The university in the populist age

Right-wing populism threatens the future of higher education, but remaining passive and retreating to a disinterested vision of the university will actually strengthen the attacks. Faculty have a responsibility to work in solidarity to fight back against these threats.

Right-wing populism has been on the rise in recent years, intensifying following the 2008 global financial crisis. 2016 marked a key moment in the right populist turn, with both Brexit and the US Presidential election constituting formal political legitimacy for right-wing populist leaders and movements. Despite widespread opposition following the election of Donald Trump—itself often taking populist forms—a range of right-wing populist forces continue to push forward. In both Europe and North America, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric and violence has escalated. Populist figures are giving voice to and emboldening longstanding racist and xenophobic currents in western societies. Other variants of authoritarian right-wing populism are also growing. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey has now dismissed over 7,000 academics and in some cases jailed scholars.

Not surprisingly, many academics fear populism. Distrust of elites, perhaps the primary defining feature of populism, is a threat to universities as they currently operate. The threat extends to those who make a living in postsecondary education, be they tenured professors, precarious contract faculty, or staff. Of course, populist attacks on the university are nothing new. Beginning as Plato’s training ground for elites, disagreements about the role of universities as sites of advanced education for the masses versus institutions for the aristocracy have long existed. Most recently in Ontario, the Mike Harris years were harsh for universities. As Paul Martin cut transfer payments to the provinces in the mid-1990s, Harris followed suit with a 25 per cent cut to postsecondary funding at a time when enrolment was growing. Budget cuts were facilitated by popular skepticism towards traditional academic research and an emphasis on the need for job relevancy in university programs. There were protests, but it was relatively easy for Harris to gut education spending (as opposed to healthcare) as he operationalized his populist Common Sense Revolution.

We noted the fluidity of the term populism in a 2014 article in Labor Studies Journal, in which we identified core elements of the term (e.g. anti-elitism, productivism, etc.). Despite the democratization of postsecondary education in Canada in the post-war period, universities remain vulnerable to right-wing populist agendas. Consider the everyday productivist attacks on public sector workers who allegedly produce nothing of value. These attacks extend to well-paid university faculty, often perceived as privileged elites with secure jobs and pensions, who are constantly scapegoated by both politicians and right-wing media. Academic research is written off as obscure, inaccessible, and simply not up to the task of addressing society’s real problems or of providing students with the skills they need for the labour market. Critics claim the only thing university education offers is mounting student debt and a degree that no longer leads to a middle-class job.

Populist attacks extend into the realm of conspiracy as universities are cast as breeding grounds for political correctness, the feminization of society, and Marxist thought police. Protests organized against campus visits by extreme right-wing public figures such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or Gavin McInnes are cited as threats to freedom of speech. Students fighting racism, colonialism, and xenophobia on and off campus spawn nativist backlash. Authoritarians craft the above narrative to strengthen their own cult of leadership and pave the way for funding cuts when they are in power, creating a nexus between right-wing populism and austerity. Indeed, these recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university.

…recent populist attacks are inevitably coupled with the longstanding and ongoing neoliberal transformation of the university…

This transformation, supported by right-wing populism includes the casualization of academic labour and the shift away from tenure-stream appointments; increases in performance measurement; work intensification for all employees; and a top-down managerialism that undermines processes of collegial governance. All of this occurs in the midst of manufactured fiscal crises and escalating tuition fees.

Populist attacks on universities are not, however, merely external: they also come from within. As Steven Zhou has reported in articles for the CBC and Now Magazine, there has been an upsurge in racism on campuses in Canada, masquerading as right-wing populism. Our own campus at York University has recently seen both racist graffiti and alt-right recruitment materials. The University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson has parlayed his refusal to recognize genderless pronouns into a freedom of expression crusade adored by the right. If we further consider that Kellie Leitch, one of the Trumpian contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, had an academic administrative career before entering federal politics, we see that right-wing populists do emerge from our own university ranks.

At the same time, there has been resistance from within universities by those who contest neoliberal and right-wing populist visions. Workers on university campuses have pushed back against casualization through union organizing, collective bargaining, and striking. Faculty associations have challenged the power of central administrations, questioning elitist and anti-democratic practices. Coalitions involving students and university workers have supported broader movements of resistance against economic injustice and racism, such as the recent successful strike of York food service workers against Aramark. There are signs that such movements will continue to grow, offering hope that alternatives to right populism and the neoliberal university remain possible.

Yet the struggle against current forms of authoritarian right-wing populism is only beginning. Our instincts may be to resist all populist attacks on universities, internal and external, but what if university workers and students embraced populism? Here, we are not suggesting any accommodation to right-wing populism, but rather a serious engagement with the underlying structures that make universities its fundamental targets. A counter populism must acknowledge the real disconnect between universities as sites of knowledge production and the broader public good. Imagining a progressive populist university as a means of resistance is possible.

First and foremost, a progressive populist university will have to seriously address the persistent elitism of the academy. While there has been ample work on democratizing the classroom and knowledge mobilization, this is far from a complete project. In the US case, it is argued that commodified universities are increasingly Platonized institutions where accessibility is limited, liberal education remains elitist, and academics have retreated into obscure, idealist research divorced from the issues facing communities. There will always be a place for theory for theory’s sake in academia, but research and teaching that engages communities is necessary and should be promoted. We are not speaking about communities as sites or objects of research, but rather about a research process that is deeply rooted in community-based concerns. Genuine academic-community partnerships are oriented towards addressing the interests of all those involved, not solely on producing measurable research outputs.

As to questions of tenured job security and academic freedom, these are interpreted as elitist privileges. There are countless opinion pieces and blog posts arguing that professors should abandon tenure as a Cold War relic and face accountability and job performance measures similar to other workers in precarious labour markets. However, there is another possibility not often considered: the expansion of employment security as a more universalized practice. Such an extension is realistic if one considers the popular support society has demonstrated for protecting whistleblowers and dissenters who witness wrongdoing. Viewing tenure only as a necessary protection for full-time academic workers simply fuels anti-elitism. Defending the tenure system requires the promotion of secure employment across labour markets as a more general social and economic goal.Here, faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector worker to extend job security and academic freedom protections beyond the university walls.

…faculty unions must go on the offensive and start building coalitions with teachers and other public sector workers…

A progressive populist university could channel anti-elitist politics towards the highly paid administrators who have ushered in neoliberal managerialism. In this case, a healthy distrust of administrative elites is warranted. Populist campaigns against exorbitant presidential and senior administrative salaries, the dramatic expansion of administrative ranks, the undermining of collegial governance, and investment in vanity capital projects may provide the means to reconnect universities with the broader public good.

Most academics rightly condemn conspiratorial thinking. Warnings about the supposedly evil machinations of elites cannot substitute for analyses of the systems of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that right-wing populism seeks to reproduce. Yet, naming the institutions and actors that reproduce oppressive structures is a necessary part of any analysis. Universities can play a role in exposing those behind the right-wing think tanks who attack liberal education. In Ontario, proposals promoted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario to differentiate the university system into flagship, research, and teaching institutions can be addressed as a conspiracy to cut costs, devalue research, and tier the university system. This must be countered by revealing how this vision will produce a future system with grossly unequal universities incapable of confronting authoritarian power.

As white supremacy and nativism are entrenched in right-wing populism, so must a progressive populism construct a cosmopolitan ethos that recognizes universities as institutions with the power to build social justice. A clear stand must be taken to reject accusations that campus-based actions to counter the spread of hatred limit free speech. A progressive populist university creates space for campus coalitions that appreciate both the context of specific campus struggles and the importance of broader solidarity in achieving social justice across society.

Further, as counter to the current climate of xenophobia, universities can play a role in providing sanctuary for students and academics fleeing conflict zones. A progressive populist university would not only support these scholars, but also value their experiences as necessary to understanding and improving the global condition. At the same time, we should support racialized faculty who find themselves restricted from traveling to the US for research or large conferences—whether by the travel ban itself or due to conscientious objections and expressions of solidarity. This may involve a larger populist critique of US academic imperialism, especially as the global centre of intellectual exchange.

Building a progressive populism will require change, which must include a transformation of our faculty unions. First, faculty unions will have to stop acting like ancient guilds protecting the narrow interests of members. A start will be to reach out to contract faculty and start using the power we have to normalize employment relationships away from precarity. In the short term, this may involve unions shifting demands away from wages and working conditions and towards demands for more full-time hiring. Material sacrifices will have to made (especially by senior administrators). Failing to do so threatens the very existence of a full-time professoriate.

Second, community engagement must be taken seriously and must not be dismissed as a retreat to anti-intellectualism. Many researchers are already deeply engaged in community research and have been for decades. We must learn from others and work to accept different sources of knowledge as legitimate—whether they are from Indigenous groups, labour unions, environmentalist organizations, the business community, or community-based advocacy groups. These collaborative methodologies and relationships must be developed and heralded every time we are accused of disengaged, solitary, elitist research. Continuing in this direction will require replacing a narrow emphasis on academic publishing in specialized journals with a more expansive valuing of a range of research and dissemination activities.

Community engagement can extend into the university classroom. The intern economy has been critically challenged in recent years, as exploitative unpaid internships detached from real training have grown rapidly. Yet, students demand experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. Such opportunities should be restructured in ways that contribute to meaningful training and skills development, and that expose students to other forms of learning.

Inevitably, this leads to the debate about whether a liberal education trains students for jobs or citizenship. A progressive populist university rejects this false binary. If we are educating students for their future lives, it should be for the many aspects of what that life might be—and of which work is just one consideration. Only emphasizing the Platonic intellectual life of students or their prospects for employment ignores their multiple material and social needs.

But who do we trust to usher in a progressive populist university? Here, we can turn to our unions; but we may require a more radical imagining of collegial governance than that which unions are trying to salvage in the face of growing managerialism. Efforts to contest the lack of transparency of administrative appointments and the centralization of decision-making are crucial. At the same time, we must not be overly nostalgic for past models of collegial governance that were flawed. Small groups (of mostly white men) determining policy and allocation of resources with (mostly white male) Deans was far from a democratic ideal.

If a progressive populism is to challenge the administrative elite of universities (and reduce the number of managers), we will have to rebuild our self-managerial capacities. Taking back our universities will involve educating faculty, students, and staff about university budgets and the strategic goals of the state. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, including in the efforts of campus coalitions working to develop alternative university budget models that expose the financial manipulations of university financial officers.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option. Building a progressive populist university as a means of fighting back against right-wing populist attacks on our institutions may be a necessary strategy.

Remaining static and retreating to a Platonized university is not an option.

In the face of the rising tide of right-wing populism, the very real threats of ongoing and further violence against racialized and immigrant communities, and the potential for deeper tendencies of authoritarian austerity, reshaping the university in the age of populism is not just about the postsecondary system. Rather, the struggle constitutes an element of the most pressing political crisis of our time. Failure to push back against authoritarian right-wing populism now may very well lead us to the point of contemplating the university in an age of fascism. AM

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at York University; Mark Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Global Labour Research Centre at York University

Trump, Brexit, and the academy

There is some truth in the populist attack that the academy has sold-out to corporate interests and become inaccessible to many. Universities should unambiguously reassert themselves as transparent and open institutions that serve the public interest.

“The Brexit vote and the Trump campaign, as well as the success of populist candidates around the world, highlight a distrust of traditional government institutions that is manifesting itself as a dislike of credentialed expertise.
– Beth Simone Noveck, Yale Law School and NYU’s Governance Lab

States and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum. In fact, any political eruptions—past, present, or future—that can be shoehorned into the now dominant media narrative about the rise of populism raise concerns in academic circles. Colleges and universities, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the vanguard of progress, now worry they may end up on the wrong side of history, stigmatized as (re)producers of elites, founts of amoral even toxic expertise, and agents of a hated globalization that has remorselessly destroyed jobs, communities, and national (and local) cultures. Nonsense, of course. But in an age dominated by the post-truth politics of the alt-right, dangerous nonsense may be half-believed by too many people.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. In many other democratic systems, Hillary Clinton would have been elected President. After all, she got three million more votes. Donald Trump is only President because the United States, unwilling to tamper with its sacred-text Constitution, has retained an archaic 18th-century device—the Electoral College—deliberately designed by the Founding Fathers to moderate, if not mute, the will of the people. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was made by a narrow margin, 51.9 to 48.1 per cent. In effect, the country was split down the middle. London, most major cities, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all voted strongly to remain. Whatever alarms there may be, politics in the Netherlands, France, and Germany look poised to remain dominated by the centre-right or centre-left. The EU will survive Brexit and may even be strengthened by the shock, which could kick-start overdue reform. The danger is not so much that we will all be drowned in a tsunami of alt-right populism, but that otherwise sensible politicians (and leaders, including university presidents) may be spooked by this great illusion and do the populists’ work for them.

However, necessary as it is to challenge the dominant media narrative about the rise of populism, it is also necessary to take seriously the list of charges against the academy, and to find ways in which colleges and universities can regain the popular trust they may have lost. The main charge against universities is that almost half a century of mass expansion has predominantly benefited the middle classes, leading to almost universal participation by students from more socially advantaged backgrounds, while higher education remains a rationed privilege for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This stubborn access gap is even more pronounced in the case of elite universities, often the focus of national pride as world-class institutions. This first charge is just one strand in a wider right-wing critique of the welfare state and tax-supported public services—that the haves have benefited at the expense of the have-nots. Ironically, it is the right wing’s tax agenda—the reduction in direct and progressive taxation, and its replacement by indirect and regressive taxes—that has increased inequality and made fairer access to higher education even more difficult to achieve.

But there are powerful counter-arguments against the charge that access to higher education is increasingly unequal. First, definitions of middle class and working class have changed. As a result of far-reaching shifts in economic structures and occupational patterns over the past half-century, the former has grown as a proportion of the population and the latter, in its classic heavy-industry proletarian form, has declined. In parallel with this, there are alarming signs of the growth of the new precariat in the so-called gig economy (many of whom may be college graduates). So, it is hardly surprising that today’s much more open higher education systems still appear to be dominated by the ‘middle class’. Of course, this leaves aside the role higher education has played in upward social mobility, surely a beneficial outcome. Second, although the access gap remains, far more students come from less privileged backgrounds than was the case 50 years ago. Third, some previously disadvantaged groups have made spectacular gains—for example, some (but not all) ethnic and cultural minorities and, most decisively and visibly, women (although this fuels another complaint, that middle-class women have crowded out working-class men). Of course, true equality of opportunity remains to be achieved. Minority students tend to be concentrated in lower-status institutions, and female students are concentrated in particular subjects—arguably excluding them from some elite positions and professions.

However, the claim that the expansion of mass higher education has been a socially regressive phenomenon is plainly false. Of course, there is a far bigger elephant in the room: the growth of income inequality since the 1980s— produced by the erosion of higher-tax welfare states, deregulation, and privatization. The same right-wing critics, who complain about the alleged elitism of higher education, enthusiastically support these anti-state policies. So they can hardly complain about their inevitably divisive effects, whether in terms of health outcomes, school attainment, or patterns of postsecondary participation. The available evidence suggests that the wider availability of higher education, as a result of mass expansion, has mitigated this rise in social inequality. But colleges and universities reflect wider social, economic and cultural trends. They cannot reverse these trends unaided.

Three other charges are levelled at the academy by the Trumpists, Brexiters, and their fellow travelers around the globe. The first is that the expansion of higher education has contributed to the growth of what these groups call an expertocracy—a body that dominates public debate and stifles contrary voices on a whole range of issues from climate change to women’s rights. By default, nearly all of these ‘experts’ are college graduates and many are professors. It is difficult to know how seriously to take this charge. More recently, Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav leader turned dissident, complained that postwar Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were creating a new class of privileged ruling elites. Mass higher education may have created a new graduate class in a similar mode. Contemporary rantings against the Washington or London (or Paris or Berlin) establishment have a long historical pedigree. However, a new twist is provided by the alt-right’s rhetorical assault on globalization as a destroyer of jobs and communities at home (rather than as an agent of post-imperial exploitation fueled by global hyper-capitalism).

Second, universities are also implicated as the producers of much of the science on which advanced, and sometimes disruptive, technologies are based. The historical responsibilities of scholars to uncover truths that conflict with received wisdom, and of scientists to think the unthinkable, have always been disturbing to some. A more solid argument is that some new technologies are reshaping lives, and even personal relationships, in radical and not always immediately welcome ways. Social media are clearly an example—although Donald Trump has shown no more willingness to abandon his Twitter account as a primary channel of Presidential communication than the students who enthusiastically embrace social media as learning tools. The growth of the sharing economy, through online tools such as Uber or Airbnb is another example.

The third charge is that the academy is spreading cosmopolitanism, which for these critics appears to be a mixture of the re-heated culture wars of the last century (most notably in the United States), new fears about immigration, mass flows of refugees, and the threat of terrorism. To this, the  academy can only plead guilty. Universities are vibrant, increasingly multi-cultural places, typically at the heart of Richard Florida’s creative cities—where economic dynamism, technological innovation, and social and cultural experimentation fruitfully coexist. Overwhelmingly, the academy has nothing for which to apologize.

Universities are vibrant, increasingly multi-cultural places

How to respond to this charge sheet? The first response must be to refuse to be spooked by the hypocritical allegations of elitism levelled by ultra-conservatives masquerading as populists, and not to do their work for them by apologizing and abandoning the high ground currently occupied by the academy. Modern higher education systems play a key role in the civic and economic emancipation of millions around the world. Democratic societies, for all the weaknesses revealed by the (hopefully, transitory) triumph of Trump and Brexit, cannot function without a well-educated citizenry. The choices we face are difficult and complex. Beware of so-called populists peddling easy and simple ones. Similarly, the success of our economies, which have generated historically unparalleled wealth (however unequally it may be distributed), depends on the experts so despised by the alt-right and, more broadly, on the skills of an increasingly well-educated workforce. The academy has been a key agent in both the processes of individual and social emancipation and economic betterment. The development of increasingly open higher education systems has been among the most powerful social transformations of the past half-century.

