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In my opinion

Anti-intellectualism on campus

When students’ associations go bad.


Part of a university’s mission is to secure and nurture intellectual community. What should happen, then, when the students’ union, association or council at a university acts against this mission?

Not long ago, the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) revoked a pro-life group’s status as a student club and barred it from meeting on campus. According to CUSA, because the group denies a woman’s right to choose, it runs afoul of the association’s anti-discrimination policy.

CUSA is not the first students’ association in Canada to deny or revoke club or society status to groups of students. In the past five or six years, associations at various universities have done similar things.

Most often, the target of these bans is a pro-life group, but not always. A group of students at Dalhousie University opposed to religion had trouble getting club status: their beliefs violated the association’s policy that clubs were not to be against things. It could be for atheism, but it couldn’t be against religion.

Banning a pro-life or anti-religion group is an attack on intellectual culture because it denies people the ability to say what they want and to participate in discussion and debate.

Freedom of expression and discussion are at the core of intellectual community. Intellectuals are concerned that no one’s values or beliefs be subjected to any pressures save those of evidence and argument. Because of this commitment, intellectuals assemble in universities. They want institutional protection to live in light of their commitments to understand things as they are and to value as they find appropriate.

The objection students’ associations have to allowing any opinion at all to be expressed on campus is that some opinions are upsetting to members of the university community. Hearing these opinions, the argument goes, robs such people of the peace of mind, feeling of belonging, and confidence in their identities that they need to participate fully in academic and campus life. That the students’ association is able and willing to deny certain resources (such as meeting rooms) reassures these people that they will be able to participate safely in academic and campus life.

This, of course, is the new ideology of the safe campus. It is an ideology that is having much success in undermining the ideal of the university as a community of intellectuals. This ideology is at odds with the intellectual’s desire to expose her beliefs and values to criticism and thereby to construct her identity for herself.

So what should happen, then, when a students’ association tries to impose the ideology of the safe campus and puts the university at risk? The administration of the university should step in, of course.

It is the task of the administration to protect the university from attack, from without and within. The vice-president academic, or professors deputized for the task by the VP academic, should sit down with the association and explain how deeply inconsistent the association’s position is with the mission of the university.

Second, if the first course fails, the administration should itself supply the group of students with whatever resources the students’ association has denied it. The administration should explain to the university community, in written statements or, better, a town-hall meeting, why it is doing what it is doing and how the students’ association is in conflict with the university’s deepest values.

Third, the students themselves should petition the students’ association. They should make sure that none of the student politicians who supported denying the group club status are re-elected.

If this goes on for another year, or the next council again seeks to ban a club, then it becomes time for the administration to dissolve the students’ association and turn its functions over to student services. This isn’t anti-democratic because students’ associations, though elected, are not governments. A university is not a democracy, even though some of its bodies are comprised of elected members. When its mission is attacked, it can alter its institutional arrangements to respond to that attack.

At universities all over Canada, administrations have been shirking their duty to secure and nurture intellectual community. So the buck stops at the professors, the professional intellectuals in the community. They model the way of life the students aspire to live. What is surprising is that professors have not been demanding of administrators that they do their duty.

Mark Mercer is a professor and chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

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  1. dr.doinglittle / January 12, 2011 at 14:58

    I don’t think this debate is new at all. The funding of a pro-choice club was denied at my university back in the 90s. Same arguments, same debates. Not surprising that it still is going on today. Student governments are, and have always been, dominated by left-wing arts students who are educated, by and large, by left-wing professors. Maybe the real issue is the partisan education that these students are receiving in university, not steps that need to be taken by faculty or admin after the fact.

  2. Mark Mercer / January 13, 2011 at 10:52

    Interesting point, dr.doinglittle. I’ve written on this matter in an article “Advocacy in the university classroom.” It’s no longer on the web. Write me if you’d like a copy.

  3. John Gay / January 18, 2011 at 17:48

    If professors are shirking their duty, maybe, as doinglittle suggests, it is because they are often the ones responsible for (either by commission or by political caution in not frankly opposing) the “safe university” ideology in the first place. I am talking about the legacy of thinkers like Derrida and those who have reduced history to a sophisticated conspiracy theory about the violent partnership of knowledge and power.

