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In my opinion

Saving the integrity of the university

Diversity at university is insignificant when compared to the differences between university culture and civilian culture: a response to "Women’s rights or religious rights: which comes first?"


Here’s a pernicious idea: Universities are diverse societies, microcosms of our own diverse Canadian society. It’s nonsense, of course. Universities are as mono-cultural as institutions can be. But the idea that they are diverse societies has enough surface plausibility for it to have gained traction on campuses across the country and thereby to have begun to change universities for the worse.

Universities are places of teaching and research, of inquiry and interpretation, of art and ideas, of discussion and debate. They are spaces, in short, in which people gather in order to live the life of the mind. That is what gives them such a strong single focus. That is why university people are at home on a university campus wherever in the world that campus might be.

Universities, certainly, display a wide variety of courses, academic departments, research interests, styles of teaching and ways of being an academic. Some academics are scholars, some are scientists, some are artists, some are interpreters of art or culture or politics, some are intellectuals; most try to fuse two, three, or more of these orientations.

Nonetheless, what makes a university excellent is one single thing: its effective devotion to the life of the mind.

The surface plausibility in the idea that universities are diverse societies resides in the fact that people from all sorts of backgrounds are drawn to the life of mind. All sorts of skin colours, and ethnic and national origins and affiliations, are found among university people, and university people can differ radically from one another in what matters to them outside the life of the mind.

Yet whatever differences we might note among university people, they pale into insignificance when compared to the difference between university culture and civilian culture. University culture involves the strenuous interrogation and examination of everything from cabbages to kings. Such interrogation puts all aspects of the university person’s identity at risk, even his or her identity as a university person. No other way of life is like it; no other way of life would dare to be like it. (That last claim is tautologous, for any way of life that takes up the strenuous examination of things thereby becomes the life of the mind.)

What makes the idea that universities are places of diversity pernicious is that acting on it can easily deform the institutional structures, policies, and procedures that support university culture. The more that deans and academic senates take the diversity idea seriously, the less hospitable their institutions will be to intellectual community. This is because protecting and celebrating diversity for the sake of protecting and celebrating diversity will undercut the freedom and individual judgement and responsibility essential to strenuous interrogation.

And yet we want all people given to the life of the mind to be welcomed and cherished at universities. Welcoming and cherishing people of diverse backgrounds, abilities and identities might well require changes and accommodations in the ways we go about things. Those changes and accommodations, though, must always be consistent with the values and goals of the life of the mind. They must not threaten the direction of research, say, or the spirit of free discussion, or the experience of the classroom, or the pedagogical integrity of the course.

Now, stating a criterion by which to judge whether a policy or accommodation can be accepted raises the question: who is to judge. The only answer consistent with intellectual community is that all of us are to judge, that is, all of us are invited to express and debate our opinions about policies and cases; but only the professor whose endeavour could be affected can be the one whose judgement, sound or faulty, prevails. That’s not because the professor will be right. It is because the integrity of her teaching is compromised by forcing another’s determination upon her.

The professor can get it wrong, and wrong determinations need to be criticized, and criticized publicly. But a university is harmed more by administrators overruling bad determinations regarding accommodation than by professors implementing their bad determinations, at least at universities where such cases are publicly discussed.

One might counter that an academic senate can legitimately set policy binding on professors regarding accommodation. This view is false because academic senates should be safeguarding the rights and privileges of professors with regard to their teaching and their courses.

Canadian universities are not, in any interesting sense, microcosms of our diverse, multicultural Canadian society. The more universities seek to become like the society around them, the less they will be spaces in which we are able to live the life of the mind.

Mark Mercer is a professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University.


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  1. Brad Wuetherick / January 13, 2014 at 13:06

    I am quite surprised by Professor Mercer’s commentary. Indeed, I am quite appalled by it for a number of reasons.

    To speak directly to the question of accommodation in the original story, it is not just the university administration’s views that matter in this case, but also the fact that the legal duty to accommodate for a number of reasons (including religious) is the law of the land in Canada thanks to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No individual professor, no university, no public or private organization is legally allowed to ignore that requirement. Is this particular accommodation at York necessary? I am not certain (and was torn when I read about it), but there are experts on our respective campuses who would, in consultation with others, be far better placed than me to make that determination. Each faculty member’s opinion, however well-intentioned, can (as Prof Mercer indicated) be wrong, but the consequences for that can be significant for the individuals and institutions involved (contrary to what Prof Mercer might believe).

    Second, the idea that Academic Senates cannot (or should not) pass binding policy that governs accommodation, in order to protect the rights and privileges of professors, is quite simply laughable. Accommodation is the law of the land, and, therefore, even if an Academic Senate stayed silent the faculty at that institution would still be required to accommodate. Even were that not the case, Academic Senate (with some variation by province) is actually given the power and responsibility to govern the academic environment (including teaching and learning issues like accommodation) in their institutions by the very provincial legislation that created and governs the university. Therefore, it has the power and responsibility to pass such policies.

    Both of these arguments aside, however, the premise that the purpose of a university is to encourage “a life of the mind” (an idea that admittedly I can get behind), which in turn can only be facilitated by ignoring/preventing any attempts to effectively support diversity is made from such a place of privilege as to be appalling. The argument – “the more that deans and academic senates take the diversity idea seriously, the less hospitable their institutions will be to intellectual community” – completely ignores all forms of institutionalized racism and prejudice that we know still permeates the academy. Racism and prejudice that is still perpetuated (even though often unwittingly) by the very faculty members that Prof Mercer argues should retain the sole responsibility for making decisions about accommodation. The university, as we know it, is a colonial institution that has historically celebrated and prioritized Western (and male) ways of knowing. Even in areas where the university has made strides, like in the inclusion of feminist thought, many people have argued that we still have a long way to go, and in many other areas, such as the inclusion of indigenous ways of knowing, universities have barely begun the process of change. The idea of decolonizing the university, and making diversity a ‘true’ characteristic of our institutions of higher learning, would actually expand the possibility of engagement with “the life of the mind” to people who have been (and still are) excluded from the academy.

    Does this particular case of accommodation at York meet this goal? I am not sure, and as I have indicated would defer to my colleagues who are much more familiar with the legal landscape of religious accommodations, but I have and will fight for any steps to improve the diversity of our institutions of higher learning, and to combat the racism and prejudice still found in the academy (and yes, that includes championing policy that might appropriately govern our actions as teachers and scholars).

  2. Alan Hayes / January 30, 2014 at 23:09

    The response by Wuetherick is better than the article.

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