However, a second response is also needed. There is a sliver of truth in the allegation that the academy has sold-out to powerful corporate interests. By incessantly talking up world-class universities at which students from predominantly socially privileged groups are enrolled, we have talked down the need to promote increased access to the widest possible populations. But, for all the research funded by big pharma, energy companies, or the military, there is an equivalent or greater quantity of research on progressive social interventions, new legal principles, and environmental agendas—and elite universities are under constant pressure to open their doors to a more diverse student body.

There is a sliver of truth in the allegation that the academy has sold-out to powerful corporate interests.

With all this, it is important to remember that one of the lessons of 21st-century politics, manipulated by behind-closed-doors data analytics and shouted through the Twitter-sphere, is that doubts, impressions, and perceptions—even when contradicted by hard evidence—are more influential than ever. This is the age of alternative facts, after all.

So, the academy must counter the pseudo-populist narrative with an even more compelling narrative, which should include four key messages:

  • The first is a shift away, in both language and strategy, from ‘world-class’ universities and back to widening participation. The language of world-class institutions is divisive, because talk of the best universities inevitably implies the rest are second-rate. However, it is the ‘rest’ that will always enroll the majority of students, including new groups of students from less privileged backgrounds. It is hardly surprising that the students, faculty, and staff at these universities resent such derogatory language. This language also produces perverse policy outcomes. Being in the top 10/50/100 conveys little about the real research quality and capability of these universities, however hyped it may be by marketing departments, and it carries the real risk that institutional strategies will be distorted by focusing excessively on the metrics that determine league-table positions.
  • The second is that higher education should resist the galloping commodification, and outright commercialization, of teaching. Of course, academic programs should be subject to proper business-like planning so that revenues and expenditures can be properly understood. Of course, there should be greater flexibility in how students can learn—not everyone wants to study full-time in campus-based environments created for the social elites of the past. But both aims can be realized through the action of democratic communities of students and their teachers. Entrenched discipline-bound orthodoxies should also be challenged with more courses in post-2008 financial crisis economics alongside the inevitable ones in econometrics. University education should not be put up for sale, either by turning students into spurious customers (and charging them high fees) or by abandoning academic integrity.
  • The third is to develop new forms of research—how research topics are identified, how research is undertaken, who are defined as researchers, how findings are disseminated, and how quality and value are assessed—alongside more traditional forms of research and scholarship. Closed scientific communities, with their silent hegemonies and powerful hierarchies, need to be vigorously challenged by more democratically-formed research communities in which producers, users, and beneficiaries have voices that are more equal. This goes far beyond action research or practitioner research. University-based research should not be something that is done to people, even with the best intentions, but what people do to (and for) themselves—actively engaging the widest possible sections of our many communities.
  • Fourth is the involvement of universities in their communities—not simply as large-scale employers and spenders, in the familiar guise as economic multipliers; not simply in terms of their vital contributions to urban, regional, or national development as conduits through which global knowledge can interact with these local environments; and not simply as key elements with the clever cities in which they are embedded, as beacons of culture and engines of innovation. All three are crucial. But to consolidate, or win back the trust of the whole of society, including those at risk of being suborned by Trump, Brexit, and other ‘populist’ deceptions, they need to become activists for their communities in the fullest possible sense. Above all, what may be required is a simple thing: a change of tone. It is a tough call. For too long the academy has been absorbing the worst habits of the market. Too many university leaders have concluded that there is no alternative to this course. They raise (or introduce) tuition fees to replace dwindling state support, reimagine students as both customers and units of production, build closer links with the corporate world, and re-engineer universities as business organizations. The rise of this thinking alarmingly coincided with the rise of multinational banks and global corporations. The shipwreck of the former and the growing resistance to the latter should be a wake-up call to the academy, as perhaps should be the backlash to elite political institutions around the world. The academy needs to locate itself, unambiguously and radically, in the public realm and in the common wealth. AM
Peter Scott is a Professor of Higher Education Studies at the University College London Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access to Higher Education.

A populist wake-up call for universities

For many, universities do not represent opportunity or self-realization, but instead elite self-regard and academic exchanges in which they see no relevance. What can faculty do to change these perceptions?

Can we step out of our bubble for a moment? I hope so, because unless we do we will not see that we are losing the battle.

What battle is that? Just the one for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, within the nation and without. Just the contest between the forces of rationality and those of darkness and ignorance. Just the eternal struggle to make ideas, and not force, relevant to the plight of those oppressed by ignorance and bad rhetoric. Just that.

If you have not seen the mainstream media lately, if you prefer more filtered sources of experience or retreats into sanity, maybe this is not obvious. However, a glimpse into the abyss of larger public discourse is enough to make the point vivid. Academic research, once celebrated as the vanguard of the best that was thought and expressed, is on the run. Enrolments are down. Public denunciations are routine, running a gamut from casual dismissal (“useless” degrees and the like) to open hostility (“incubators of social justice warriors,” “ideological fog-machines,” etc. etc.).

You can dismiss these bleats if you like. Of course, the comments boards of right-wing newspapers are no place to look for sane assessment of a liberal education. Of course, there are columnists who will base their flailing careers on mocking a world they do not understand.

This move, a reversal of the injunction to check your privilege, is swiftly self-defeating. Enforce your privilege is not much of a rallying cry, after all, at least when it comes to the rational justification of living the life of the mind with ironclad tenure and on a Sunshine List salary. Is that all we have, a retreat into a cocoon of superiority? Rex Murphy and Margaret Wente may be doltish on the subject, but saying so does not really meet the case, does it? They have a point, especially when it comes to the traditional liberal education, once thought to be an instrument of emancipation.

Inside, meanwhile, things are not much better. The neoliberal overproduction of graduate students, essential for government funding ,and steady supplies of sessional teaching, is a pyramid scheme of such magnitude that in another sector it would warrant regulatory intervention. For example, placement rates for tenure-track jobs in humanities have been stuck at about 30 per cent for years, with no discernible effect on intake. Not for nothing is grad-school culture lately compared to a cult, where the desires of the innocent are blithely annexed to a system that chews up individual will as cheap labour. Citing the palpable desire of junior scholars to enter an academic field is akin to college football coaches shrugging away the fact that young men are more than willing to endure life-shortening concussions in pursuit of a one-percentile payoff.

Here is an idea: think of every graduate admission as a sort of concussion waiting to happen. (In case anyone cares, I am currently director of graduate studies in my department, a job nobody wants; I do my best to be, at least, honest.)

Against this background, indulgences such as the “slow professor” movement, however well intentioned, constitute a somewhat sick joke—something that renders the notion of “First World problem” wildly inadequate. I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?

The humanities and social sciences often appear to be scholarly echo chambers, driven by prize-chasing and chatter-swapping that is only of interest to a comfortable few. The emancipatory promise of learning, once the core mission, lies broken on the floor. There is no freedom here, no route to self-realization. There may be, in some cases, employment. But there is, less defensibly, the mere carapace of radical politics, a pathetic shell of commitment polished and maintained by a collective delusion that what we do still makes a difference to the larger world.

Let me put it in this contentious way: The only justification for the privileges we enjoy is that they should work to make the world better, in some sense of that word. This is, mutatis mutandis, a basic tenet of any theory of justice, whether it is John Rawls’ notion of distributive fairness, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Hume’s regulation of moderate scarcity. There may be no direct material results from our work, but there should be intangible ones: the accretion of wisdom, a deepened sense of what it means to be here. Privilege for its own sake is malign. Intellectual privilege is complacency dressed up with fancy vocational window-dressing.

Look, I know: crisis in our universities is a familiar trope. We have heard all of this before, and scholarship keeps making its steady headway. Stop worrying! Keep your head down, make a contribution, be moderately nice to your colleagues and students, and take home the pay. There are worse ways to measure a mortal span.

I sympathize with this attitude, I really do. Sometimes, like many of us, all I want to do is go to the library and make notes for an article or critical notice, which I am certain will not be read by more than a few like-minded colleagues. Moreover, I am as impatient as anyone with the misrepresentations of what happens in our classrooms and on our campuses. I have no interest in indoctrination, preach no particular political line in lectures, and do not believe my students ought to exit a course as fired-up activists, just as more thoughtful citizens.

But, friends, we are losing. We are losing when it comes to reason and critical intelligence and civility. We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.

Populism might be a political force we revile, but its lesson cannot be ignored: for the vast majority of people, universities do not represent opportunity or self-realization but elite self-regard, out-of-touch levels of comfort, and a discourse that enjoys no traction on the politics of everyday life.

We are losing when it comes to reason and critical intelligence and civility. We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.

Assuming that we see this as a problem that needs to be addressed, what can we do about it?

* * *

As a fan of campus literature, I always read with some envy the depictions of earlier iterations of academic life. I think of Evelyn Waugh, John Williams, Iris Murdoch, or Willa Cather—even David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, and Malcolm Bradbury. Whether taken seriously or wrapped in the chilly embrace of satire, professors in these worlds enjoy implicit status because of their learning. Undergraduates accept authority and the idea that a bachelor’s degree is a good in and of itself. The public at large considers a liberal-arts degree a mark of distinction, the sign of potential, not a sad comment on bad life-choices.

I do not need to tell you that this has all entirely vanished. Universities are now sites of consumer preference and casual student entitlement. Expertise in something as frangible as poetry and philosophy is a matter of routine mockery. Administrators multiply at a rate unknown to any other walk of life. Passionate interest in ideas, meanwhile, is considered a sign of eccentricity, something to be deprecated among the post-grad barista class as adolescent indulgence.

From behind the retail counter, Thoreau’s cry in Walden (1854) about intellectuals as rational rebels for humanity sounds a romantic note. “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,” he intoned. “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

If only. So, the question becomes one of what other possibilities exist given current conditions. Is there any life in the traditional promise of liberal learning? Suppose we denied ourselves the comfortable retreat into privilege, a return to the bubble, what would our duties be then? And what would be the real outcomes, not the ones measured by the dean’s office apparatchiks?

Is there any life in the traditional promise of liberal learning?

We can note several false trails right from the start. The worst possible course of action is to try to recast liberal learning according to a reductive notion of utility. This is the error coiled in the heart of every faculty demand for learning outcomes and transferable skills. Sure, there are such outcomes and skills emerging from the ether of classes in metaphysics or pure mathematics. However, if we assess those classes on their ability to generate such results, we commit two errors—one theoretical and one practical.

The theoretical error is counted as such only by those who are already committed to these esoteric pursuits. Utility-based arguments for math and metaphysics mistake the true value of these undertakings, erasing their special appeal. This is, alas, academic inside baseball. However, the practical error follows immediately and should be obvious to anyone. If we are really concerned with enhancing writing, critical reasoning, or calculating skills, teaching the works of David Lewis and Georg Cantor is a preposterously inefficient way of going about it. Life skills may be emergent properties of postsecondary study; they cannot ever be its point.

It is equally dangerous to devolve university education to either of two popular notions of self-fulfilment. One of these holds that education is entirely for the benefit of an individual subject: the so-called “mental spa” model. On this understanding, in public systems anyway, the taxpayers of a jurisdiction shoulder the costs of unequally distributed luxury goods, in the form of time and opportunity to read, write, and hang out for several years. Tuition provides a necessary cover of personal investment in this high-end experience, but in fact rarely covers the full costs.

The flip-side of this indulgent vision is the popular idea that education must be a matter of radicalization. The notion has a long and respectable history, and there is a kernel of truth in it that must be acknowledged beyond the newspaper caricatures of “political correctness,” that mythical bugbear, and the clichéd talk of microaggressions, safe spaces, and victimhood.

As Paolo Freire reminds us in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), education is either a trap-door into the current arrangement or an escape-hatch into freedom. However, there are sometimes side-traps and bait-and-switch games concealed within the passageways of thought. Freedom need not be standard leftist politics. In fact, it need not, and should not, be any specific counter-ideology at all. Critical intelligence means questioning all easy habits of thought; including the ones we indulge in service of our own political desires.

Critical intelligence means questioning all easy habits of thought; including the ones we indulge in service of our own political desires.

It has been some years since I last read Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University (1852), but in thinking about this article, I was motivated to crack my old paperback copy. It is well thumbed. I bought it for a class I still recall, a first-year ‘great books’ evening course, co-taught in the far-off year of 1980 by two historians—one of them the award-winning Kenneth Bartlett, now a colleague.

Newman’s basic religiosity remains at odds with his self-avowed secularism about education, and his elitism is presumptive, as with any book from the era. Nevertheless, the optimism of his view is forever inspiring. The defence of education as an end in itself, in fact as the discernment of ends rather than means, is timeless. Students, Newman argues, must learn “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze.” That is the point; that is the idea.

* * *

It happens that this spring is the tenth anniversary of a program run at the University of Toronto called “Humanities for Humanity.” My friends John Duncan and Kelley Castle, along with a host of student and faculty volunteers, have run this innovative series with extraordinary success over this decade.

In the program, people from different walks of city life, recruited through community centres and downtown churches, attend a series of lectures and discussion groups. They read very canonical material and hear from professors interested in the topics. (I have lectured every year on Machiavelli’s The Prince; also lately on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in a related program called “Theatre for Thought”.) There is a hearty dinner and free childcare, formal certificates at the end, and, above all, an intellectual fellowship I have not seen anywhere else.

Some 500 students have been inspired by the original program over the years, with another 300 graduating from the theatre-based offshoot. These might seem like small numbers, compared to the massive waves of populism that contend with the very idea of a university, and the huge annual intakes of students at all levels of our system. But, I can tell you that there is nothing in my experience more moving than to hear someone, excluded by language or background from regular attendance, wax emotional about the simple chance to attend a university lecture on power, or identity, or faith.

Speaking of faith, nothing renews my faith in the value of education more reliably than spending time with these students. A program like this will not solve the structural problems of graduate-school exploitation and the new academic precariat. It will not serve as a one-line reply to know-nothings and dopes who court a bogus populism with anti-intellectual ridicule and their comfortable salaries. However, it might sketch the beginnings of an argument about why we do what we do, why it matters, and how it affects actual people.

Our own students are rarely as grateful as these people, who are usually older and coming from situations of deprivation and often oppression. However, as Newman and Freire and a host of us have reason to know, planting the seeds of wisdom is not the same thing as witnessing its flowering. We cannot know, in advance, what effect our ideas and their halting expression will have on the individuals who pass before us in lecture halls, maybe bored and thinking of other things, irritated at the sheer non-utility of it all.

And yet, we go on because we believe in the mission. Or we should. It seems to me that the natural consequence of charges of elite privilege is a dangerous cynicism: the idea that this is all a game, a lottery where tenured faculty are the lucky winners after whom the door slams shut. Good luck, suckers! I’m all right!

Whenever I think about these questions of value, and the ends of university education, I recall the first hard years of my post-PhD career. The job market was experiencing another one of its cyclical crises. My home department at Yale, was in disarray and plummeting in reputation (there were no formal rankings then, just word-of-mouth taint). I struggled to find work, cobbling together what, nowadays, appears to be a fairly typical path: a post-doc, a sessional job, a limited appointment, tantalizing prospects of tenure-track jobs, along with various reversals and disappointments. I applied to join the Foreign Service, contemplated law school, and wrote for money. Of course I did.

Not surprisingly, I resented people who seemed to swan their way from graduate school into tenure-track jobs. I also recall the humiliation of having my name removed from a departmental mailbox because my re-appointment in the folding chair was briefly held up. “You don’t teach here anymore,” I was told. I’m glad those days are gone, but I don’t ever forget them. I am one of the lucky, lucky few: I made it into the clubhouse—or at least one chamber of its rigged, rickety expanse.

I will say it again: it is despicable to enjoy the fruits of academic success and not feel a profound sense of obligation. People who exist outside our bubble feel this too: hence the anger, the contempt, the disdain—and, maybe worst of all, the indifference. Still, we are all citizens together, and the world of the university is as real as anything else that transpires here in the sublunary realm. There is a call to community audible underneath all the hostility.

So I choose to believe, anyway. Every academic I know will tell you that she or he has many, many jobs. Sometimes, to be sure, it can feel like too many. But one of them, maybe the most important one, is to demonstrate why our efforts have wider value than just our personal satisfaction. That is not quite a new pedagogy of the oppressed, but maybe it is a start. AM

Mark Kingwell is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

International students and Canada’s future on the right

Populist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and UK means that more international students are coming to study at postsecondary institutions in Canada. But, what Canada will they find when they get here?

The political events of the past year have been a recurring sitcom of oddities, leading many Canadians to bring out the popcorn and tissues. We watched with wry humour as the UK exited the European Union and we sat in stunned terror as the US elected Donald Trump. It has been more than a little unsettling. Our two closest allies—economically and culturally— have turned their back on the ideals of an open society and are instead pursuing narrow, protectionist policies.

The response in higher education has been ambivalent as institutions wonder what these political changes will mean for them. Most have held meetings and drafted statements to decry US policies while at the same time calculating the revenue they will gain if international students come to Canada instead of the UK or America.

Fortunately, several institutions have also seen the writing on the wall, foreshadowing our own potential to get swept away in the populist mania. Will this struggle become ours more directly? And what role is there for Canadian universities, many of whom are hoping these political events pay out in international students?

US chaos is Canada’s windfall

In the spring of 2016, as the UK made history by exiting the EU and Trump became a legitimate contender in the US, Canadians began to wonder what all of this meant for them. Trump’s protectionist policies were the most immediate concern. Without smooth trade with the US, a Canadian recession is almost guaranteed. Yet, when Trump was officially elected, the higher education response was one of eager anticipation. Would Canada benefit from the hostile environment in the US? Would we see an increase in foreign students and the money they bring in? The evidence suggests the answer is “yes”.

In the wake of Brexit, the EU ranked Canada as the most desirable English-speaking country for study abroad. This is a huge publicity bump for Canada. Shortly after this pleasant promotion, QS World University Ranking listed Montreal as the number one student city in the world, removing the romantic icon of Paris from first place. The world is watching Canadian universities.

In terms of actual numbers, Canada has never been the number-one destination for foreign students. According to the World Economic Forum, we are currently the eighth highest recipient of international students following the US, UK, France, Australia, Germany, Russia, and Japan. The reality is that we receive only 3 per cent of the world’s mobile students compared to the US (18 per cent) and the UK (11 per cent).

