchman complaint. This complaint, which I discussed in a previous article for Minding the Campus, contained such accusations as me not capitalizing the ‘I’ in ‘indigenous’ and using the acronym DIE for diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Watchman also filed this complaint after she had received a notice that she would be investigated for harassing me—therefore, her complaint also appeared to be retaliatory. And as my complaint, on its face, was much more substantial than the earlier one filed by Watchman, it was impossible for me to have known that MRU would find my actions unacceptable. Besides, MRU claimed that my complaint had gone through the following vetting process: “Human Resources conducts an initial assessment to determine that the facts alleged, if true, would result in a breach of University policy or are contrary to workplace expectations.” Since none of the “facts alleged” by me were determined to be “false,” MRU’s Human Resources office, through its own gate-keeping processes, appeared to accept that the complaint was valid when it was assigned to an external investigator.
MRU’s covert rule-changing and its refusal to apply its policies equally show just how much it has strayed from the rule of law. When totalitarianism begins to take root, institutions purge dissidents. MRU allowed complaints to be filed against me for my violation of unknown rules, but when the university forced me to use the complaints process to stop the mob, it selectively applied a new standard for “frivolous, vexatious, or malicious” complaints. This allowed MRU to terminate me for engaging in activities that I had no way of knowing might violate its policies.
In a statement that it released to the media soon after my firing, MRU not only implied that I was terminated for engaging in “harassment and discrimination”—it also hinted that these findings were justified because, at MRU, “decisions are always made following rigorous due process.” It should be clear by now that this “rigorous due process” was anything but.
My firing, in fact, was the result of sustained institutional support—both from my faculty association and from administrators—for the suppression of dissent at a university. The arbitrariness and selective application of rules means that everyone will be unsure of what the standards are and will lack confidence in equal treatment. They will think that it is better to err on the side of caution and to avoid saying anything controversial. Opposing the prevailing orthodoxy means putting one’s job on the line, and few are willing to take the risk. This, of course, means that autocratic power will continue to solidify, making it even more difficult for people to critique deteriorating academic standards and constraints on open inquiry.
Although the woke faction of my faculty association now embraces the deployment of diversity, inclusion, and equity oaths to suppress speech, they should be careful about what they wish for. Corporate university administrators now support these scholar-activists, but it won’t be long before some of the faculty attract attention for damaging the university’s reputation. As I have mentioned elsewhere, there is an “unholy alliance” between wokeism and diversity managerialism. University administrators harness wokeism’s arbitrariness to coerce loyalty to the institution’s brand, but reified postmodernism’s emphasis on subjectivity will lead to many unexpected casualties in the culture wars.
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