    I’m glad Dr. Mercer recognizes that universities cannot be democracies if democracy means the ability to over-rule intellectual freedom. But, even in my partial reading of his earlier articles, he doesn’t seem fully to come to grips with the fact that the professorial left generally rules the university and it no longer really values intellectual freedom (except when it is defending against right-wing “McCarthyism”). It is much of the professoriate whose arguments imply that we are safer in some kind of velvet tyranny, or in a mode of permanent and resentful suspicion of any authority, than in a world where potentially offensive, “privileged”, or metaphorically-violent language can be openly used.

    In my view this leads to two conclusions. 1) The (arguably false) anthropology that we are endangered and not somewhat more protected by a free speech that is enriched by polemically-combative (not crudely-inciting) language, given language’s fundamental purpose and capacity of deferring actual violence, must be more openly opposed. The false anthropology that history is best written as a sophisticated conspiracy theory, in which any and all authority or tradition falsely asserts itself as having a basis prior to its merely self-interested representation, must also be opposed through more sophisticated thinking.

    And 2) Opposing the false “safety” of the left’s desire for a velvet tyranny is to suggest how trying to shut up your opponents with arbitrary, if elite-sanctioned, dictates on what is and what is not offensive is a rather more direct route to political violence than is a high regard for free speech, learning to grow a thicker skin, and making a generalized commitment to protecting your neighbor’s freedom but not some false, impossible, right not to be offended. So why not openly decare that the university is becoming an enemy of the free society? If one is comfortable calling for shutting down student associations when they seek destruction of the traditional freedom, why not also call for shutting down certain branches or numbers or even particular members of the professoriate, shrinking the university as the monopoly provider of credentials for many kinds of jobs (whose interested parties could take more responsibility for developing skills and credentials), making its core mission to raise open-minded scholars a relatively small but important social enterprise that is no longer tied to some project to indoctrinate a large segment of the youth population in some resentment of the Western past that seeks some impossibly-Utopian solution in the ever-more “progressive” society, an impossibilty that progressively entails greater resentment of the constitutional (often Judeo-Christian) and common law traditions by which conflict has been mediated (never perfectly) in a relatively more decentralized, not just top-down, recognition of citizens’ shared basis for transcendence of conflict?

    No professor likes to call for limiting the size of the university; it is an inherently dangerous thing to do, professionally. But somehow, the point needs to be made that attacks on free expression are going to be inevitably destructive both to the university and to the professoriate whose postmodern victimary ideologies are often the source of these attacks. In short, the defense of free speech cannot but come to terms with the need to attack (not criminalize) “free” speech that is itself anti-freedom because dangerously Utopian or impossibly resentful. In other wor

  4. Mark Mercer / January 20, 2011 at 21:15

    Soon after this article was accepted for publication, the students’ association at Saint Mary’s went bad. Sadly, our administration has remained silent, tacitly endorsing the association’s interference with the peaceful and orderly expression of opinion on campus. No newspapers have been interested in the story. And account is available here:

  5. anon / January 24, 2011 at 11:54

    I find this article troublesome for it use of the term (anti-)intellectualism. Is the purpose of a university truly just to serve as the bastion of free speech? Or is it a place of learning, a place to engage in constructive debate. How is an anti-choice (and let’s be honest, pro-life is not an accurate descriptor) group supporting intellectual debate? A student group dedicated to hosting public lecture series, forums or debates on women’s rights would be deserving of the term ‘intellectual’, but a group dedicated to propaganda would not. I would hope that a university would a be place where the difference is recognized. Banning an anti-choice group from accessing student association funds is not denying free speech. These anti-choice students can pontificate all they want at the university, but that does not require university funding or the provision of space for this group to set up displays, posters, etc. The question of whether all opinions are worthy of expression is an entirely different debate than whether all interest-groups should be funded and officially supported. Perhaps the university would be better off offering more women’s and gender studies courses, where these debates can be engaged in by interested students in more constructive ways. Interestingly, those who defend the ‘rights’ of anti-choice and other anti-groups rarely cause the same outcry when women’s studies departments and other departments focusing on minority issues are closed down. It’s also shocking that the author of this post seems to ignore the fact that student unions and governments are responsible for more than allotting funds to different groups. Dismantling them because they denied an anti-choice group is a much greater attack on students’ rights and democracy. Doing so would hurt the students’ collective voice with regard to university policies and practices.