So topping the US and UK is a big deal. Students who cannot or will not go to the US and UK, have to go somewhere else, and we hope it is here. The future looks even brighter when you consider that Canadian institutions have already had a 20 per cent rise in applications from American students. Canada is quickly becoming the ideal place to get a degree.

Students who cannot or will not go to the US and UK, have to go somewhere else, and we hope it is here

What Canada are international students entering?

What is this idyllic Canada that international students are entering?

Well, Canada turns 150 this year. If this were not a strong enough reason to revisit our national identity, US xenophobia certainly is. Social media is abuzz with messages that Canada is welcoming, from the Ontario-150 campaign video with its flagship Muslim teen, to reporters finding refugees who have walked for hours just to get to Canada. We are looking for proof that we are made of superior moral fabric, that the hatred could not happen here, that we are not like them.

However, history is not our friend. In fact, Canadian politics has a concerning tendency to follow closely behind our US counterpart. Remember the 1980s, when the US elected conservative Ronald Reagan in 1981 and then Canada elected conservative Brian Mulroney in 1984? Ten years later the more liberal governments of Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien both took power in 1993; Stephen Harper’s conservatives followed George W. Bush by only five years. And now we have our own charming, young Prime Minister in the wake of Barack Obama.

So before we feel superior, let’s stop to consider what will happen when Canadians begin to get disillusioned with our energetic Prime Minister and his diverse cabinet. An international student who eagerly applies for a Canadian degree in 2017 will only be starting their third year of study when Canadians have the chance to oust Trudeau and elect a right-wing leader. We even had our own celebrity-cum-politician vying for the job.

This scenario becomes even more hopeless if we add a recession fueled by US trade restrictions. Loss of employment, government deficits, and a rising cost of living could become a recipe for populist campaigning and protectionism. Even if we successfully construct an image that we are different from the US, that we make our own political choices and are open to the world, a recession would shatter this image fairly quickly. When unemployment hits, “me-first” politics becomes much more appealing.

The picture does not get brighter when you consider the findings of the international student survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Only 13 per cent of international students reported that they faced cultural or religious discrimination from their peers inside the university campus, but 21 per cent said they experienced discrimination from the broader community.

When unemployment hits, “me-first” politics becomes much more appealing

This supports the idea that universities are bastions of liberal thought, and many are working hard to create inclusive communities. But eventually international students have to go out into the world and there is no guarantee that the Canada they find will be friendly. Indeed, there are new barriers on the learning-to-earning pathways for international students in Canada as they are no longer able to count their retail or food service jobs toward their permanent residency status. We want them to come, we need their money and cultural cache on campus, but not all of us want them to stay. And, if we do follow our neighbours to the south down the path of populism, it is unlikely that we will hold our top position for very long.

What is the plan?

So how can we avoid this future? How can Canadian universities take action and ensure that Canada is, as Canadian Federation of Students Chairperson Bilan Arte recently wrote, the “antithesis to Trump’s America?”

Well, the first thing is to leverage all that “stuff” that universities do. The brick and mortar multiversity, which is still the mainstay across Canada, has its fingers in everything from policy advising and medical research to educating young minds. Universities do everything, but can they do it all with the aim of countering discrimination?

The day-to-day grind of competing for funding and marking exams leaves little time for esoteric reflections. Some of us are left looking enviously at our social science colleagues who always seem at the centre of action research and social change.

So, let’s take a step back from the heroic examples of faculty activism and consider three tangible ways all of us in higher education can bring equity and openness into our daily activities. Think postscripts, interventions, and open ears.

First, for faculty and staff—hone your postscript. Find that one message from your work or research that broadens the conversation, that brings it back to equity and caring for the underrepresented. “Well Jim, those are the main findings from our genome project, POSTSCRIPT: I hope we keep in mind how this effects those in marginalized communities…”

Second, a lesson from the safe-campus folk: be conscientious interveners. Choose a phrase that reflects you—be it gentle strength or pithy sarcasm. Speak up when things get uncomfortable. “You know Ann, I felt uncomfortable with the way we treated that student…”

And finally, just listen. Some people take this further, adding an extra 30 minutes of office hours for equity issues. The aim is not to solve all problems on your campus, but it will signal that you are willing to have these conversations. It shows respect for diverse students as valuable, not just lucrative.

Influencing the vote

In terms of actually influencing an election, can universities help prevent far-right victories?

Universities and colleges are uniquely positioned. They educate more than 60 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 to 24. That is huge. And, when it comes to voting, this group is inconsistent. In the 2011 Canadian federal election only 38.8 per cent of this group voted. But, in 2015, when the stakes were higher, 57.1 per cent showed up to vote.

One reason for the increase was that, in 2015, universities worked directly with Elections Canada to make it easier for students to vote. New elections offices were established on university campuses—sometimes more than one—to get students registered to vote. This is a move in the right direction.

If the research tells us that those with a degree are less likely to vote for a populist leader, then let’s make sure our students are voting. Let’s increase funding for “get out the vote” campaigns, provide incentives for students who register, and make it easy and imperative that students cast their ballot.

We also need to remember that our students are not just isolated voters. They may also be an important means of bridging the “education gap.” Research suggests that those who hold degrees were less likely to have voted for Brexit and Trump. In Canada, more than 30 per cent of university students and about 42 per cent of college students are the first generation in their family to attend postsecondary education. This means that the university’s connection to people without postsecondary education—like those unfairly shamed because they voted for Trump—is much closer than we have been led to believe.

Let us assume for a moment that these efforts pay off and Canada manages to ward off the populist surge taking place south of the border and narrow protectionist politics at home. We will, most likely, continue to receive international students and their high tuition fees. But, what will they find when they arrive? We hope it is a Canada that is welcoming and diverse. Whether this is the case is a daily choice for all of us. AM

Grace Karram Stephenson is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Canada’s university administrators must pay attention to right-wing activism on campuses

The surge in racism on university campuses is part of a broader right-wing awakening across the country. University administrators must counter these developments, or the credibility of their institutions will suffer.

That a populist wave has swept over much of the Western world (and beyond) in recent years should not be lost on Ontario’s post-secondary educators and administrators. Canada and its public institutions are also susceptible to the politics and rhetoric of exclusion and hate.

Aside from well-documented incidents in Alberta and British Columbia, alarmingly, the past two years have seen numerous cases of racist propaganda posted and distributed in and around Ontario’s university campuses. In the fall of 2015, “White Student Union” posters were found at Ryerson University, York University, and the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. A year later, flyers decrying “anti-white racism” were found on the McMaster University campus in Hamilton, while a study room in McMaster’s Innis Library was booked with the note: “McMaster KKK meeting.” And then, last fall, some students posed in front of a giant #WesternLivesMatter banner at Western University.

These are just a few examples from a wave of incidents. This surge in publicly racist pronouncements is part of a larger right-wing awakening across the country. And though this emboldening of otherwise suppressed and marginalized views can be traced, at least in part, to the rise of Donald Trump and populist demagoguery in the United States, it is Canada’s own history and phenomenon of far right movements that have laid the foundation for such a surge to take place.

As the far right continues to gain political and rhetorical ground in the US and Europe, university administrators in Canada should remain vigilant. Attempts to use the campus environment (and even the classroom) to reintegrate racist and xenophobic discourse and agendas back into the wider spectrum of acceptable ideas should be expected.

A Canadian problem

In a recent comprehensive study of right-wing movements across Canada, Professor Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and Ryan Scrivens of Simon Fraser University found that the country’s right-wing extremist movement is “more extensive and more active than public rhetoric would suggest.”

The study concluded that approximately 100 right-wing extremist groups have been active in Canada since the start of the 21st century. Concentrations of these groups have taken hold in British Columbia’s lower mainland, Alberta, Quebec, and Western Ontario.

Additionally, CBC Marketplace did a recent study that focused on racist and intolerant language on social media, web forums, comment sections, and blogs. The study found a 600 per cent increase in such language in the past year. Although the researchers called this surge in online racism “The Trump Effect,” internet intolerance and cyber bullying have long been a problem in the age of online communication. According to Statistics Canada, this surge in right-wing rhetoric and racism was preceded by a doubling of anti-Muslim incidents from 2012 to 2014. This also came before Donald Trump achieved serious media and political traction in the US.

It is the combination of a decidedly Canadian history of intolerance and racism along with the recent insurgency of right-wing activism, language, and electoral success in the US that has emboldened Canada’s far right. The surge in racism literature and paraphernalia on major university campuses across Canada in the past two years is a function of this convergence.

The exploitation of free speech

The perceived rise in “political correctness” has long been a central grievance harboured by those on the right. Since university campuses are supposed to be arenas where the free flow and engagement of ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, it makes sense that activists on the far right would use this principle to try and reintegrate otherwise suppressed beliefs that have long been discredited and marginalized.

Such usage of campus culture and the student body is catalyzed by the common perception that universities are biased against conservative thinkers and viewpoints. This discrepancy gives credence to a belief in the “elitist” culture of university campuses that have lost touch with society.

Thus, we see the injection and reintegration of xenophobic populism, often disguised as legitimate conservative activism. Its proponents and enthusiasts characterize this as a necessary attempt to recalibrate the skewed, left-wing university campus culture—one they say has long discriminated against conservatives who will not bow to the pervasive and repressive presence of “political correctness.”

Yet the impacts of this kind of organizing go well beyond the university campus. Groups that seek to create concentrations of far-right activists on campuses do so as a means to galvanize support for movements that aim to have regional and even national influence. The campus or campus group is simply the locus where a certain species of political or cultural rhetoric can take root. The panels, lectures, and rallies that each group undertakes, perhaps with university funding, attract like-minded people. To be clear, this kind of dynamic is basic and germane to groups across the political and cultural spectrum and is not at all exclusive to right-wing activism.

However, as far as the right is concerned, the linkage of on-campus legitimacy and off-campus audiences attracts individuals or groups that exist on the fringes of society. Campus groups may purport to stand for issues related to free speech, taxation, or immigration, but in the age of Trump—who has turned xenophobic rhetoric regarding Muslims and Mexicans into popular political stances repeated daily on broadcast television—such issues act as a dog whistle, publicly galvanizing those further down the far-right spectrum. In this way, the university campus becomes the physical location for a coalescing of right-wing dogma.

Not all conservative groups or clubs purposefully stoke xenophobia via this galvanization of the far-right. However, the success of Trump, combined with Canada’s own layer of extreme right-wing voices, may create a situation where even well-meaning student groups begin to attract voices and people that do not belong in arenas of civil debate and engagement. Currently, in light of the rather obvious state of right-wing politics, such inadvertent connections seem to be rare.

Administrators and faculty should keep an eye out for this kind of right-wing coalescing because regardless of wider impacts, it affects the university campus climate as well as minority students’ and groups’ safety and place within the campus community. Thus, the university administration’s legitimacy rests on its ability to gauge the level, political nature, and limits of right-wing activism on campus.

The politics of normalization

Incidents of campus racism do not take place or occur within a sealed social vacuum. The language used in far-right paraphernalia found on Canadian campuses reflects Trump’s rhetoric. This reinforces the theoretical connection between the rise in xenophobic campus propaganda and the political insurgency of the American right.

Professor Jasmine Zine of Wilfred Laurier University and Ameil Joseph of McMaster University, both of whom are informed by an extensive scholarly background in the study of discrimination, have related the rise and origins of such campus racism to a process of “normalization”—a gradual mainstreaming of previously unacceptable ideologies or politics by the advent of right-wing populism in Trump’s America and elsewhere.

This normalization mirrors the mechanisms of reintegration that campus groups are capable of facilitating when it comes to far right politics. Just as former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (along with an assortment of far right extremists) have come out and expressed allegiance to Trump, legitimate conservative groups on campus may attract the same kind of attention.

If such dog whistling has been achieved at the top-most levels of national politics in the US, then it is certainly not a stretch to posit that those in smaller venues who harbour similar ambitions and views are mirroring the effect.

If the goal is to drag the national conservation or political framework toward the right, then it makes sense to establish or reinforce this process of “normalization” at every level of society and in every available venue where the exchange of ideas is prioritized. This makes Canadian university campuses a priority for right-wing demagoguery as it looks to move out from the shadows.

The populist tool and the canadian alt-right

It is not just Donald Trump that provides inspiration and comfort to those on Canada’s far-right fringe. Canada has a handful of political figures who have made it very clear that they hope to galvanize a similar electoral base. This brings the political context of campus racism into a domestic frame where it is bound to have serious consequences that warrant attention from university administrators.

Three candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada’s national leadership spoke at Rebel Media’s recent Toronto rally protesting Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s Motion-103, which condemns racism and Islamophobia. The audience of 1,000 people ranged from “Make America Great Again”-hat-wearing Trump supporters to members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which the FBI has designated a terrorist organization in the US.

In other words, those in attendance represented the assortment of right-wing groups and voices that, in today’s parlance, would constitute the Canadian “alt-right.” That some of Canada’s leading conservative voices find it necessary to play to this crowd is a clear sign of the political context within which campus politics will be conducted in the years to come.

The crowd was symbolic of the larger make-up of today’s ever-coalescing right wing, which has evolved into a big-tent and surprisingly multi-ethnic group that share a single purpose: to use today’s political climate to reintegrate their allegedly suppressed viewpoints and rhetoric back into the national conversation. Due to the diversity of right-wing thought, the extreme right can use the legitimacy of those whose history and rhetoric don’t ring as many alarm bells to provide themselves with political cover. And although different right-wing groups may have varying levels of respectability, all are looking to capitalize on today’s Trump-inspired political climate to gain acceptance and more influence.

The high level of visibility and political influence that clearly xenophobic and dishonest views have reached will certainly affect the tenor and character of conservative groups and activism on Canadian campuses. A failure of university administrators to monitor and counter these developments will erode the university’s credibility.

Due to the current political atmosphere, large segments of the student body are looking to those in places of institutional power to re-legitimize their presence as full-fledged and welcomed members of Canadian and university communities. These minority populations and groups have become an absolutely integral and indispensable aspect of Canadian universities—known around the world for their emphasis on diversity of ethnic background, as well as ideological and philosophical viewpoint.

When anti-black racism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia are found on campuses, university administrations should, at the very least, make a very visible effort to rhetorically marginalize these acts of discrimination. Additionally, administrators should hold regular consultations and meetings with different student organizations on campus to get a better idea of what students are feeling and experiencing.

Although universities are arenas where the largest spectrum of ideas and worldviews can be engaged with and critiqued, campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history. There is no such thing as a functional space of ideas or intellectual exchange that tolerates those who are absolutely intolerant.

campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history

For instance, university spaces have no responsibility to include the neo-Nazi or pro-Ku Klux Klan perspectives. To do so would be to facilitate the corrosion of such open spaces. Thankfully, history has cast many of these unhelpful visions aside. Today’s universities should not play any role in their resurrection. AM

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist, editor, and writer focusing on national security issues and foreign affairs.

Global higher education, social solidarity, and the new nationalism

Higher education serves both national and global interests in the pursuit of knowledge and student learning. Given populism’s nationalist roots, there is mounting pressure to redefine the university’s mission. How should universities respond?

The last twelve months have seen a great shift in the North Atlantic political landscape, with only Canada immune (so far). Nobody in universities saw it coming. It is urgent to grasp the nature of this shift. Higher education has become central to societies; it is inevitably caught up in all big political changes and it is directly involved in this particular shift.

There has been a surge of support for ethno-nationalism of the blood-and-soil kind, fearful of global openness and resentful of globally connected persons, whether migrants, traders, or cross-border professors and students. This surge has been strong enough to take the UK out of the European Union and, against the odds, propel a white nationalist protectionist into the White House. Donald Trump is bristling with threats to wage war on a long list of internal and external enemies; he is trying to turn those threats into policy. The alt-right political polarization, grounded in identity, not class (although white nationalism actually claims the mantle of the proletariat, capturing class within cultural identity) turns on an opposition between singular ethno-national identity, and global openness and plural identity. This has rendered Anglo-American higher education and science more controversial and vulnerable, affecting every higher education institution.

What is different about the alt-right?

Though the alt-right is more nuanced and modernist in Western Europe, there is strong support for ethno-nationalist populism in France, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. In fact, Marine Le Pen may have won the French presidency by the time this article is published, and while Geert Wilders failed to sweep the March elections in the Netherlands, his fundamentalist Dutch identity has colonized the political language of the mainstream parties, just as the anti-migration anti-Europe rhetoric of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party have remade the strategies and policies of Theresa May’s Conservative Party in the UK.

Nationalist populism and the rhetorical targeting of elites (often by politicians who draw their own support from the rich and powerful) is an old gambit. In efforts to shore up their power, many other politicians have and are currently leveraging nationalist sympathy, including Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hindu-centric Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. President Xi Jinping in China has also sharpened the patriotic rhetoric. However, alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism: a break from the past in two ways.

alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism

First, the alt-right is explicitly and consistently anti-globalization. It rejects the neoliberal globalism that has shaped politics for the last 25 years, with its world-market dreaming and free flows of capital, labour, and products. Here the alt-right differs from Xi in China, Modi, and even, despite habitual Russian closure (a hangover from the Soviet past), from Putin. Open economic borders still facilitate the rise of China and India; but in the US, UK, and France, part of the economic elite has drawn the conclusion that open borders no longer translate into global dominance. Hence Trump’s emphasis on that other source of US global power, military capability, and the reported desire of his chief adviser Steve Bannon for a “cleansing war”. Second, the alt-right pitches itself against science, higher education, experts, and even graduates, which are all positioned on the wrong side of its simplistic elite/people divide.

A post-neoliberal world

Trump’s abrupt switch from free trade policy to American isolationism has been startling. Nevertheless, US policy never fully discarded all protectionism. Perhaps the abandonment of multilateralism by a mainstream political party in the UK is the larger change. Since the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear that ending free migratory movement from continental Europe is a higher priority for the UK government than either economic enrichment or attracting global talent. If necessary, the UK will leave the single market in Europe to end free movement. In the last generation, the UK’s two most successful global sectors have been financial services, led by the City of London, and higher education and research. Different though they are, each has become collateral damage of ethno-nationalism. UK finance will no longer provide international firms with single-stop access to European markets —the passport to Europe which has been primary in building London as a global business centre. Nigel Farage even argues that, when selecting partners for bilateral trade deals, the UK should give priority to countries that speak English. It is hard to imagine export nations like Germany or Korea giving priority to trading partners that speak German or Korean.

