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Ice Station Academe


Is an Iron Curtain of speech being erected in North American universities? A personal perspective from the University of Toronto.

Originally published in GRAVITAS Vol.1, No.3 A Quarterly Journal of Current Affairs Autumn 1994


John J. Furedy

 Author Notes

Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto, Former President (1993-8) of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and Vice-president for International Affiliation, Foundation for the Advancement of Sexual Equity (FASE)

 Essay - 2/21/1998

When is education merely indoctrination, and a University one in name only? I think this occurs when conflicting ideas are not fully considered because politics have intruded in such a way as to prevent the attainment of an honest resolution to important intellectual problems. Political correctness (PC) has militated against the thorough airing of many ideas. Intellectual discourse has thereby become the slave of ideology.

My personal experience of a politicized intellectual process began when, as a primary-school student in Soviet-dominated Budapest in the late 1940s, my classmates and I were asked each morning by our teachers what our parents had talked about at dinner the night before. Following this period of "discussion", the teacher would then proceed to "educate" us about the evils of American Capitalist Imperialism, and the glories of the Soviet Workers' Paradise.

During the same period, for my older contemporaries in the universities, most of the social sciences died on the vine in the service of Marxist ideology. It was necessary that this should be so, as education then consisted of promoting certain tenets, rather than examining alternative ideas. A few years before, of course, Hitler's Germany had dismissed "Jewish" science, and thereby set back the development in that country not only of science but also of such seminal applications as the development of the atom bomb. My reason for bringing up the example of Hitler is to emphasize that indoctrination in education is undesirable no matter what the particular doctrine that is being promoted. Once the path of ideology is chosen, the conflict of ideas is eliminated, and no genuine education is possible. That is why, whereas freedom of thought and speech is highly desirable in a free society, it is an absolute necessity for the genuine academic functioning of a university.

In sharp contrast to the breath of freedom which has blown through the former Soviet empire in the last decade, the atmosphere for the free exchange of conflicting ideas in our own universities has become not merely chilly, but positively frigid. That frigidity derives from the arbitrariness of the powers now wielded by those university authorities who are in the vanguard of PC. I will use my own experience as a professor in the University of Toronto to illustrate this point.

I want first, however, to distinguish between chilliness and frigidity. Chilliness occurs when students are made intellectually uncomfortable by ideas that are raised in university classes. In my early undergraduate years at Sydney University in the late 1950s I was a practising Christian and a member of the Evangelical Union. There I experienced such intellectual discomforts in Modern History classes (where, for example, the lecturer argued that the basis for the shift to Protestantism in the England of Henry VIII was mainly political and not religious), in Philosophy classes (where the theological "proofs" of God were refuted in logical terms), in Psychology classes (where most of the faculty were avowed atheists), and in arguments with members of the Libertarian Society which was then a powerful intellectual force on campus. However, I never experienced any frigidity, because it was clear that I was being evaluated in terms of my academic performance rather than the extent to which my beliefs conformed to those of the instructors. In other words, although no one worried about the chilliness of an atheist environment for a practising Christian, there was no frigidity, no persecution because of those Christian ideas.

But it is important also to stress that frigidity may result even if the persecution itself is relatively mild. If an `A' essay is given a `B' solely because the instructor does not agree with the views of the student, then I would argue that that is a manifestation of a frigid atmosphere. Nevertheless, the impact of this kind of petty academic persecution is obviously very limited. At the other end of the scale, suppose that I had been old enough and eligible to attend a Hungarian university in the early 1950s. Had I transgressed the tenets of Marxism, I would have suffered a great deal more than the mere loss of a few grade points. But both examples constitute frigid, rather than only chilly, climates for higher education.

Budapest comes to North America

I would argue that the academic environment today is frigid. The source of the freezing temperatures is political correctness. PC precludes intellectual discourse because its principles are too vague, too unknown. This lack of clarity naturally permits of arbitrary behaviour (accusations, bias in hearings, discipline) by the politically correct. And such arbitrariness creates fear, which in turn stifles debate. Not for nothing is the arbitrary exercise of power the very cornerstone of totalitarian regimes. The shocking thing is that the University of Toronto has imported this cornerstone. Moreover, it has begun to build upon it.

A fine example of precisely this sort of frigidity, as applied to students, derives from the prestigious University of Michigan. That institution, by the way, is considered to be at the cutting edge of the latest undergraduate educational innovations. The case was reported in the March, 1993 issue of Harper's. I begin with an extract from a term paper written by a sophomore, Shawn Brown, for a survey course in American Politics:

“Another problem with sampling polls is that some people desire their privacy and don't want to be bothered by a pollster. Let's say Dave Stud is entertaining three beautiful ladies in his penthouse when the phone rings. A pollster on the other end wants to know if we should eliminate the capital gains tax. Now, Dave is a knowledgeable businessperson who cares a lot about this issue. But since Dave is ‘tied up’ at the moment, he tells the pollster to ‘bother’ someone else. Now, this is perhaps a ludicrous example, but there is simply a segment of the population who wish to be let alone.”

