Safe spaces could endanger funding for Canadian universities

New leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, promises research grant cuts to universities that offer safe spaces or speaker bans, says Creso Sá

June 8, 2017
Free speech, censor, censorship
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Canada’s opposition Conservative Party elected a new leader at the end of May. Andrew Scheer, a young career politician, has been consistently described as a friendlier version of Stephen Harper, the former prime minister whose fractious relationship with scientists, particularly over the environment, has been well documented.

But for all the moderation ascribed to him – understandable in the context of a party whose ranks include a couple of embarrassingly obvious Donald Trump impersonators – one of his policy positions is “no free speech on campus means no federal grants”.

What problem does Scheer seek to address? “Safe spaces, forbidden topics and banning of speakers and campus clubs” in colleges and universities. Why? Because they are making Canadian society “less free and more easily manipulated by small but powerful special interest groups bent on imposing their particular brand of political correctness”.

In recent years, controversies around academic freedom and freedom of speech have become as common in Canadian universities as they are in US ones. For instance, commentators of all stripes tripped over themselves to express indignation over the recent Andrew Potter affair at McGill University: a classic illustration of the “administrators didn’t like what the professor said” sort of censorship.

Potter, a well-known journalist, was pressed to step down from the directorship of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada after he wrote a poorly conceived magazine column that offended large swathes of Quebecois society. His demotion (he remains a professor at McGill) followed a misguided attempt at policing speech at the University of Ottawa, whose dean of medicine felt the urge in February to send a memo to faculty warning them against expressing “politically charged sentiment”.

But what really seems to capture the broader public imagination – and to underlie Scheer’s proposal – are the controversies around freedom of speech. Recently, these have become associated with opposition to conservative speakers (or speakers identified as such) by liberal students. But other issues, such as abortion and Palestine, cause similar uproar.

Scheer draws on this discourse, which has been identified as the Canadian brand of US culture wars. He evokes the rhetoric of conservative pundits who make strident denunciations of leftist control over campus speech, depicting it as, on the one hand, faint-hearted and, on the other, totalitarian.

Public relations does seem to drive university decision-making in these cases, much more so than do careful considerations of academic freedom and freedom of speech. The non-profit group Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has run a Campus Freedom Index since 2011 assessing the policies and practices of universities and students’ unions across the country, and the results are not flattering. Very few institutions earn As, and Fs are quite common.

As Canadian higher education is under provincial control, Scheer proposes to withhold the federal funding provided through the research councils from universities that fail to “pledge to uphold the widest possible free speech rights on their campuses” – further warning that “their record of fostering free and open speech on campuses will be considered as a factor for eligibility”.

The idea is neither original nor particularly articulate. Conservative pundits in the US have proposed similar measures for decades. As for how it might be implemented, Scheer has no details to offer. The media have so far largely failed to pick up on the fundamental incoherence of a Conservative candidate proposing to micromanage universities in such a radical fashion. It may well be that no one is taking him seriously on this, and it might indeed be a mere dog whistle to a conservative base suspicious of universities. It is also worth noting that Scheer’s campaign website, which listed all his pledges, was taken down soon after his election. Nonetheless, Scheer reaffirmed the proposal in his victory speech, claiming to be concerned about free speech “for all”.

Scheer’s proposal politicises federal research policy in an unprecedented way. It needs to be taken seriously and debated for what it is. After all, although the Conservatives currently lag in the polls, recent political events around the world have shown that anything could happen in the next federal election. A Scheer victory could make the Harper years look like a cakewalk for universities.

Creso Sá is professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @creso_sa.

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