Who would have thought it? The UK and USA have entered a post-neoliberal world in which the goal of maximum capital accumulation has been partly eclipsed. This is a result of a hard-nosed politics of securing and maintaining power in fractured societies rife with material insecurity and frustrated hopes. Alt-right and mainstream centre-right politicians find it easier to scapegoat than to implement reforms to confront the one per cent and reverse growing inequality. This strategic shift may create openings for other opponents of neoliberalism, but it is not the post-neoliberal world that higher education wanted. We long chafed under the dominance of solely economic policy. We now have a larger problem.

Rampant global markets are associated with inequality, the undermining of labour conditions and the social wage, and pressures to privatize education. However, global convergence has not been solely economic. Since the 1990s, open borders and free movement have also been associated with the roll-out of worldwide communications and common databases, a renaissance in higher education with unprecedented international collaboration, and the spread of indigenous scientific capacity and global research to more than fifty countries. A combination of widespread authoritarian national governments and border blockages would be the worst possible outcome for higher education and research at home and abroad.

It will be hard for Canada to remain entirely insulated from pressures to restrict cross-border movement. Nevertheless, the Canadian social consensus about multiculturalism and migrancy should protect the nation from the worst extremes of the alt-right. This is vital for Canadian higher education. Consider the effects already unfolding for higher education institutions in the US and UK.

The UK has 2.9 million resident EU citizens and 2.15 million in the workforce. This includes 43,000 EU citizen staff and 125,000 EU students in higher education. Their position is radically uncertain. Until last June, EU nationals were quasi-citizens with an unquestionable right to remain. That has disappeared. The UK government refuses to announce a blanket guarantee for existing residents. It has been overwhelmed by the volume of applications for residency (it kept no records of EU citizens that would confirm the validity of their applications) and is nudging as many EU citizens as possible back across the border by imposing a difficult 85-page application form and steep requirements for proof of UK residency. This includes a record of private health insurance, though most EU citizens in the UK use the public National Health Service. Universities face the loss of many of their best faculty—in recent years 40 per cent of all new applicants for UK academic posts have gone to Europeans—and a massive drop in EU students entering the UK. After Brexit, EU students will no longer have access to income contingent loans for tuition and will face increases of 120 to 200 per cent in tuition fees. Further, UK researchers will no longer be eligible to participate in large-scale collaborative EU research programs, slowing the exchange of ideas between the UK and the continent.

In the US, Trump’s ban on citizens from six Muslim countries immediately blocks large-scale flows of students, researchers, and faculty visitors. It imposes a discriminatory framework, violating the ideas of secularism, cultural diversity and equal respect, and academic freedom and democratic rights. It undermines the capacity of universities to provide the free cosmopolitan global space integral to their role. Further, Trump has targeted climate science and already cut the budget for Environmental Protection Agency research. No doubt National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health budgets will come under scrutiny. Trump’s early confrontation with the University of California, Berkeley over free speech—on behalf of an alt-right leader who was, ironically, attempting to deny free speech to Muslims—suggests that a long culture war with US universities and colleges is likely.

Higher education and electoral polarization

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology. Not only do universities embody values and cross-border practices that Trump detests; not only do they harbour many of his articulate critics; the social divide between those with college degrees and those outside higher education was crucial to his 2016 electoral strategy. The education/non-education divide, and attacks on experts also figured in the Brexit campaign in the UK.

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology

We can see this by examining voting patterns. A word of caution here: binary political systems trigger heterogeneous voting blocs. Not all supporters of Brexit were persuaded by the alt-right—including many members of the British Labour Party for whom the EU is a bankers’ conspiracy. In the US, Trump drew votes from lifelong Republicans who support the party of Lincoln while disagreeing with the candidate on some issues. Electoral polarization also differed between the US and UK. Ethnicity and gender were larger factors in the US, but there was convergence in the winning ethno-nationalist arguments, particularly in relation to migration (“give us back our country”), national aggrandizement (“make America great again”), and the negative references to experts.

The best overall predictors of how people voted in the US and UK were not whether they were rich or poor. Support for Trump and Brexit cut across class lines, and in different ways: in the UK, the average income of Brexit supporters was less than that of EU supporters; in the US, the average income of Trump voters was higher than that of Clinton voters. The clearest indicators of how people were likely to vote were
(1) whether they lived in large cities (they tended to support the EU and Clinton), or small towns and rural areas (they supported Brexit and Trump); and (2) whether they held degrees. The two factors are related. Like global connections, degree holders are concentrated in cities.

This association between higher education and global mobility is instrumental, not coincidental. Recently the OECD published Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world. The report contained a table comparing the cross-border mobility of people with, and without, university degrees. Among those without degrees, the tendency to move across borders was correlated to income. As income rose, people had more scope for mobility. The capacity for mobility is economically driven and it furthers the economic advantages of those already advantaged. End of story.

Except that it isn’t. Among those with university degrees—and current participation rates suggest this will soon be one-fifth of all people in the world—the OECD found a different pattern. First, at a given level of income, those with degrees are much more mobile than those without degrees. In other words, higher education helps to democratize mobility, providing you can get higher education in the first place. Second, for those with degrees, above a modest threshold of income there is little change in potential mobility. This suggests that because higher education helps graduates to achieve greater personal agency, it reduces the limits set by economic determination and class, constituting greater personal freedom in its own right. Conversely, those who lack higher education have less freedom, which helps to explain the virulence of push-back mobilized by the alt-right.

Nate Silver’s analysis of the November 2016 election in the US shows that in the 50 least educated counties, as measured by the proportion of the electorate with college degrees, Trump made major gains. When compared to Obama in 2012, Clinton lost ground in 47 of these 50 counties with an average slide of 11 percentage points. In the 50 counties with the highest level of college education—otherwise diverse in terms of income and ethnic composition—Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 vote in 48 of the 50 by an average 9 percentage points. These highly educated counties include many with high proportions of white voters, who elsewhere tended to support Trump. Clinton secured more than half the vote from only one group of white voters: college educated women. In the UK, only 26 per cent of degree holders supported Brexit, far less than the 78 per cent of those without degrees who voted in favour. Young people, the most educated generation in UK history—more comfortable with mobility and complex identity—overwhelmingly voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

Ironically, Trump could not have used level of education as a means of dividing the electorate if only 5 per cent of people went to university and it was solely an elite affair. Only when participation reached a third or more of all young people, and higher education had become much less elite, could it be used as a binary political weapon. The alt-right, which positions itself as egalitarian, yet supports low taxes for the rich and demonizes destitute refugees with nowhere to go, is bristling with Orwellian ironies of this kind.

It might be a weapon with diminishing power. If participation in higher education continues to expand then, in the long run, the potential alt-right base must shrink. Yet that is not the only possible scenario. In the neoliberal policy settings that have affected Canada and other countries, higher education has been rendered more vulnerable to alt-right populism because of its growing focus on elite universities and private rates of return to degrees, rather than the contributions of higher education to the common public good. Universities defined as self-serving corporations are painted into a corner, and there is a danger that as the cost of public education rises and its social value is emptied out by stratification, the growth of participation will stop. This is already happening in the US.

Global, national, and local

Higher education institutions suddenly find themselves walking on eggshells. EU-voting UK university cities in the Midlands and the North sit amid strong Brexit majorities in the surrounding regions. Educated city-based people, comfortable with global mobility, have been pitted against those for whom life and self are geographically constrained and global engagement is on the wrong side of the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. This newly constructed social division has entered the political mainstream, as shown by Theresa May’s savage put-down of global values soon after the Brexit vote: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. You do not belong in the UK. As if people must choose between singular identities, national or global, and it is unnatural to be both. This poses dangers for higher education institutions that are local, national, and global at the same time.

Higher education serves national objectives. It also works with universal knowledge and focuses on common global problems. This leaves universities ambiguous in the face of the essential ethno-national question: “Shouldn’t we do more for our own citizens than those of other countries?” One virtue of universities is that they refuse to be trapped by that question. Nevertheless, when the choice becomes a dualistic national-vs-global, they are immediately suspect.

How should higher education respond to this new political landscape? There is no magic key but the following seem essential:

  1. Universities must be even stronger advocates of open borders, global connectivity, and the cosmopolitan ideal, finding every way around ethno-national barriers. Mobility is a human right. Closer cross-border integration coupled with genuine diversity is the way forward. Universities must be relentless, articulate critics of national chauvinism and racism in every form. This is part of their historic mission. The alternative, that universities would be complicit in the slide into militarism in an ethno-nationalist world, is unthinkable.
  2. The struggle over the freedom and validity of science is equally important. Only universities can effectively advance and defend research and the scholarly ideal.
  3. Higher education institutions, regardless of
    individual mission, should maintain their role in nation-building and reposition themselves in solidarity with local and regional communities. They should focus more on their role as producers of public goods, as well as private goods. National social democratic policy alone will not defeat ethno-nationalism and advance global connectivity. The battle for a more global approach must be won in its own right. However, in the long run, only social democratic sensibility can pry class identity away from alt-right demagoguery. Universities can and must be local and global at the same time, combining social solidarity with multicultural and international solidarity. AM
Simon Marginson is a Professor of International Higher Education at the University College London Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, Director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education, and is Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education with Jussi Valimaa.

Populist citizen politics — Beyond the Manichean mindset

A positive political alternative to the rise of demagogic populism will require a vibrant vision of democratic society and the empowerment of individuals to work through these differences. Universities should not be just observers, but engaged participants.

In the inflamed and divided public culture of the United States, we need a different understanding of populism than today’s ideological anti-corporate progressivism and anti-government conservatism. The alternative is populist citizen politics, a politics of popular empowerment and democratic change across partisan divides. Citizen politics aims to repair civic life as well as democratize concentrated power, both corporate and technocratic. Higher education will play a crucial role guiding such populism as it recovers its relational and civic soul. There is a rich tradition of civic and relational practices on which to build. It is a mistake to underrate the civic and relational revitalization in and around colleges and universities—this leads to undue fatalism and hopelessness.

Populisms left and right: The Manichean mindset

In 2016, populism was a ubiquitous trope for describing the US election. “Trump and Sanders: Different Candidates with a Populist Streak,” reported Chuck Todd on NBC. Most commentators used populism to describe the inflammatory rhetoric of the people against various elites. This approach is paralleled in academic literature. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell express prevalent views in defining populism as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.”

Right-wing populism—stoked by Republican politicians who target universities as elite institutions, far removed from the lives and concerns of everyday citizens—sparks fear among educators. However, such populism has parallels on the left as well. It manifested itself when students protested conservative speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College —and, in the process, injured a professor trying to protect him. This incident illustrates a Manichean formula of effecting change that students have learned from my generation of activists.

The formula was developed in 1974 by the environmental group Citizens for a Better Environment, and used for what was termed the “canvass”. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money, and collecting signatures. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including ones run by environment and consumer groups as well as the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network that exists on many college campuses. I defended the canvass method in Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a 1986 book written with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training centre which became the central hub for spreading the method. I remember the urgency we felt in the face of massive mobilization by corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax, and other legislation in the early 1970s. We saw the canvass as a way to fight back.

The canvass had successes on environmental, consumer, and other issues, even during the Reagan presidency. The scale was vast, reaching at least 12 million households a year in the mid-eighties. By 2001, when I developed a broader analysis of the canvass in “A Tale of Two Playgrounds,” a paper for the American Political Science Association, I became concerned about an unintended consequence of the canvass: its Manichean formula polarizes civic life, objectifies the enemy, and erodes citizenship. It frames politics as warfare. However, it continues to spread through robocalls, internet mobilizations, cable TV and talk radio, documentaries in the vein of Michael Moore, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” framework after 9-11. The formula is used by both right and left.

The Manichean model is also widespread in academic discourse. Gary Simpson, a theologian at Luther Seminary, shows the Manichean model in the transformation of his mentor, Carl Braaten. In Simpson’s vivid account, Braaten’s early writings were “a dialectically serious and critical, yet careful, generous, reverential and flourishing discovery [embodying] a poise that respects…particularity of real embedded humans…finite, fallible, and fragile.” In the political and cultural wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Braaten’s work took on a very different tone that “reduce[d] the state of affairs to stark binary opposites—good versus evil, angels vanquishing demons.” The Manichean model was accompanied by apocalyptic and totalistic thinking.“Crucial distinctions…dissipate under the white heat of apocalyptic fire and Manichean purism. If you oppose me on one point you opposed me on all points, all the way down.”

Braaten became a conservative academic, railing against the “antinomian…neopagan gnostic culture” that he saw as growing from the new left and its progeny. However, examples abound on the left as well. Student protests and Manichean stances have sparked calls for defense of free speech, including a statement co-authored by Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence and a well-known conservative scholar, and Cornel West, a progressive African-American Harvard professor. They challenged epistemic enclosure—the tendency of people to live in bubble cultures of similar beliefs. “It is all too common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities,” their statement reads. “Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent…or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campuses or…disinvited.”

We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person

Yet for those who feel the urgent need for change, calls for free speech are not sufficient. We need a different understanding of politics that brings back culture and the profound complexity of the person.

Civic populism and higher education

Populist citizen politics builds on movements in the United States—with parallels in Northern Europe, Russia, South Africa, and elsewhere—in which populism is not mainly a rhetorical invocation of people against elites, but rather civic organizing which builds popular power. Laura Grattan, author of Populism’s Power, observes that advocates of such populism “downplay the logic of oppositional identification and instead elaborate…regaining popular control over the institutions of civil society, political economy, and governance.” Such populism is different than “a politics of resistance.” It not only exposes “the abuses and failures of established democratic orders,” but it also emphasizes agency, “developing the capacities of grassroots actors, often from divergent backgrounds.” Grattan emphasizes a combination of grassroots organizing and radical public imagination and critique, pointing to Occupy Wall Street as an example of the latter, which fed into the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Luke Bretherton, writing about populism as popular empowerment, emphasizes its political nature. “Orientations and sentiments in political populism are put in the service of forging a political space not limiting, subverting or closing it down.” He points to broad-based community organizing like the Industrial Areas Foundation, which mix people across partisan divisions.

Populist citizen politics has aspects of both transformative vision and cross-partisan understanding. In my view, it reflects the distinctive tradition of civic action associated with American commonwealth history, not only through popularly elected governments, but also as a society that believes in public goods like libraries and schools, community centres and parks, bridges and roads, and the relational civic cultures that sustain them. Such citizen politics were cross-partisan, not ideological. It inspired Jane Addams, John Dewey, Alain Locke, and others’ view of democracy as a way of life.

Many strands of higher education have been associated with this populist view of democracy and citizen politics, from historically black colleges and universities, to liberal arts schools like Augsburg College (the Sabo Center’s new home), to today’s tribal colleges. Scott Peters, a historian of land grant colleges (institutions built on land provided by the federal government and mandated to focus on teaching practical agriculture, science, and engineering), has described the subterranean populist tradition in which scholars, graduates and students are involved in the life of communities through public work that builds civic agency. They are citizen professionals, invested and active in their communities.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University and Chair of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, argued that every aspect of higher education must be infused with a spirit of public work. Specialists needed to see themselves as part of “a great public work,” grounded in respect for the farmers and rural communities’ capacity to be agents of change. Bailey saw the crucial focus of this “extension work” as increasing capacity for self-directed civic action. “The re-direction of any civilization must rest primarily on the people who comprise it, rather than be imposed from persons in other conditions of life.”

Civic populism lost

Sharp partisanship has eroded civic populism. Ron Johnson, David Manley, and Kelvyn Jones have described growing ideological polarization from 1992 to 2012 with people increasingly living in like-minded communities. Meanwhile, within local communities, mediating institutions that once brought people together across partisan and other divides have radically eroded. Grant Stevensen is an organizer for ISAIAH, a broad-based community organization. He observes that, “There used to be mediating institutions like union locals, neighborhood schools, PTAs, or congregations where people interacted with a lot of diversity. Now we’ve lost them. People’s public identities are thin.”

Social fragmentation has also been growing. In 2006, a study published in the American Sociological Review reported radical erosion of social ties. “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist involved in the study. “We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on and email 25 people a day. But they are not discussing matters that are personally important.”

In the last decade, these trends have dramatically accelerated, spurred by the digital revolution. Sue Halpern, writing in the New York Review of Books, describes the replacement of the relational with the informational. “The real bias inherent in algorithms is that they are, by nature, reductive…the infiltration of algorithms into everyday life has brought us to a place where metrics tend to rule. This is true for education, medicine, finance, retailing, employment and the creative arts…in each case idiosyncrasy, experimentation, innovation, and thoughtfulness—the very stuff that makes us human—is lost.” This is the path toward a “McDonaldized” world of manufactured identities and flattened experiences.

How do we bring back the relational as the foundation of politics, education, and civic life?

Civic populism redux

Populist citizen politics have been sharply eroded, but it is a mistake not to see stirrings of its revival. Examples abound in Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy, Doris Sommers’ The Work of Art in the World, and my edited collection, Democracy’s Education. David Mathews’ Ecology of Democracy, widely spread through the Kettering Foundation and its networks, is a manifesto for the revitalization of relational, self-organizing civic life as the “wetlands” upon which democracy necessarily depends. Kettering has made a major contribution to the civic populist project by showing the connections between relational politics and deliberative practices. In our own networks, the movement toward “citizen professionalism” led by William Doherty and his new “Citizen Therapists for Democracy” movement is a powerful and highly effective challenge to the secession of professionals from relational civic life over many decades. On an international level, Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, Laudato Si’, is a brilliant critique of the technocratic paradigm that replaces the relational with information systems.

In higher education, citizen efforts that seek to repair and build relationships across partisan and other divides are illuminated by the 500-plus page report of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which attacks them. Four years in the making, Making Citizens: How Universities Teach Civics charges that a left-wing conspiracy, “the New Civics,” seeks to turn college students into left-wing radicals. Public Achievement, the youth civic education initiative I founded to counter the Manichean politics of the door-to-door canvass and to reintroduce today’s young people to the cross-partisan politics I experienced in the civil rights movement, is at the centre of their narrative.

