Racism accusations spark academic freedom debate in Canada

By Colleen Flaherty, for Inside Higher Ed

January 12, 2015

The University of New Brunswick in Canada appears to be standing behind a professor accused by another academic of racism and bad scholarship.

While academic freedom experts in the US and Canada agree the university did the right thing, the offended professor says the questionable comments merit no special protection.

At issue are a series of statements in which Ricardo Duchesne, a tenured professor of social science at New Brunswick, said that the city of Vancouver is essentially being ruined and becoming less “British” because of an influx of Asian immigrants.

In a statement this week, Robert MacKinnon, vice-president of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, didn’t endorse Duchesne’s comments about the allegedly deleterious effect of Asian immigrants on Vancouver. But MacKinnon said that “academic freedom is a foundational principle of university life”. Often, he said, “such academic debate expresses views that may be perceived as controversial and unpopular”.

MacKinnon continued: “The university statement of mission and values very clearly supports the freedom of thought and expression while maintaining the highest ethical standards and a respectful environment.”

The vice-president’s remarks addressed a complaint levied against Duchesne last summer by Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor and tenured professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. In a June letter to New Brunswick president H.E.A. Campbell, Jang said he’d received emails and blog links from Duchesne in response to the Vancouver City Council’s recent, unanimous vote to research any discriminatory practice used by the city, such as limits on property rights or employment, throughout its history against Chinese residents.

Jang said the content of the emails, which included links to Duchesne’s blog about protecting the interests of white Canadians, called Council of European Canadians, were “troublesome in that they go beyond fair comment and abuse the privilege of academic freedom in their pejorative nature that is based on poor scholarship”. Jang also said he’d received “white supremacist” emails from readers of Duchesne’s posts about the Vancouver City Council’s vote, which was part of a larger “Year of Reconciliation” with various Canadian ethnic groups.

Jang also wrote that he wanted the university to know that Duchesne sent the link to his blog postings “using his university affiliation”, through his university email account.

Duchesne allegedly first sent Jang and several other Asian-Canadian members of the city council an article he posted criticising the council’s reconciliation efforts and what he called “white guilt”. Jang wrote back, defending the council’s decision, saying “an act of apology or acknowledgement is a way to help people heal and, most importantly, educates to ensure that as a society we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”. Instead of responding directly, Jang said, Duchesne published parts of that email and made other comments about Asian Canadians.

Here’s part of Duchesne’s follow-up post, responding to Jang’s email: “We are thus talking about a very powerful demographic group that also happens to be very wealthy with deep ingrained connections to Communist China. This group has been allowed to alter radically the formerly elegant, serene, community-oriented, British city of Vancouver, turning it into a loud, congested Asian city (still attractive only because of the architectural and institutional legacy of past white generations).”

MacKinnon in his statement said the university had addressed and carefully reviewed Jang’s complaint. It’s unclear how extensive the review was, or if it included Duchesne’s explicitly academic work, which challenges multiculturalist values among Western nations. A university spokeswoman said New Brunswick had no additional comment.

Duchesne defended his views in an interview with CBC News, saying, for example, that “Sweden had practically no rape. Suddenly, they open their borders, they have one of the highest rape statistics in the world.” It’s worth noting that such claims about Sweden - which were central to one party’s political campaign there in the 2010 elections - have been widely disputed as misleading and out of context.

But Duchesne said in an email that the matter with Jang “was no big deal; a politician resurrected a complaint he made back in June, and the media picked up the same story again.”

Jang said he was disappointed with the university’s statement, which appeared to sidestep some of the issues in his complaint. He said he didn’t think what he described as Duchesne’s personal, factually unsubstantiated thoughts should be protected by academic freedom.

“If this is personal opinion, say that. Or if it’s part of your research, say that,” Jang said. “But don’t masquerade and use academic freedom as a shield for your personal beliefs. …Academic freedom only works if there’s good scholarship behind it.”

Jang said good scholarship means presenting opposing viewpoints and backing up assertions with evidence – a standard he said he holds himself to as an academic. He added: “Academic freedom is being used cleverly by this guy to promote his own white supremacist views.”

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said personal blogs touching on academic issues do fall into a “grey area” of academic freedom, but that the university appeared to have acted correctly in Duchesne’s case.

“This was investigated last summer, when the university said it was going to do a review, and faculty members who did the review found nothing” meriting disciplinary action, Robinson said. He added that while Duchesne’s comments would be “deeply offensive” to most people, “if we banned people making comments publicly about anything controversial, we’d have a pretty empty blogosphere and media”.

Robinson noted that Canada also has a law against hate speech, and that Duchesne’s comments don’t appear to meet that bar since no criminal investigation has been launched against him.

The American Association of University Professors also defends faculty members’ right to comment on matters of “public concern”. At the same time, its Statement on Extramural Utterances says that complaints can be levied against professors who appear to fail to be accurate, exercise “appropriate restraint”, show respect for others or stress that they are not speaking for the university, and whose fitness to serve is in question. Such complaints must be adjudicated by a faculty body, according to AAUP guidelines.

Nevertheless, John K. Wilson, an academic freedom expert and co-editor of the AAUP’s Academe blog, said that, essentially, “everything is covered by academic freedom”.

The question in Duchesne’s case is whether his posts are extramural utterances, “which get a higher level of protection because they’re not part of someone’s work”. Wilson said the posts appear to be just that, part of a “personal blog sent to politicians to express a political viewpoint”.

Wilson added: “If academic freedom doesn’t protect that right of professors to express their views to public officials, then it wouldn’t cover much of anything.”

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