The next extract was written in the margins of Brown's paper by Debbie Meizlish, a Teaching Assistant in the course taught by professor Steven Rosenstone. The chair of the political science department supported Meizlish's response; after receiving the response, Brown dropped the course. As one reads the following, it is important to put oneself in the student's shoes:

“You are right, This is ludicrous & inappropriate & OFFENSIVE. This is completely inappropriate for a serious political science paper. It completely violates the standard of non-sexist writing. Professor Rosenstone has encouraged me to interpret this comment as an example of sexual harassment and to take the appropriate formal steps. I have chosen not to do so in this instance. However, any future comments, in a paper in a class, or in any dealings w/me, will be interpreted as sexual harassment and formal steps will be taken. Professor Rosenstone is aware of these comments--& is prepared to intervene. You are forewarned!”

This extract hardly requires further comment. It is an extreme example of the PC influence on vulnerable students. That influence can be important even in less extreme cases, especially as many undergraduates, even before the advent of PC, believed that the way to good grades was to feed back what the professor had said. The notion that students with opinions that differ from those of the professor can do well provided they justify those opinions with rational arguments is an idea I have personally found hard to sell to North American undergraduates. But with the arrival of PC on the campus scene, it is not hard to see that most undergraduates will attempt to censor their own opinions to bring them in line with "the standard of non-sexist writing". The problem is, those "standards" have never been clearly enunciated. Arbitrariness by those in authority is the inexorable result.

A Committee is Born

In this atmosphere, faculty and students are, even now, being charged with racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist "insensitivity". Further, there are, at the time of writing, moves afoot to impose restrictions on behaviour and speech within the university that go beyond civil and criminal laws. Powerful committees have been established with mandates of an almost infinite breadth and no criteria to guide the exercise of their power but their own discretion. The final irony is that, while universities continue to suffer from financial constraints, the resources devoted to the goals of political correctness continue to be increased.

One such group is a 41-person committee at the University of Toronto, originally established to determine whether there is anything in the curriculum which might be offensive to a member of a minority or disadvantaged group. In its first (1991) incarnation, the committee was called the Presidential Advisory Committee on Race Relations (PACRR). In April, 1992, I wrote a letter to the campus paper (Bulletin, April 27) entitled "Academic Freedom is at Risk". In that letter I attempted to describe PACRR's mandate. Formulated by one of the committee's founders, sociology professor Jack Wayne, it was unclearly articulated. The lack of clarity was as frightening as it was obvious. When pressed for specifics at a meeting of the Academic Board, professor Wayne provided a hypothetical example of offensive material: a textbook in methodology in sociology which compares black with white households. I concluded that:

“PACRR's existence, its large membership, its broad terms of reference and (relative to these times of financial crisis) its generous budget of $100,000, all constitute evidence that PC is gathering strength on our campus. In such an environment, organizations like the recently formed Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship have a role to play in defending the principle (first defended by Socrates against the Athenian democracy's charge that he was `corrupting the youth') that, especially in education, all opinions should be open to critical examination.”

One might have thought that PACRR was conceived as the result of an incident of racial discrimination. The fact is, however, that PACRR's formation was a direct result of a PC assault on the academic freedom of a part-time faculty member, Jean Cannizzo. Cannizzo was hired to teach an undergraduate course in Anthropology at the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto. So-called anti-racism activist groups disrupted her classes, not for what she was teaching but on the grounds that as guest curator of the Royal Ontario Museum, several months earlier, she had designed an exhibit, Out of Africa, of which some people disapproved. Partly because she received negligible support from the administration (which, for example, made no attempt to control and punish the disrupters), and partly because professionally isolated, the PC forces succeeded in stopping the class. They also produced a nervous breakdown in Cannizzo, who subsequently left the university and, later, the country altogether.

Rather than enquire into this assault on the academic freedom of a vulnerable member of faculty, the administration's response was to ask professors Jack Wayne and Miriam Rossi to inquire into the state of racism on campus. The Wayne-Rossi report cited no concrete examples of racism. Nevertheless, at its recommendation the PACRR was born.

When originally conceived, PACRR was to have consisted of only thirty-six members. But at its birth, following the publication of a "Race Relations" report by a now permanent Race Relations and Anti-Racism Officer (RRARO), the committee expanded its membership to forty-one. This expansion found expression in an extended name. (The committee added three words to it-- anti-racism initiatives--so that it became PACRRARI.) Five sub-committees (one of which was in charge of curriculum) were established. And its budget demanded $250,00 for the next five years.