“The ideas of Saul Alinsky have entered into higher education,” says Making Citizens. “The most serious such transfer occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, via Harry Boyte’s Public Achievement movement.” Public Achievement, it proposes, is smaller than service-learning and other forms of community involvement, “but with a harder political edge. Service-learning generally works to forward progressive political ends. Public Achievement works toward these ends with more focus and organization, via the Alinskyite method of community organizing. The Alinskyite tactical model of Public Achievement is what makes the New Civics formidable.” Public Achievement, it concludes, is “camouflaged Alinskyism” that “relies on the Alinskyite emphasis on power, which reduces politics to the use of force to defeat hostile opponents”.

The NAS report sees the New Civics having huge impact. “The New Civics revolution has been staggeringly successful in the last 30 years… at the 419 institutions that responded to the [2014 Campus Compact] survey, nearly 100 per cent had institutional offices coordinating ‘curricular and/or co-curricular engagement’—and 57 per cent had more than one office. Thirty-nine percent of graduate and undergraduate students, 1,382,145 in total, ‘served an average of 3.5 hours each week through both curricular and co-curricular mechanisms.’”

What of the charges that the New Civics is a left-wing plot? Higher education has a progressive inclination, reflected in some, though not most, of its civic efforts. However, the NAS argument is radically mistaken in confusing tendencies with a Manichean mindset, which reproduces the binary thinking it decries. One way to show the NAS report’s reductionism is to describe the evolution of my own thinking.

During the launch of the report, Stanley Kurtz (a former reporter for the National Review) expresses the conviction that when I left the Democratic Socialists of America after years of involvement with socialist organizations, it was not a matter of conviction but of rhetorical strategy. In fact, my movement away from socialism was a result of my embracing the civic populist tradition described in my book CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics that launched our work at the University of Minnesota.

Against the dominant paradigm of left-wing intellectuals, preoccupied with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in America?”, I argued that the absence of socialism is not a deficiency but a strength. America has an alternative tradition of politics based on civic autonomy and “building the commonwealth.” Civic life has been sustained by the work of diverse citizens who create and care for goods of common use including libraries, parks, local government, bridges, and other public infrastructure, as well as by mediating structures that contribute to this work including families, congregations, schools and colleges, voluntary associations, locally rooted businesses, and labour groups. Such civic life depends on education in civic skills, best learned through experiential education where individuals work for the public good.

It is not only a caricature to propose that my aim is “to create a thoroughly administered state” and turn America’s young people into “left-wing radicals.” In fact, it is also a charge that turns my motivation—and the general gestalt of the civic engagement movement in higher education—upside down. The movement is encouraging because it presents an alternative to left-wing statist technocratic tendencies that are all too widespread throughout higher education.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society. This approach requires ongoing public participation, not just during elections, and it requires a different understanding of politics in which all citizens are agents and architects of democracy.

Building a positive political alternative to the highly polarized populisms of left and right will require a vibrant vision of democratic society

To revitalize this vision, we need a movement that awakens the democratic spirit throughout higher education and beyond. We need to reprioritize our institutions as participants in society, not observers studying it. AM

Harry C. Boyte is a Senior Scholar at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.
Many thanks to Marie-Louise Ström, Dudley Cocke, Laura Grattan, and Luke Bretherton for feedback and sources on this essay.

Telling stories: U of T scholar discovers new role as radio host

In a new radio show, university professor Minelle Mahtani is creating a space where fellow researchers feel respected, honoured, and heard.

“And the weather today—well, it’s another rainy one, Vancouver—6 degrees in the city, with more rain anticipated for tomorrow. For more information, go to…”

I still smile when I hear myself rattle off the temperature on-air these days. It’s one thing to lecture three hundred students intently staring at you as you stand at the podium in an auditorium, but it’s another experience entirely to sit in front of a microphone, banter with the news anchor, repeat time codes, and sit mere metres away from a stranger while having your intimate conversation broadcast across town. How did this happen?

I find myself in unusual territory this year, hosting a daily current affairs show at a commercial radio station in Vancouver. I am on leave from my job as a tenured journalism and geography professor as I try to complete some academic projects. I have worked in journalism before, as a former television hack from the world of national television news, but radio is an entirely new medium for me.

I had heard through the grapevine that a new radio station was opening in town—one that wanted to try something altogether different. It wanted to capture community voices and approach questions of social disparity through a more critical and constructive lens. The station is the brainchild of Roundhouse Radio’s CEO Don Shafer, who dreamed of offering Vancouverites radio that could best be defined by the tag line: Our City, Your Voice. Somewhere in scanning the city landscape for a host for their mid-morning show, Roundhouse Radio approached me out of the blue.

When they called me, I honestly thought, who are they kidding? I have no radio background! Plus, I have to get these three articles done and that book review. But I was intrigued. I cobbled together a short, and admittedly amateurish, audition reel using voice memos on my iPhone.

Next thing I knew, I was hired. Great!

But I also remember feeling, uh-oh. Now what?

After the initial exhilaration wound down, I realized what I was up against. Throw together a two-hour radio show daily, I was told. You choose the theme, the content, the approach. I would be on air at the same time as the vaunted Q on CBC. I shook my head to myself. No pressure!

In some ways, it was a dream come true, a role that many academics would covet. I found it ironic that I would be in front of a mic, when I had spent so much of my career behind it as a producer, happily helping other hosts shine. I had never wanted to be in the public eye as a TV reporter, nor as a host. But there was something about this opportunity that appealed to me. It would give me a chance to consider how I could amplify the voices of other academics, and act as a conduit for their voices to be heard.

Knowledge mobilization and knowledge transfer have become ubiquitous and almost vacuously bandied-about terms in the academy. Granting bodies like SSHRC require that researchers seek out innovative methods to disseminate research. Unfortunately, the practice is often riddled with problems.

I was struck by my colleagues’ disillusionment with the often-dismal experience of engaging various media to attempt and get word out about their research. Most of them dread media interviews. I don’t want to dismiss the opportunities we now have at our fingertips to produce podcasts and wrest agency to mobilize knowledge (as witnessed through the productive energetic force of social media vehicles like Twitter). I had noticed that too many of my researcher friends had at least one bad media experience that stuck with them (admittedly, they do make for great cocktail party conversation). Either the interviewer had not read the book, resulting in a superficial interview, or posed inane questions that only served to reinforce a repetitive narrative the interviewee was trying to quell. Or the interviewer just entirely missed the point of the research. It made the researchers shirk away from other media opportunities.

I wanted my show to create a space where fellow researchers felt respected, honoured, and heard. I also wanted to create a show that would appeal to listeners like me. I am a critical race geography scholar who focuses on matters of social justice. I kept thinking: what would an anti-racist and anti-colonial radio show look like?

I began by recognizing that journalism is no longer just about truth telling. It is, more than ever, about sense making. And one way we make sense of our world is by providing context. That sense-making, or presentation of context, is partly why I am a geographer. Nothing happens on the head of a pin—it happens in a place and it is my job to tell you where that place is. I knew I could most persuasively offer that deep context by telling stories about the communities we, as academics, work with, across, and in. That is why I called the show Sense of Place.

In dreaming about the possibility of Sense of Place, I wasn’t sure how to begin, but I sure knew what I didn’t want the show to be. I had already had too many frustrating experiences during my career as a journalist, where I witnessed decisions about representation made under the continuous rigid restraints of a racialized gendered hierarchy. Voices were ignored or discarded because of ongoing patterns of social and cultural capital, privilege, and power. Often, stories tended to legitimize hegemonic ideas. It is why sites of media intervention become critical to challenge the existing order.

Mainstream media representations tend to fall back on the repetitive dissemination of dominant ideas. This formula is accomplished through particular discursive strategies tabulated by media scholars like Yasmin Jiwani. These strategies include, but are not limited to absences, displacements, juxtapositions, stereotyping, inversions, and reversions, to name just a few of the more blatant maneuvers.

In framing an anti-colonial narrative, I wanted to ask how these dominant frames could be debunked and contested. Would it even be possible to shift or flip the gaze—to show the impact of the colonizers on the colonized by seeing it through the latter’s eyes? I would not embrace an objectivist or neutral perspective. At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism. I knew I had to embed these strategies through a focus on the specificities, experiences, identities, worldviews, and representations of the colonized. I specifically consider agency and capacity as means to make changes to reflect myriad struggles and realities.

At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism.

We try to do our homework. We approach background research differently on Sense of Place by doing deep dives (as much as possible given the daily deadlines). We also try to bring academics together in conversation on Sense of Place. A core value of the show is encouraging connection across interdisciplinary divides. We try to look at the almost magical relationship that can occur between strangers who share passions and dreams. We bring together two or three academics who may never have met, but who are eager to meet and engage them in conversation with one another. We also rehearse this format with writers. For me, one of the most joyful moments on the show was when Orange Prize fiction winner Anne Michaels met Kyo Maclear, another best-selling author, on air. They had both known about each other, but had never met. The resulting conversation was mesmerizing.

We also talk about race beyond what is called “calendar journalism”—the focus on fun, food, and festivals as a way of celebrating ethnic snapshots of identity. We try to present racialized peoples as storytellers in their own right, to capture the magical modalities of how people connect. An example of this approach is when I invited Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke to speak with his mentee, Adebe DeRango-Adem, author of the beautiful book of poetry, Terra Incognita. It was important to capture those innovative partnerships, because relationships matter for me, on and off air, to not only build a connection with the guests and offer them a respectful, generous space to tell their stories, but also to provide a space where they can create relationships with others.

Another core value of Sense of Place is engaging and encouraging equity. I didn’t want the show to become the diversity show with mixed race Indian Iranian rainbow poster child, Minelle Mahtani. It had to move beyond diversity, or even inclusion. It had to be about equity. To that end, I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation, and where that conversation would be amplified.

I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation.

That has been the great surprise of Sense of Place for me —learning that the show is now played in lecture halls across the country because of the kinds of conversations in which we engage. In fact, I receive letters from professors around the country. Here’s a snippet from one of them:

“Sense of Place is an exceptional show that does what my research suggests is very uncommon: it connects quality academic work with public debate and audiences. Most academics are uninterested in or incapable of bridging their scholarship with public debate, and when this kind of work is done, it often consists of simplistic popularization or appeals to sensational current issues. Minelle Mahtani and her producers do an excellent job in choosing timely topics, bringing in thoughtful scholars, experts, cultural workers and activists, asking probing but unintrusive questions and putting together a show that is both entertaining and illuminating.”

So what’s next? We are going to launch Sense of Place Skool—a kind of book club for radio. Once a month, a scholar interviewed on the show will be invited to lead a seminar with listeners at our station. We have a wonderful space at Roundhouse that includes a large oak table, and we want to invite regular Sense of Place listeners to sit around it, and join us in doing a close read of an article by a scholar, an author, or guest. Together the interviewee and I will guide a facilitated conversation with our in-person listeners. I see it as a kind of graduate class for our listeners, and an opportunity to blur the spaces between experts and audiences.

And what have I learned? Well, I am no veteran broadcaster like Anna Maria Tremonti, that is for sure. I have a lot more to learn. I think I’m the most significant beneficiary of the show, given that I’ve now interviewed over a thousand guests and been privileged to hear their stories. I have watched as they wiped away tears, or laughed uproariously about events in their lives. I think it will shift how I teach in the classroom and how I engage with my colleagues. I am looking forward to bringing what I have learned back to the academy. In the meantime, I hope you will tune in. AM

Minelle Mahtani is an author, journalist and an Associate Professor of Human Geography and Planning, and Journalism at the University of Toronto-Scarborough.

It’s never okay: Working together to end sexual violence and harassment on campus


The Ontario government has unveiled a new action plan to stop sexual violence and harassment.

Last year, I spent a week visiting some of my favourite places in Ontario: our college and university campuses. It was a great opportunity to speak with students about the things that matter to them, and one issue in particular stood out. Students raised it everywhere-—from Sudbury to Ottawa to London. Over and over, at every college and university I visited, the topic of sexual violence and harassment on campus came up. I felt frustrated; I couldn’t believe that these same issues that we talked about when I was an undergrad student in the ’70s were still so prevalent today.

But talking to these young men and women also made me feel motivated. I knew that our government had to do something to help address the ongoing problem of sexual violence and harassment in every corner of our province. Not just on campuses, but in the bars students go to, in the workplaces they will enter after graduation, in the relationships they have moving forward.

A few months later, we released It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. The action plan is about helping more survivors feel that it’s safe to come forward—and better supporting them when they do. It’s about strengthening our laws so that people feel better protected at work, on campus or in the community. It’s about providing more funding to crisis centres so they can continue their vital work.

And in all of this, most fundamentally, It’s Never Okay is about challenging and changing deeply held beliefs that contribute to rape culture, misogyny and sexual violence in our society.

It is staggering how often we are told lies about the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. In reality, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in her lifetime. Yet too often language is employed to cast doubt on the veracity of a survivor’s account and unsubstantiated statistics are carelessly tossed around. And so the false perception that sexual violence is not a problem in our country persists.

When we talk about the way a woman dresses, her job, how much she had to drink—these are parentheses. They are parenthetical excuses our society uses to explain away tragedies. They are used to dismiss the lived experiences of college and university students, who started postsecondary to grow as a person—not to be taken advantage of and told it’s their imagination, or worse, their fault. They are used to justify the appalling fact that our country is witnessing an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Parenthetical excuses are used to make sexual violence implicitly okay. It’s never okay.

The reality is that these excuses are symptoms of our bigger problems. That’s dangerous, because when we focus exclusively on symptoms, we do nothing to fight the underlying disease. That disease is a society in which attitudes that lead to sexual violence and harassment are still very much a part of our culture. Sometimes quietly, other times forcefully, and always destructively, these attitudes are part of our power structures. As educators, you’ve probably seen these same attitudes persist on cam-pus, year after year.

What’s more, the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes that are rooted in misogyny and sexism not only contribute to these attitudes, they create an environment where those who are affected by sexual violence and harassment do not feel safe, do not feel heard, and do not feel they can come forward.

But little by little, we are making a positive change.

Recently, in the U.S. Presidential campaign, we saw a shift in the attitude toward sexual assault survivors who speak out. While one candidate spouts racist, xenophobic, and deeply sexist rhetoric, we’ve seen brave women come forward and talk about their experiences of sexual assault at the hands of this man. Their resolve to come forward and stand up for themselves is showing other women not to be afraid and that it is not their fault. It’s challenging the power imbalance that so often occurs in accusations of sexual assaults, where the benefit of the doubt goes disproportionately towards the accused. It’s imploring us to finally start believing women.

In Ontario, we’re making a change by educating, empowering, and informing people that sexual violence and harassment is never okay. Because we can and must change—change the way we talk about sexual violence and harassment, how we confront misogyny and sexism, and how we teach people what consent means.

So we’re starting early and teaching young people about consent in our schools’ updated health and physical curriculum. By teaching students about respect and healthy relationships at an early age, we can help the next generation of university and college students better understand consent.
But we also know that this is just part of the solution. Teaching the next generation doesn’t help those enrolled today—the students whose stories I heard last year, and who continue to remind me why this work is important.

This positive change also has to come from the way colleges and universities address rape culture on campus. The sad reality is that many campuses are still not safe spaces for women. Sexual violence victimization rates are five times higher for women under the age of 35. That statistic, combined with the fact that most students find themselves in an unfamiliar, independent environment for the first time, means we must do more.

As part of It’s Never Okay, starting January 1, we are requiring all Ontario publicly assisted colleges and universities to adopt a sexual assault policy. It will be developed with input from students, and renewed, with student involvement, every three years. Student engagement is key to the development, adoption, and implementation of a successful sexual assault policy. We need students to know that their real-life campus experiences and concerns are being heard and taken seriously. We need them to see that a policy can lead to changes that better prevent assaults from occurring and better support students when they do.

So, while some institutions already have a policy in place, our new guidelines are an opportunity to engage with students and to strengthen your institutions’ commitment to addressing sexual violence and harassment.

We’re also making sure that universities and colleges provide easily accessible information about the services and supports that are available to survivors.

Survivors of sexual violence can find it incredibly difficult to come forward and share their story. As schools support survivors and responsibly address assaults, students can feel that it is safe to give information about their experiences.

And because, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, many on-campus sexual as-saults happen during the first eight weeks of class, we’re making sure students have the right information, starting the first week of orientation and continuing all school year for every year of study.

Throughout all of this, faculty will play an integral role. You are already such an important part of students’ lives. As caring adults, you set a positive tone and create a safe space for students as they explore their new postsecondary environment. This is a time in young peoples’ lives to explore, ask questions, and challenge themselves. And it’s the faculty of a university or college who help make this exciting time a positive experience as well.

Because it’s not just the lectures and the office hours that make faculty such a critical part of campus life. It’s the community-building each member does inside and outside the classroom. It’s the positive environment that is created when students feel like they can trust their professors and their school. It’s about creating a place of learning that emphasizes and prioritizes the safety and respect of its students. And thanks to the academic work of many feminist scholars, discussions of sexual vio-lence and harassment, gender discrimination, and other social justice issues have been carried from the classroom into the collective consciousness. With the support and guidance of student groups and the dedicated faculty we have across Ontario universities and colleges, the opportunities to chip away at the culture of misogyny and harassment are endless.

We all have a role to play in stopping sexual violence and harassment, and we need to use every tool at our disposal. Campuses are a space bursting with creativity and energy—from the freshman who joins the school newspaper to the professor who helps run the gender diversity club.
I know so many colleges and universities are already working tirelessly to make sure students feel safe and informed—thank you.

Universities and colleges should be a safe space to discover who you are, what you want to be, and where you want to go. Let’s work together to make it a reality for every young person. AM

Kathleen Wynne is the Premier of Ontario.

Community involvement and government leadership in challenging sexual violence on campus

The involvement of community-based organizations such as METRAC was key to the creation of Ontario’s new action plan on sexual violence.

Governments rarely make drastic changes without strong, unified, and relentless pressure from community members, activists, organizations, and allies. Large-scale change to end violence and harassment against women is happening in Ontario because Premier Kathleen Wynne and her team took directions from community-based organizations and groups leading this work on campuses.