For the last decade the University of Toronto has had an Academic Board composed of about one hundred members elected from faculty, students, and administration. The Board is concerned with issues, and when the PACRRARI report was presented to the Board, members had a number of reactions, as reported in the Bulletin. The Dean of Arts and Science, by citing more than 40 courses, showed that the report's charge that the curriculum was "narrow and exclusive" was factually inaccurate. I suggested that the underlying agenda of the report was political rather than academic, and that we had to decide whether "we view the university as a community of scholars where the only source of discrimination is merit, or whether we view the University as a community of many interest groups who compete for limited resources and where considerations of merit simply disappear".

The report convinced some members however. A professor of philosophy offered the tale of a graduate student who recently abandoned her studies in philosophy at U of T. The black student in question left, the professor said, because the "sea of white colleagues who surrounded her filled her with a sense of despair about becoming a future member of the philosophical community".

The Newspaper is a campus weekly which is not supported by compulsory student fees, and which has been more concerned with academic freedom than the Varsity. In an account of the PACRRARI's post-report activities, a journalist reported that "when asked, some members of the various... subcommittees... responsible for coming up with these recommendations, did not know or did not recall what the recommendations meant", and that "[Kelvin] Andrews (the permanent RRARO, and head of PACRRARI) was unable to answer any questions regarding the report before press time". Those who are sensitive to the super-bureaucratic modus operandi of totalitarian systems will find this vagueness instructive. I attempted to spell out some of these implications in a letter to The Newspaper entitled "Purity Platoon Worrisome". Faculty who hold significant administrative power and responsibility are only part-time teachers and researchers, I argued. They are therefore less likely to feel PC pressures as greatly in the classroom as do full-time professors, particularly those who are untenured. The latter need some assurance that they will not fall victim to arbitrariness at PACRRARI's hands.

My most serious concern, then, is that there are no readily ascertainable conditions that one can clearly satisfy in order to be safe from being charged by an organization like U of T's Purity Platoon. Senior faculty members tend to ignore the problems, perhaps partly because the victims of the PC authorities tend to be more junior, often untenured faculty and students, who make easier and more defenceless targets. But in my view, senior faculty members have a responsibility to their colleagues - all of them - and to the integrity of higher education itself. Unless the senior faculty stirs from its apathy, it is my Cassandra-like prediction that, within a generation, the new Iron Curtain will be firmly in place, and the link between universities and the pursuit of free enquiry in North America will be tenuous as that between the former German Democratic Republic and democracy.

Zero Tolerance: The Fog Thickens

I had reached this conclusion by the spring of 1993. Since then Ontario has shown itself to be in the vanguard of the PC movement. Evidence of its leadership may be found in the infamous Zero Tolerance Framework (ZTF) that the NDP government issued to institutions of higher education in early 1994. The wording of this document was totalitarian and inimical to free speech. Almost all academic organizations, condemned it (York University's Faculty Association being one exception--they produced a document that approved ZTF). However, most critics questioned only the wording, and not the basic underlying principle, which I, in my letter to the Ontario Minister of Education protesting ZTF, characterized as an attempt "to impose a speech code on institutes of higher education".

The general academic reaction to ZTF was reflected in the University of Toronto's discussion of it at a spring, 1994 meeting of the Academic Board. Professor Graham, on behalf of the UTFA, expressed strong opposition to some of the wording in the framework. He did not, however, attack the principle of generating any sort of speech codes in the university. In contrast, I suggested to the Board that the notion of any sort of speech code was inappropriate for a university. I therefore opposed the "milder" speech code which the Academic Board subsequently approved.

Although the University of Toronto's speech code is not as stringent as the ZTF, its wording is unclear as to what exactly is prohibited. Is the assertion culpable, for example, which claims that, on average, homosexual couples are not as effective parents as heterosexual couples? Is that assertion culpable even it were made, say by a professor of sociology in a class where it was relevant both to the course and to the professor's discipline? The University of Toronto's current solution to such problems is to indicate to the faculty that one of the Equity Advisory Officers (including, of course, Mr. Andrews and his Purity Platoon, which now has a total budget for officers and offices of about $1.5 million per annum) "are well positioned to provide ... advice" to faculty on such matters. I derive little comfort from the potential for arbitrariness inherent in such misplaced confidence. Indeed, it is my contention that the `golden futuretime' of Orwell's Animal Farm, and its velvet totalitarianism, is even now being ushered in -- whether wittingly or not is a moot point -- by Ontario's university equity officers.

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