METRAC: Action on Violence (METRAC) was involved in early identification of the need for ongoing education to prevent sexual violence on campus. The agency called for training to equip students, faculty, and administrators with the knowledge to better understand the dynamics of sexual violence. It pointed to gaps in policies for handling sexual assault across institutions, with an emphasis on standalone policies. METRAC drew attention to the need for procedural fairness in adjudication processes for sexual assault complainants and respondents. Taken together, METRAC’s work was one catalyst that led to the government’s action plan recommendations for safer campuses, through championing women’s safety on campuses for over 30 years. Similarly, students’ voices were heard clearly through the safer campuses demands, thanks to the Canadian Federation of Students, which has been doing this work since the early 1980s through their “No Means No” campaign.

A provincial action plan to challenge sexual violence

In March 2015, the Government of Ontario released It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. The action plan is a multi-faceted, long-term strategy comprising several commitments, including raising public awareness and shifting attitudes and behaviours through delivery of a multimedia public education and awareness campaign. Another commitment seeks to improve service responses to survivors of sexual violence and harassment through new training for health, education, justice, and community service professionals.

The action plan aims to systematically change laws, policies, and practices across broad sector lines in order to improve the experiences of survivors, encourage more survivors to report, and strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to sexual violence. As a preventative measure, the action plan updates the health and physical education curriculum for schools, integrating the root causes of gender inequality and including concepts of healthy relationships and consent.

The action plan also puts forward a specific strategy for safer university and college campuses in Ontario. When the details of this section of the action plan were revealed, campus communities and external partners breathed a sigh of relief. Decades of advocacy work had finally paid off. At last, it was hoped, the government, which is responsible for the administration of postsecondary education, understood the gravity of the situation. As outlined by Lichty and colleagues in their 2008 work on institutional responses to sexual violence, North American research suggests that between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of college- and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career.

A confluence of factors on Canadian campuses creates an environment in which sexual and gender-based violence are ubiquitous, resulting in too many students having to navigate their studies after experiencing this violence and while dealing with an ever-present rape culture. The action plan details four specific provisions that will begin to address this issue:

  • Standalone institutional sexual violence policies, developed in consultation with students and mandated by law;
  • Clear complaint procedures and response protocols, training and prevention initiatives, and 24/7 support services for survivors;
  • Public reporting by universities and colleges on sexual violence incidences and prevention initiatives; and
  • Education and awareness campaigns on sexual violence, and appropriate supports and resources in the first few weeks of classes and throughout the year.

A significant first step in achieving the goals set out by the action plan was the development of Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), which became law in early September 2016. The Bill amended various statutes related to sexual violence. Of particular interest was Schedule 3, which amended the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act, codifying into law many of the provisions outlined in the safer campuses section of the action plan.

Ontario is the first province in Canada to put forward a concrete plan calling for systemic change in how we address sexual and gender-based violence within public institutions. While there has been some movement in other provinces (including British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta) to pass similar legislation, and the federal government has announced the beginning stages of its own Federal Strategy on Gender-Based Violence, Ontario remains the only province with an action plan that demonstrates a real commitment to implementation.

METRAC’s contributions to the action plan

METRAC: Action on Violence is a small, not-for-profit organization with big ideas that has been operating out of downtown Toronto for more than 30 years. Originally formed as a committee charged with tackling the aftermath of an onslaught of sexual assault cases in Toronto, it grew into an organization devoted to working in partnership with communities, institutions, and individuals to end violence against women and youth through education, research, and policy. METRAC is best recognized for its safety audit work, which has won international acclaim and been adopted by many other organizations, such as UN-Habitat, in cities as far away as New Delhi. The safety audit process:

is an action tool to build safer neighbourhoods, schools, campuses, workplaces, transit systems, living spaces and public spaces. It combines best practices of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) with culturally competent community development approaches, Participatory Action Research and a gender-based violence analysis. It is a catalyst to reduce sexual violence, assault, harassment and discrimination against women, youth and others at high risk.

Early on, METRAC identified postsecondary campuses as spaces of interest for safety audits. Under the philosophy of “safer for women, safer for everyone,” it led many transformative initiatives and learning opportunities to improve campus environments. In 1989, the organization launched its campus safety audit process, which addresses sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence in public and private spaces between members and non-members of a campus community. The audit has been adapted and utilized across Canada to improve the safety track record of campuses, from those in urban centres, to rural areas, to distance/online learning programs. METRAC contributed heavily to the development of the Ontario Women’s Directorate’s Developing a Response to Sexual Violence: A Resource Guide for Ontario’s Colleges and Universities, in 2013, and the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario’s Campus Toolkit for Combatting Sexual Violence, which was also created in 2013.

METRAC works directly with campus stakeholders to identify needs, conduct safety assessments, review policies and practices, and subsequently publishes a thorough report that includes safety recommendations for the institution. After 25 years of conducting more than 20 campus safety audits, METRAC has developed promising policies and practices for university and college campuses working to prevent and respond to sexual violence and harassment. Notably, METRAC has observed a common lack of standalone sexual violence policies in postsecondary institutions.

In October 2014, METRAC conducted research and produced and released Sexual Assault Policies on Campus: A Discussion Paper. This research, which was academically reviewed by faculty members and graduate students across the province, highlights promising practices and challenges in institutional policies on sexual assault committed by and against students. It provides a “snapshot review” of policies from 15 postsecondary institutions across Canada. While cursory, the review suggested that some universities and colleges lacked comprehensive policies to deal with sexual assault. In fact, only three of the 15 institutions METRAC studied had a specific sexual violence policy. As well, many of the reviewed policies—specific or not—did not include a comprehensive definition of sexual assault. It was also found that several of the policies defined the rights of respondents more clearly than those of the survivor. The drafting process also demonstrated how successful partnerships between students, academics, community members, and a community-based organization such as METRAC can improve policies and programs for addressing sexual violence on campuses. The discussion paper was distributed to networks far and wide.

Shortly after it was published, the discussion paper was featured in the Toronto Star. On November 20, 2014, the newspaper published an investigative report on campus sexual violence policies, which identified that only nine out of more than 100 universities and colleges had specific policies to deal with sexual violence and sexual assault. The article referenced METRAC’s research and quoted its Executive Director, Wendy Komiotis: “Komiotis said the government has ‘a responsibility to create legislation’ that will result in comprehensive policies on sexual violence and then ensure that each school is complying with those standards.” Together, the Star’s report and METRAC’s paper laid a path for the Ontario government’s action plan to end sexual violence and harassment.

It was an opportune media climate, as a number of high-profile incidents and allegations of sexual violence and harassment were unfolding in the public eye. The focus on creating safer campuses was therefore very timely. Recognizing an advocacy opportunity, student groups redoubled their efforts to promote the work they had been doing for decades, and this spurred the government to action. The government hosted select consultations with campus stakeholders from November 2014 until early winter 2015. Directly after these consultations, it began crafting the action plan. METRAC was part of those consultations, reinforcing campus communities’ message that survivor-centric, standalone policies and prevention measures were good first steps in systemically addressing sexual violence on campus for all students, faculty, and administrative staff.

Following the launch of the plan, METRAC was invited to become a member of the permanent Violence Against Women Provincial Roundtable, along with 22 representatives from provincial organizations in the violence-against-women sector, as well as other sectors affected by sexual violence.

Is a provincial action plan necessary for preventing sexual violence on campuses?

As other provinces seek to develop their own action plans, METRAC has received several inquiries asking key questions, such as: Is a provincial, legislative framework for preventing sexual violence on campuses really necessary? Isn’t it possible to have institutions create their own standalone policies, and to trust that they will develop them in a timely manner?

METRAC has learned from years of experience that government intervention is necessary to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campuses. Establishing the legislative framework propels and maintains systemic change and standards across provincial postsecondary institutions. A government-led framework that is developed in partnership with communities, students, and institutional representatives recognizes that everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence. It can address the particular vulnerabilities and risks of students as the primary targets and perpetrators of sexual violence, while enabling them to shape policy and laws that have a significant impact on their human rights, physical and mental health, and future success in education and employment. Government policy also sets institutional guidelines and the bare minimums needed to address sexual violence on campus to ensure that no postsecondary education institution falls short. It facilitates collaboration between institutions across the province to measure progress and effectiveness in reducing and ultimately ending sexual violence on campuses.

Provincial action plans are therefore an essential part of balancing interests and power between students and institutions, to ensure that all students have the freedom to pursue an education without fear or experiences of sexual violence. However, legislative frameworks are only as effective as the processes for developing, implementing, enforcing and monitoring related policies that arise from them on campuses.

As with any policy initiative, realistic budgets must be put in place for investing in effective processes of policy development and implementation. Often unrecognized is the pattern by which institutions turn to external community organizations devoted to violence prevention and response services, to seek their participation on policy development committees or to review policies, with little to no remuneration for their work. Although community organizations such as METRAC are thrilled to witness and be part of this progress, they often have scarce resources and deserve to be valued for their work, time, commitment, and expertise. This is especially true at a time when many community not-for-profit organizations are facing challenges in making ends meet as they fulfill their mandates to provide prevention programs, essential frontline services, and crisis support for survivors of sexual violence.

Accountability is an equally important factor for measuring the effective implementation of legislative reforms and outcomes. If there are no clear accountability mechanisms in place, how do we ensure transparency? How do we know what works and what doesn’t? How do we manage conflict when it arises? Already, we have witnessed several incidents in which institutional processes have been identified as flawed in one way or another. Some situations point to insufficient consultation, or the lack of student involvement in the process, while others suggest that the final policy does not reflect perspectives put forward by students during consultation, or that the policy is inadequate and fails to cover certain areas for greater protection. When such situations happen, to whom can campus communities turn? Whose mandate is it to enforce new legislative provisions? These are important questions that must be answered when considering the power imbalance around a table when campus stakeholders meet to work on a project. Some have argued that the creation of a separate accountability division within government is required to oversee institutional compliance and collect and report data.

What’s next?

With standalone policies rolling out on Ontario campuses in January 2017, the time is ripe to ask what’s next for continuing to address sexual violence on campuses. Policies are a great first step, but in order to be effective, they must be practically applied on a daily basis. They must also be monitored and updated to reflect trends and areas in need of improvement. As the flurry of policy development comes to a close in the province, institutions need to shift their attention to prevention and education, in order to address and eliminate the root causes of gender violence on campuses. It is time that this pervasive, anti-social culture is stopped in its tracks. A great opportunity for collaboration awaits students, faculty, staff, administration, and community partners alike to harmonize their efforts in deepening preventive responses to sexual violence. It is our hope that the Ontario provincial framework to end sexual violence will not only offer a model to be replicated, but also one to be improved upon across the country, so that the right to pursue postsecondary education without fear or without the experience of violence will be realized for all students. AM

Gabrielle Ross-Marquette is the Communications Coordinator at METRAC; Wendy Komiotis is METRAC’s Executive Director.

How faculty can help end sexual violence on campus


What role can faculty play in addressing sexual violence on their campuses?

In 2015, the Ontario government released It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment (2015). The action plan provides a list of concrete steps that the government is taking to end sexual violence and harassment in all aspects of our lives. A key pillar of the plan is focused on safer campuses

We want to eliminate rape culture on campus. We want school environments to be safe and respectful. We want every student, in every university and college in Ontario, to be able to learn and study and experience campus life at its finest, free from sexual violence and harassment. (page 27)

The action plan was followed by Bill 132, which requires that all Ontario universities and colleges have standalone sexual violence policies and procedures as of January 2017. As a result, faculty have likely seen a significant increase in the number of communications about sexual violence at their own institutions. This article provides an overview of the issue of sexual violence on campus, and considers the question of this issue in relation to the work of professors and academic librarians. As a caution, this article discusses the high rate of sexual violence, sexual assault, and rape on campuses and in our broader communities.

Sexual violence in our communities

I am a faculty member who is directly engaged in sexual violence prevention work on university campuses. In July 2015, I was appointed to a three-year term as a Gendered Violence Faculty Colleague (GVFC) at Wilfrid Laurier University. Currently, three faculty colleagues at Laurier work closely with senior campus leaders and the university’s Gendered Violence Task Force to engage in strategic planning and decision-making about how to best prevent and address gendered and sexual violence at the university.

When I talk to people about this work, both inside and outside of the university, the response is usually quite supportive.1 I often receive comments such as, “It is great that there are people who are dedicated to the issue,” or, “It is good that you can focus your time on this cause.” And while these comments are well intentioned, I worry about what they mean for how we understand the issue of sexual violence at our universities. I am worried that people may think that those of us who are working on this issue have “got this” and that we don’t need anyone else. But that isn’t the case. We need you. Let me explain.

Although the government’s action plan has brought recent attention to the issue, sexual violence on campus is not a new problem. Organized resistance movements against sexual violence have a long history, but it was in the 1970s that specific attention was drawn to the high rates of sexual violence on campuses across Canada and the United States. Since the 1980s, empirical studies have consistently demonstrated that somewhere between one in four to one in five women will experience sexual assault while completing their postsecondary studies. These numbers have sparked debate in the popular press about “inflated statistics,” but I have yet to come across significant disagreement in the scholarly literature itself.

As with many quantitative research fields, there is ongoing dialogue about how best to measure this phenomenon; however, it is significant to note that from the time when Mary P. Koss and colleagues published their groundbreaking research about the scope of rape in 1987, to a recently published study by Kate Carey and colleagues in 2015 about the prevalence of rape for first-year college students in the United States, four decades of empirical research support the conclusion that “interventions to address sexual violence on campus are urgently needed” (emphasis added). 2

The extent and complexities of the problems are even greater when we take into account that many of our students arrive at university and college having experienced sexualized violence as children, adolescents, and/or young adults. For example, findings from Charlene Senn and colleagues’ study on sexual violence in the lives of university women indicate that over half of first-year female students (58 per cent) at three major Canadian universities had experienced one or more forms of sexualized victimization since the age of 14. And while the majority of survivors of sexual violence identify as women (over 85 per cent), research from the Trans PULSE team in 2015 demonstrates that gender non-conforming individuals—including those who identify as transgender, gender-variant, and non-binary—also experience significant levels of sexual violence. Additionally, research by Susan McDonald and Adamira Tijerino in 2013 showed that men constitute approximately 12 per cent of police-reported sexual assault and sexual abuse cases, with the majority of sexual abuse occurring when they are children.

I believe that we need to really consider these statistics and what they mean for our everyday lives as professors or academic librarians working within postsecondary institutions. Are we working directly with survivors of sexual violence? The answer is, quite simply, “yes.” We should all assume that we have survivors of sexual violence in our classrooms and in our labs. Survivors are making appointments with us to help them do library research and to review assignments. They are our teaching and research assistants, and they are part of the student clubs and athletic teams we support. Moreover, the statistics don’t even account for the experiences of our colleagues: We have yet to engage in sustained conversations about faculty and staff who encounter sexual violence and harassment on campus.

Supporting each other on the frontlines and understanding the continuum of violence

Every day, there are many people working to address sexual violence on university campuses across Ontario and in our broader communities. At Laurier, my role has been supported through the development of a formal GVFC position that includes course release as compensation for this work, and I work closely with an incredibly committed group of student activists, professionals from community sexual assault centres, university diversity and equity office staff, senior administrators, and fellow faculty and staff who contribute their time to Laurier’s Gendered Violence Task Force. You may be working as part of a similar group or know of individuals in your university who are engaged in sexual violence prevention and response. Even with all of this support, it isn’t enough. We need everyone.

Let me return to the provincial government’s action plan, which notes that stopping the perpetration of sexual assault involves grappling with the recognition that “sexual assault and harassment are expressions of misogyny and rape culture. And we know that social change on these issues cannot be realized in isolation from other issues of gender inequality” (page 36). In other words, there is a continuum of beliefs, actions, and social norms that create an environment in which physical acts of sexual violence are more likely to occur.

Within Laurier, we use the language of “gendered violence” to reference this continuum, as defined in our Gendered Violence Communications Toolkit:

Gendered violence refers to any subtle or overt action or attitude that establishes, exploits, and reinforces gender inequities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or mental harm. Gendered violence includes sexism, gender discrimination, gender harassment, biphobia, transphobia, homophobia and heterosexism, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence. The phrase “gendered violence” is used to highlight when acts of violence are specifically related to an individual’s gender or how they express their gender. The majority of people affected by gendered violence are women, girls, and trans people. However, individuals of all genders can be victims of gendered violence, including men and boys. In addition, gendered violence is often perpetuated against members of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities because they are perceived as not conforming to traditional gender roles.

Our approach to gendered violence at Laurier also works toward an intersectional understanding that highlights how gendered violence intersects with racism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. Experiences of violence are linked in complex ways to systems of power and privilege. Unless we pay attention to these connections, our attempts at preventing gendered and sexual violence will be minimal at best.

Becoming engaged on your campus

These are incredibly complicated issues that are made more complex by the fact that university and college campuses are embedded in larger societies. Campuses reflect a wider culture of gender inequality and violence. As employees of postsecondary institutions, we are not fully responsible for stopping all forms of sexual violence and harassment, but this realization should also not absolve us of the responsibility to act within our own communities. The enormity and significance of the problem means we all must act.

However, while everyone on university campuses has a role to play, this does not mean that everyone should be doing the same kind of work in relation to sexual violence and prevention. I am on the frontlines of this work because my research and teaching examine the intersections of gender, sexuality, and health. To enhance my knowledge and understanding, I have developed relationships with professionals from my local community sexual assault centres and, along with others in my university community, we have collectively developed a body of expert knowledge about sexual violence that should be called upon to inform policy and programming. This expertise exists in your communities as well. However, given the nature and complexity of this issue, we need the additional support and participation from those who are not on the frontlines of this work. So what might you do if you’re not already engaged? Here are a few initial suggestions to consider.

  1. Recognize collective responsibility for ending sexual violence. A first—and essential—step is to recognize that we all have a responsibility to end gendered and sexual violence, and to speak to others about this responsibility.
  2. Learn more about the extent and nature of sexual violence in your communities. The more you know about the issue of sexual violence, the easier it is to discover ways to engage with prevention and response in your everyday life. Learning about sexual violence doesn’t need to become your full-time job, but think about taking a few extra minutes to read other articles in this issue of Academic Matters or other online resources. Perhaps you could also consider taking a couple of hours to attend a training session that prepares you to respond to unexpected disclosures of sexual violence. The goal is to take notice of what opportunities are available and consider when you could fit these opportunities into your schedule.
  3. Examine the connections between the issue of sexual violence and your professional work. Although the majority of faculty will not work directly in the area of sexual violence prevention and response, it is incredibly valuable to take some time to examine the intersections between sexual violence and our professional work as professors and academic librarians. Perhaps the most obvious connection is that we all have student survivors of sexual violence in our classrooms. Whether classes are about mechanical engineering, political science, sociology, or biostatistics, students’ abilities to concentrate, learn, and produce may be affected by experiences of sexual violence. What might this mean for the way we approach our work? If it is difficult to see these connections, consider talking to an expert in the area of sexual violence—perhaps a fellow faculty member, or a staff member in your institutional diversity or equity office—to help uncover these connections.
  4. Take action where needed to help prevent sexual violence and create better responses. Once you understand the connections, you can then take action that contributes to shifting norms related to sexual violence. You might consider adding a note about sexual violence support services to your syllabus, or reviewing your course materials to discern whether there is value in providing a warning or caution in relation to your course content.3 There may also be opportunities in classrooms and other environments to challenge informal comments or jokes that reinforce sexism and the continuum of violence (for example, comments like, “women aren’t good at math or science” or that someone “throws like a girl”). Again, consulting with experts in the area will help you identify concrete actions you can take.
  5. Develop connections with local sexual assault centres, rape crisis centres, and other community agencies that work in the area of sexual violence. Cultivating personal relationships with experts who work in the field of sexual violence prevention and response every day is an important way to develop your knowledge and understanding of the issue and will help familiarize you with the services that are available. You might also consider developing mechanisms to assist in sharing information about events and programming between your university and local community partners, and/or undertaking joint initiatives, such as organizing a panel presentation that includes experts from your local community.
  6. Show support for the efforts of others who are working in the area of sexual violence. Not everyone can be working on the frontlines of this issue every day, but it makes a significant difference when it isn’t only these people who show up to events, training sessions, and other types of activities that are related to sexual violence at your university and in your broader community. Showing up and supporting events related to sexual violence—and continuing to do so even after the media attention dies down—demonstrates that you value the work being done by the sexual violence experts in your communities and that you are willing to be part of the solution.

Finally, while this article is written by an individual, it draws on the collective knowledge of many who do this work. I want to end by recognizing the significant history of activism that has been led by Indigenous communities, women, and people of colour from which I continue to learn, and to thank the incredible group of people that I work with every day in my university and broader communities. AM

Rebecca Godderis is Associate Professor, Health Studies & Society, Culture, and Environment and a Gendered Violence Faculty Colleague (GVFC) at Wilfrid Laurier University.

1 I feel it is important to note that while the response to my work is, on balance, supportive, I have also received extremely negative and hostile reactions. This is not an aberration. Many women-identified individuals who work in the area of sexual violence prevention and response face similar reactions.


2 Kate B. Carey, Sarah E. Durney, Robyn L. Shepardson, and Michael P. Carey (2015), Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year, Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(6), 678–680.


3 For a recent discussion of the utility of cautions and trigger warnings in the classroom, see: Rebecca Godderis and Jennifer Root (2016), Trigger Warnings: Compassion is Not Censorship, Radical Pedagogy, 13(2), 130–8, retrieved from Trigger Warnings: Compassion is Not Censorship

Confronting sexual violence: A student activist’s perspective

A student activist shares her story of working to end sexual violence on campus.

As the National Graduate Caucus Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, I work on campaigns to end sexual violence within our educational institutions and more broadly. I became involved in student activism early on in my university experience, and over the last six years I have engaged with activism and raising awareness about sexual violence in a variety of ways. What follows is an account of how my approach to challenging sexual violence on university campuses has changed over that time. I’m hopeful that faculty and students can continue to build the solidarity necessary to end sexual violence on our campuses.

Confronting sexual violence as a student union staff person

While pursuing my undergraduate degree at Brandon University, I worked as a staff person in the students’ union office before I ran for president. As staff, part of my job included helping with the outreach work done by the union. Although we used the Canadian Federation of Students’ “No Means No” campaign materials on campus, outreach around sexual violence was never front and centre in our own work. We would put coasters out in the campus bar and drag materials out of storage for our yearly “Take Back the Night” marches, but specific outreach around sexual violence was never our focus.

It wasn’t just the students’ union, distracted by the myriad campaigns and services we ran, that failed to take meaningful action to combat sexual violence. I was also an executive member of the campus women’s collective. As part of that group, we talked about putting straws in people’s drinks at socials to show them how easily they could be drugged, focusing our efforts on those we believed were vulnerable rather than confronting people who choose to commit those acts. As an organization, we were often so focused on staying relevant with students that we could only look at was happening in the short term, as we worked to produce tangible results quickly. Our attention was on rebuilding the capacity of a collective that was constantly under threat, not on addressing the larger issues happening around us.

At both the students’ union and the women’s collective, we heard horror stories about athletics team members using their status to get away with assaulting women. We were told about rumoured assaults, including a series of coordinated assaults that were committed by a group of non-students at a local nightclub. We wanted to act, but at the time we struggled to grasp the severity of what we were dealing with, or to recognize the ways in which this culture was pervasive throughout our school.

When I was elected students’ union president in 2012, I didn’t deal with disclosures of sexual violence that students had experienced on campus in my capacity as president. I would talk to friends about inappropriate things some men had said or done to me, yet I came to accept these experiences as normal. I laughed off comments made by older men, as I tried to fit in with others who were in positions of leadership. I continued to fight for change the same way I always had: I put out “No Means No” coasters in the campus bar, and pulled out stickers, buttons, and posters for our “Take Back the Night” march. It wasn’t enough.

Looking back, I can clearly point to key experiences and moments that I would now react to quite differently. The creepy Christmas gifts left outside a students’ union staff room—a room that had been set on fire weeks before—and the way mine was addressed: “To the girl with the big tits.” The student who came into the office to buy a water bottle and instead of paying with cash, put a knife on the counter and asked if he could trade me for a knife. And of course the many less overt forms of violence that peppered my life—the comments, questions, being sexualized, and having my leadership constantly questioned—became my new normal.

In all of these situations, I had the language to describe what I was going through. I had read books, taken classes, described myself as a feminist. When sharing these stories with my peers and those in positions of leadership within the institution, I looked to them to validate the legitimacy of my feelings. But far too often, especially when it comes to sexual violence, we doubt ourselves and our interpretations of what is happening to us. And if the response you get from others mirrors your own doubt, it makes it very easy to push things aside.

Running for re-election in 2013 exposed me to some of the most overt gender-based violence I’ve ever experienced. When a friend told me that my competitor was at a polling station telling people that the only reason I got so much accomplished during my term as president was because I was sleeping with faculty members, I knew I had to finally speak up. I had heard during the lead-up to the election that one faculty member was telling his classes not to vote for me, and putting up posters from the slate running against me on his office door. This was someone who had previously propositioned me, and whom I had rejected. I went to the university president to talk about what was happening. As the first woman in that role at Brandon University, I had hoped that we shared some common experiences, and that she would be sympathetic. I talked to her about the possibility of filing a formal complaint, but she told me that I was a woman in a position of leadership, and that the harassment was something I just needed to get used to. It was a preview of similar responses to come.

Coming to terms with my own experiences

The ability of people in positions of power to brush off my experiences as normal, and in many ways view my complaints as an annoyance, played an important role in shaping the ways in which I responded to sexual violence moving forward. When I was a graduate student at Brock University, the case of a student who had experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a professor became public, and my initial response was similar to that of the Brandon University president. At that moment, I realized that I had come to view this type of experience as a rite of passage for female students, one that was almost unavoidable. Rather than feeling frustrated about the violence itself, my anger was directed toward the failure of the university to deal with the complaint effectively, letting the investigation sit ignored on an administrator’s desk for months.

It wasn’t until my peers at the Canadian Federation of Students began reaching out to me that I really began to understand that the violence itself, and not just the institutional response, was something worth protesting. Finally, I had permission to see my own experiences as valid and to allow myself to feel angry toward an institution that had also failed me.

In conjunction with other students, I helped to organize a protest to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus and the ways in which the university had failed the survivor. The protest was well attended and received attention from the media. There had been another case at the University of Victoria shortly before our protest, in which a student blew the whistle on the institution’s attempts to keep her case quiet. The case at Brock was similar, although it involved a student and a professor. Later, the media shared a story about another case involving the same Brock professor. Yet silence was encouraged by the university and by other institutions to protect their reputations—allowing these situations to keep occurring.

Alongside the protest, we released a series of demands to the university. We called on the university to hire a staff person to deal exclusively with issues related to sexual violence and its prevention, response, and awareness. We called on Brock to ensure that counsellors on campus had specific training to deal with sexual violence. We called on the administration to increase diversity in institutional leadership. We called on them to hold people accountable for their actions. And we demanded the resignation of both the administrator who let the report sit on his desk for three months, and of the professor who committed the acts of sexual violence.

Our meeting with the university administration after the protest ended was tense. Although the university president committed to meeting most of our demands, many of those commitments never came to fruition. A particular sticking point was our call for the resignation of the administrator who had allowed the complaint to languish. The university insisted that the administrator had followed the policy that was in place, and that even if the policy was flawed, the administration could not penalize him for following the rules.

Following this meeting, we organized a town hall to debrief about what happened, to talk about the tactics we used, to figure out how to hold the administration accountable for the promises they had made and failed to keep, and to figure out next steps. Students, faculty, and staff all attended the town hall—a broad range of people who, together, had the power to make institutional change—and we brainstormed strategies for addressing the problem of sexual violence on campus. About halfway through the meeting, a male professor entered the space and attempted to derail the conversation by yelling sexist and victim-blaming comments. It was yet another reminder of the role that well-educated authority figures can play in reinforcing rape culture.

At Brock, things quieted down for a while before another story broke from my alma mater, Brandon University. A student had been made to sign a contract stating that she agreed not to talk about her own assault. An organizer in Brandon was in touch with me about what was happening, and we talked through the organizing work that had happened at Brock. In part because of the guilt I felt about being an activist at Brock but never actually confronting my own experiences with sexual violence in Brandon, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in Brandon. I wrote that these incidences were not isolated, but are indicative of an epidemic on campuses across the country. I wrote that, while good policies are important, we need support for those policies from decision-makers to be effective. Even with good policies in place, if survivors are encouraged not to report their experiences then the policy is meaningless.

An organizer in Brandon had prematurely shown my letter to another news outlet, which then reached out asking me to share more details about my own experiences. I decided to talk about the experience I thought was the least risky, as none of the individuals involved were at the institution any longer. Even when confronted with the bravery of students who were holding institutions accountable for their actions—some while still students at those institutions — I still chose what was, in many ways, the easiest option, and the option with the least risk. Part of my reason for doing this, at the time, was that I was still afraid of being blamed for what had happened. As much as I believe that power can come with sharing your story, a belief I share outwardly in my activism, I’m still afraid of being seen as a victim. I still feel tremendous guilt because of my own inaction around my experiences, so I find it much easier to advocate on behalf of others than I do for myself. Throughout my experiences confronting the harsh realities of sexual violence on university campuses, it’s been hard not to feel like a fraud: Who am I to speak with others about their options, when I have stories that I will still not share? I am in a privileged position within the institution. I know who to talk to and what to say in order to make things happen. How can I possibly ask others to do the things that I myself am still am too frightened to do? As much experience as I have in organizing, organizing around the issue of sexual violence has been incredibly difficult. Sexual violence activism is primarily undertaken by those who have experienced sexual violence. Some may be like me, while others have very public stories. I am so proud of those who share their stories—they put themselves out there, knowing the backlash that they might face. It is truly inspiring. I too am proud of those who have not shared their stories, even if I have trouble being proud of myself.

Working with others to create real change

Students have been working to end sexual violence on university campuses for a long time. We have been leaders in trying to create campuses that are safer for all. Months before the story broke at Brock, the Canadian Federation of Students hosted a national Consent Culture forum. Building on existing campaigns that seek to end gender-based violence, the Consent Culture campaign seeks to instill a culture of consent for both sexual and non-sexual activities.

At a Consent Culture forum in Nova Scotia, we talked about the disproportionate violence faced by trans and non-binary women and Indigenous women. We talked about cyber violence. In workshops, we talked about how to create good sexual violence policies on campus, and how to work toward building diversity and inclusivity in university and student union governance. We talked about how postsecondary institutions prioritize their reputations over their students, underfunding the staff and services needed to prevent sexual violence, yet hiring public relations firms to manage communications after a story about sexual violence on campus makes the news.

These are the conversations we need to continue to have if we want to create safer spaces on our campuses. But they must also happen at an institutional level, with support from and participation of faculty and staff. We need to understand the ways in which all of us allow rape culture to be perpetuated, and the ways we can all work to deconstruct this culture. Only once we move beyond guilt can we actually begin to make the changes necessary to confront and respond to the sexual violence that is happening within our places of education and work. AM

Carissa Taylor is the National Graduate Caucus Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.

A galvanizing process: Unpacking Ontario’s new postsecondary sexual violence policies


How is Ontario’s new action plan on sexual violence playing out on Ontario campuses?

Earlier this year, Bill 132, the pivotal postsecondary legislation that marks one of the cornerstones of the Ontario government’s It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, achieved royal assent. According to the legislation, by January 2017, all publicly funded universities and colleges in the province must ratify new sexual violence policies that conform to provincially legislated standards.

The Act outlines the province’s “intolerance” for sexual violence, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, and promises to protect “all Ontarians from their devastating impact.” Specifically, Schedule 3 amends the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act, stipulating that postsecondary institutions must produce new, student-centric policies on sexual violence and harassment on campuses.

In what is now perhaps problematically called the “post-Ghomeshi” era in Ontario (in reference to the 2014 sexual-assault charges against, and subsequent trial of, former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi), and in the face of ongoing reports from universities and colleges across the province of mishandled complaints of sexual violence, student groups actively encouraging non-consensual sexual encounters and—perhaps the most fraught—the push, largely from student groups (but also importantly echoed in the legislation itself), to recognize and address rape culture on campus, it comes as no surprise that on many campuses, the drafting of new sexual violence policies has become a galvanizing process. For the approximately one-quarter of campuses that have yet to ratify their policies, heated debates continue.

When the legislation was first tabled, faculty unions and associations, as well as umbrella groups such as OCUFA and CAUT (the Canadian Association of University Teachers) worried that it would place restrictions on academic freedom. These concerns are not unfounded: The definitions of “sexual violence” and “sexual harassment” within the policy, for example, are sufficiently vague that it is possible to imagine a scenario in which a faculty member could be taken to task for lecturing, researching, or writing on topics related to sexual violence.

However, as campuses began to struggle through the process of drafting new polices, academic freedom did not emerge as the foremost concern. Instead, discussions focused on a contest between reporting and prevention, due process, the term “rape culture,” and the extent of the university’s jurisdiction over its community members.

Reporting versus prevention

Alongside the enactment of the legislation and my own engagement with my university’s policy-development process, I led a team of five researchers from across the province in an investigation, funded by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, into sexual violence on three campuses. Frustratingly, there appears to have been no communication between this ministry and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, despite our hopes that empirical data could assist universities and colleges in drafting their policies. Siloing endures in many large institutions, so in many ways this comes as no surprise. In other ways, of course, it serves as a mirror of the same problems we have seen unfolding on campuses with regards to sexual violence.

One of the core disconnections emerging from both our own research and the debates being had on various campuses is the false tension between reporting and prevention. In the past, colleges and universities have been loath to facilitate or disclose reports of sexual violence on their campuses. As we witness the increasing corporatization of universities and colleges, this reticence is unsurprising. Institutional reluctance to take stock of rates of sexual violence on campus is a risk management strategy that also bleeds into concerns about marketing, funding, and donations: There is a clear anxiety about putting in place any mechanism that would encourage college or university members to report sexual violence. No institution wants to be known as a so-called “rape campus.” Such a label would not only force an institution to take responsibility for and actively manage the risks its members face—it also looks bad from the point of view of potential donors and recruits.

In mid-2016, a student emailed me after our research report was released. She told me that she worked for her institution’s campus recruiting centre as a campus tour guide, and, despite the fact that she was well aware of the prevalence of sexual violence on her own campus, had been directed by her supervisors to emphasize the safety mechanisms the institution had in place (panic buttons, safe-walk programs) and to downplay any concerns raised by potential new students and their families about sexual violence on campus.

During the research for our report, administrators raised concerns about high-profile cases of sexual violence, while at the same time steadfastly denying that sexual violence was a problem on their campuses. As well, those who had experienced sexual violence routinely reported being placed under “gag orders” by their institutions.

The enactment of Bill 132 will force colleges’ and universities’ hands with respect to reporting. The amendments in the legislation place a heavy emphasis on reporting, directing colleges and universities to make reporting easier and to disclose their reports on an annual basis. Reporting mechanisms and procedures have therefore become the focal point of most new policies. As a result, and to varying degrees, the policies that have been ratified so far often labour over chains of reporting, investigation mechanisms, confidentiality, due process, and discipline. The irony is that the legislation also calls for a survivor-centred approach, and renders sexual violence and harassment unacceptable in postsecondary institutions. Such claims point to the importance of prevention, rather than reporting.

Our own research suggests that prevention, including accompanying education, is far more important to members of university and college communities than are reporting mechanisms. Those of us who work in the area of gender-based violence are well aware, unfortunately, that reporting rarely occurs in the aftermath of sexual violence and almost never serves survivors well, nor does it accurately reflect what they or their advocates would like to see in terms of social change. Rather, we heard repeatedly that the institutions we studied only paid “lip service” to prevention and education, often in the form of online education tools offered once during frosh weeks, and that these were routinely dismissed by the same frosh facilitators who were supposed to be modelling healthy sexual relationships.

If colleges and universities were to move to a model that balanced out prevention/education and reporting, faculty could play a key role in that change. As educators, we are well positioned to include education about sexual violence in our curricula, to offer seminars and forums on the topic, and to provide students as well as other members of the community with more complex and nuanced understandings of sexual violence, including the ways in which it intersects with homophobia, transphobia, and racism, and what it means to be sex-positive. We also have an opportunity to address and dispel rape myths, replacing them with empirically informed knowledge about the many facets that need to be considered in addressing sexual violence. Fundamentally, when prevention/education is the focus, we can move beyond institutional risk-management strategies and instead recognize sexual violence as a social fact of campus life.

By naming the problem, postsecondary institutions position themselves to be able to address sexual violence pre-emptively and positively, rather than simply reacting. In this vein, the University of Ottawa’s president showed great leadership when responding to the recent events concerning the science students on his campus. In early October, a science students’ association held a “Vet Crawl” that involved score cards that awarded participants points for their team by doing a variety of things, including exposing genitals publicly and having sex with one of the organizers. The University of Ottawa’s president’s public statement recognized that a culture of sexual violence exists and needs to be addressed. This is the point at which meaningful change can begin.

Rape culture

Much of the pushback against prevention, education, and even reporting initiatives arises out of concerns over the term “rape culture” and its implications. The term dates back to early 1970s’ second-wave feminism, and came into popular usage through texts such as Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. The term also appears in the new provincial legislation. It is embraced by many as a shorthand to signal, on the one hand, systemic denial of the prevalence of sexual violence and of survivors’ experiences and, on the other, the tacit and/or explicit encouragement of sexual violence within sectors of a community. On campuses, for example, the term is often used when the finger is pointed at fraternities or varsity athletics clubs; however, as recent events at the University of Ottawa illustrate, the promotion of non-consensual sexual behavior is clearly not limited to these groups.

Rape culture is not without its critiques, however, which is much of the reason why it has become such a divisive term in debates on developing campus sexual violence policies. Rejectors of the term can be divided into two broad categories: those who maintain that sexual violence is not a problem on campus, or is not a problem that colleges and universities should be dealing with; and those who argue that the term fails to capture the complexities and intersectional nuances of sexual violence, including the hypersexualization and criminalization of racialized people, transphobia, and the condemnation of those who practise alternative kinds of sexual expression, such as “kink” and BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission, and masochism).

There is no pattern to the ways in which colleges and universities have responded to these concerns. Because the term rape culture is used in the legislation, it would seem that institutions are beholden to incorporate it in their own policies. This is not necessarily the case, however. McMaster University, for example, elects to omit the term completely from their policy. Ryerson University, though, defines the term in its preamble, suggesting that its acknowledgement of rape culture informs the institution’s policy.

Whether or not the term is used in a policy is not the most important point, however: it is whether the pervasiveness of sexual violence the term is intended to capture is reflected and addressed by postsecondary institutions. To this end, well-crafted policies need to include an acknowledgement that sexual violence is a social fact. Exceptional policies place this recognition within a more complicated analysis of intersectionality that recognizes how racism, transphobia, and homophobia are also important factors in crafting a fair and equitable response to sexual violence on campus.

Due process and university jurisdiction

Much of the anxiety about the implementation of the new sexual violence policies revolves around concerns about due process and university jurisdiction. The latter concern is perhaps the easier to address. Although the legislation appears to give sweeping authority to universities to intervene in relationships between campus members off-campus and outside of the realm of university activities, most of the policies ratified to date place limitations on this jurisdiction. Of course, as with any policy, how this actually plays out once the policies are implemented in 2017 and beyond remains to be seen.

Due process is a more difficult issue. Regardless of Bill 132, public institutions are required to have measures in place that address workplace harassment and violence. Any institution that fails to address these issues is contravening labour and/or human rights legislation (an avenue of recourse, incidentally, increasingly taken up by sexual violence survivors). Until Bill 132, postsecondary institutions were not mandated to have standalone policies related to sexual violence, although many already did. The Bill itself thus changes very little in terms of due process concerns. It has provided the opportunity, however, for colleges and universities to grapple with some of the more difficult issues that arise in the uncommon instances in which a survivor wishes to report an assault.

There are many issues to consider here, including providing safety to the survivor, the privacy of all parties, implementing a fair adjudicatory process, ensuring both complainants and respondents have whatever form of representation or support they choose, and, importantly, as the recent case of Mandi Gray at York University has shown us, ensuring that survivors are not placed under gag orders (a common practice revealed in our research) and are able to speak about their experiences without fear of reprisal. Gray spoke up about a sexual assault she experienced at the hands of another student. Her situation was unique in that her report to the police ended in a conviction (which is now being appealed). At the same time, Gray is currently in litigation against York for what she calls egregious mishandling of her case. Part of Gray’s claim is that the university threatened to sanction her if she spoke out about her experiences.

Will It’s Never Ok make campuses safer?

At present, we can only speculate about how these policies will play out in practice. The legislation mandates that postsecondary institutions review their policies every three years. Part of this review, presumably, includes measuring their effectiveness. Unfortunately, measuring the effectiveness of any sort of policy change on sexual violence is a very difficult task for two reasons: Survivors do not report and institutions do not want to receive reports even when they are submitted. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent investing in the kinds of change that are likely to be more effective (although more difficult to measure), through a focus on prevention and education. If Ontario campuses are to become places in which sexual violence is never okay, then ought not the emphasis be placed on stopping that violence before it happens, rather than on fretting over official institutional practices in the rare instances in which a survivor, in the aftermath of an assault, turns to the institution for redress?

As educators, we know that it takes a great deal of time and work to shift attitudes. However, at least for those of us who have been teaching for a long time, we also know that we can teach to change, and this, to my mind, sits at the heart of instilling the understanding that sexual violence is indeed never ok.AM

Dawn Moore is an Associate Professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University.

Questioning the quality of the quality assurance process in Ontario’s Universities


The case of the Toronto School of Theology raises serious questions about the misuse of quality assurance processes in the province.

In the Fall of 2011, the Toronto School of Theology (TST) within the University of Toronto (UofT) underwent a rigorous quality assurance review of its academic programs by its theological accrediting agency in North America, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). In all, twenty-one scholars from university-related or free-standing accredited theological institutions with an intimate knowledge of North American theological education—in teams of three, one for each of the six member-institutions of the Toronto School of Theology, and one for the TST consortium itself—strongly affirmed the quality of the programs, including the Doctor of Theology (ThD) research degree program.

In January of 2012, the Toronto School of Theology was put through a second quality assurance review process by the University of Toronto—referred to as the University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (UTQAP). The UTQAP is governed by the Quality Assurance Framework of the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance (the Quality Council) of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU). Three scholars, one each from the University of Chicago, University of Cambridge, and McGill University, were invited to undertake this cyclical degree program review, which included a two-day site visit (January 10 and 11, 2012).

The UTQAP external assessors were aware of the results of the earlier ATS assessment of TST’s theological programs, but, nevertheless, declared the research ThD degree program to be “below standard” and advised that it be closed. However, they also admitted (in their April 10, 2012 report) both that their “visit was not focused on the quality of specific programs but rather on the institution that is TST, and its relationship to the University of Toronto,” and that they had “lacked both the data and, during [their] visit, the time to do a full academic assessment …[of TST’s programs]” (p7). Despite this major discrepancy in the results of the two quality assurance reviews of TST’s academic programs, the University not only unhesitatingly accepted the results of the UTQAP review process, but immediately informed TST to suspend admissions to its doctoral programs, including the ThD degree program.

The Toronto School of Theology, and individual faculty within it, brought to the University’s attention that the UTQAP external assessors had admitted that they had not properly carried out a full review of TST’s programs. Those concerns were not only ignored but evidence justifying those concerns was removed from the report. The university, that is, suggested that the external assessors delete the compromising comments about the limitations of the review. This was an extraordinary intervention by the university.

A different version of the report, with the problematic elements removed (dated April 26, 2012) was presented to the Committee on Academic Policy and Programs and to the Academic Board as the basis for its actions against TST. Under pressure from the university, TST reluctantly agreed to suspend admission to its ThD program for the 2013-2014 academic year. Within weeks, however, the university withdrew its demand for such a suspension of admissions, even though it still claimed that the ThD was not up to standard. To this day, the university has not informed the Academic Board as to whether or not the ThD degree is up to standard, despite its obligations under the cyclical program review protocol to do so.

It is difficult to fully understand why the senior administration of a world-class university behaved in this manner, especially when the welfare of TST’s students was at stake. Some sense can be made of this as a political maneuver when one recognizes that the UTQAP cyclical degree program review was used inappropriately—by both UofT and the leadership of the TST—to resolve a long-standing tension regarding the use of the PhD designation for the TST Doctor of Theology degree.

The Toronto School of Theology has over many years (since the early 1980s) requested the university to consider approving a change in nomenclature of its research doctoral degree program from ThD to PhD. As the Director of TST puts it, the PhD nomenclature is the recognized international standard for doctoral research degrees and is, therefore, a better credential in the academic job market. Frustrated by the lack of progress in this effort, TST permitted its ThD students to graduate with a PhD degree in theology by way of an existing PhD degree program it was administering for one of its member colleges. This in itself was an irritation to the university.

Moreover, the manner in which TST transferred ThD students to what the university seems to have perceived as a “rogue” PhD program further exacerbated the tension between the two institutions. Because the ThD is conjointly granted by TST and the UofT, it is a government-funded program, whereas the PhD degree program is not, making the tuition costs for the PhD considerably higher than they were for the ThD program. In order to keep student debt to a minimum for ThD students who wished to graduate with the PhD degree, TST permitted students to transfer into the PhD program in the final year of their ThD degree program, thus reducing the individual student’s costs significantly. Although this was a long-standing practice of which a succession of deans of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) had full knowledge, current senior university administrators were not pleased with the practice. The claim was made that the university would be greatly embarrassed should knowledge of this practice reach the office of the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities. As the dean of SGS at that time explained the matter to me, not only did the university want this practice stopped, it believed that TST needed to be “taught a lesson” about proper academic practice.

As already noted, TST had not only passed a rigorous external review of its degree programs but had also committed itself to further improvements of its ThD degree program recommended by the ATS assessors. One of these recommendations was that TST bring to an end the practice of transferring ThD students to the rogue PhD degree program. This gave increased urgency to TST’s campaign for a conjoint UofT/TST PhD degree program in theological studies. Consequently, TST requested to use the government mandated UTQAP cyclical degree program review process as an occasion to consider that proposal, and the University accepted the offer. Here is how the director of TST described this decision in a letter to the teaching staff in the member colleges of TST:

“Unlike most quality assurance reviews under the UTQAP, which focus their attention on program objectives, admissions, curriculum, assessment of learning, resources, and quality indicators, the report which we received for TST was overwhelmingly concerned with TST’s relation to the University. This was an unusual approach, but it came about in large part because we ourselves had invited it. With the University’s agreement, we were using UTQAP to test the possibility of a conjoint PhD and MA, and this purpose really did require the reviewers to deal with larger issues, not just the character of our existing programming” (October 3, 2012; emphasis added).

It was, of course, inappropriate for the university to have agreed to use the cyclical degree program review process for any other objective than the assessment of academic programs as set out by the COU’s Quality Council. The admission that TST and the UofT diverted the attention of the UTQAP external assessors from program assessment to resolution of the PhD problem accounts for the fact that they had neither the time nor the data to do a proper review of TST’s degree programs. Removing that admission from the external assessors’ report amounts to deliberately hiding the fact that the UTQAP assessors were not in a position to provide academic justification for their claims from the University’s Committee on Academic Policy and Programs and from the university’s Academic Board. The agreement between TST and the UofT, therefore, led to an unjustified negative judgment about the ThD which, to this day, has not been corrected.

The university not only undermined the credibility of TST’s ThD degree program, it has also refused to consider TST’s original request for a change of nomenclature of its ThD degree program to a PhD in theological studies—presumably on the grounds that the ThD was not up to standard as a research doctoral degree program. But the university was willing to approve a “brand new” PhD degree program in theological studies and it created a joint TST/UofT committee to create the new program. That committee, however, did not in reality create a new program, despite claims to the contrary. A comparative analysis of the current ThD degree program and the new PhD degree program proposed by the university shows that the latter is merely a slightly modified version of the former with no substantially different program requirements and no substantially different program outcomes. The PhD degree program makes use of all the current ThD program courses and teaching staff.

All of this was brought to the university’s attention—and to the attention of the Quality Council of COU and the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities—with the request that the University recognize both that the ThD was unjustifiably claimed to be below standard, and that it agree to a change of nomenclature of the ThD degree to the PhD. The university ignored the evidence showing that their proposed PhD degree program was not a new program, and it proceeded to have the proposal considered by external assessors under the New Degree Program Approval Protocol of its UTQAP framework. Because the PhD is not actually a new program, this action was again a misuse of the UTQAP process that further harmed TST’s ThD students. Because the university claimed the PhD was a brand-new degree, current ThD students were not given the opportunity to graduate with the PhD. They will now be at a significant disadvantage in the academic job market against new, incoming students who will be graduating from the same program, but who now have the PhD degree.

One might have expected the TST administrators (and the chief executive officers of its member colleges) to have balked at this process and to have protected its own ThD students by insisting that they be allowed to graduate with the new designation of PhD (particularly because it is essentially the ThD students’ current program, slightly modified).

In fact, they did the opposite. They filed an official petition with the ATS for a change of nomenclature for the existing ThD degree program to PhD, highlighting the false distinction between the existing ThD and the supposedly “new” PhD program. But correspondence between the ATS and TST shows that TST took the same line as the university was imposing on them, namely, that the proposed new PhD was meaningfully distinct from the ThD.

The ATS, however, did not accept the argument that the proposed new PhD proposal was a new degree program, and it informed TST that:

“While the province and the University of Toronto consider a change in nomenclature such as this to comprise a new degree program, the Commission staff understand this change to be a nomenclature change with only minor adjustments and the addition of two required courses” (Letter from Dr. Tisa Lewis, Senior Director, Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation; January 6, 2015).

The letter from Lewis also indicated that ATS expects TST to allow ThD degree students to be able to choose either designation upon graduation. However, the university refuses to allow TST to proceed in this manner. In contrast, when the university changed the nomenclature of its law degree program from the LL.B. to the JD, it permitted all current students, and former graduates, to choose use of the JD nomenclature. The fact that TST is not objecting to the university’s stance on this issue is likely not based on agreement with the university’s position, but rather on fear that objecting to the university’s position may jeopardize the now agreed upon UofT/TST conjoint PhD degree program in theological studies.

Despite the evidence given here of the university’s mishandling of the TST program reviews, it has been impossible to get an independent investigation of the university’s actions. Without public scrutiny of university administrative practice, such flawed processes are, unfortunately, likely to continue. It might be reasonable to expect the possibility of such examination from the Quality Council of the Council of Ontario Universities, to whom Ontario universities are responsible for proper execution of their quality assurance reviews and adherence to approved program review protocols. I was surprised, however, to learn from the director of the Quality Council that it “does not intervene in the cyclical program reviews that are undertaken by universities” (Letter, August 16, 2012) no matter the evidence of failures to comply with the cyclical program review protocol.

In reality, once an Ontario university’s Institutional Quality Assurance Process (IQAP) has been approved, it can be administered as the university sees fit (at least until it undergoes an audit process by the COU once every eight years; Toronto’s next audit is slated for 2016-17). From my perspective, this is at odds with the COU’s stated goals of being “publicly accountable” in its task of ensuring “rigorous quality assurance” of the academic programs of Ontario’s public universities. The hands-off stance of the director of the Quality Council was further confirmed in letters to me from the President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities (March 25, 2013), the Chair of its Executive Committee (April 18, 2013), and the Chair of its Appraisal and Audit Committee (July 2, 2013). This position may well be due to the nature of the COU as an organization that comprises senior administrators from universities across the province. Regardless of the reasons for their unwillingness to investigate or intervene, it is clear that modifications need to be made to the quality assurance processes for Ontario university programs. As the University of Toronto Faculty Association put the matter to the provost of the University, it is important to see that measures are taken “to ensure that the authority of the Provost’s Office is exercised in a sufficiently collegial and accountable fashion.”

The acknowledged unwillingness of the Council of Ontario Universities to investigate possible misconduct by universities in carrying out quality assurance reviews, and the fact that there are at present few, if any, credible measures in place to ensure accountability in the exercise of the authority of the Provost’s Office in overseeing quality assurance reviews, raises serious questions about the efficacy of the COU’s entire quality assurance framework. AM

Donald Wiebe is a Professor in the Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

Defending collegial governance at Brock University


The successful campaign against admin overreach at Brock University carries lessons for faculty everywhere.

In September 2013, elected Senators at Brock University derailed a unilateral attempt by the institution’s president to establish a process for reviewing and prioritizing academic programs outside of the university senate’s purview.

The successful mobilization in opposition to the Presidential Taskforce, spearheaded by the Brock University Faculty Association (BUFA), offers a number of important lessons for faculty concerned about the state of collegial governance at their institution, the role faculty associations can play in defending against administrative end runs, and ultimately strengthening the democratic capacity of university senates.


On June 28, 2013, Brock University’s president announced via email the establishment of a Presidential Taskforce on program review. Following in the footsteps of several other North American universities, Brock’s president wanted the Taskforce to review and prioritize all of the university’s programs (both academic and non-academic) using Robert C. Dickeson’s now infamous book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, as a guide. The hand-picked members of the Taskforce would be responsible for prioritizing the university’s programs and identifying units for reduction in funding, phasing out, consolidation, or (in theory) enhancement. The Taskforce would then report its findings directly to the president, who, in turn, would ask Senate to act on the recommendations. The Taskforce held its meetings in secret, with no observer from the faculty association or other campus groups, and no record of minutes made public. The eleven-member committee included just three faculty members, and excluded representatives from the university’s two largest faculties and the library.

From the outset, the BUFA leadership expressed deep reservations about both the process by which the Taskforce was formed and the substance and legitimacy of its work. The academic quality of the university’s programs was a matter for the Senate to judge, reasoned the faculty association. Moreover, the Taskforce was not representative, and lacked both transparency and time to consult properly with affected units. The Taskforce brushed aside these concerns and carried on with its work throughout the summer, stubbornly refusing to reform itself in response to criticism. Sensing growing opposition to the Taskforce from the broader university community, the BUFA Executive met to consider its next move. Over the course of the next several months, it would successfully organize a campaign to dismantle the Taskforce and ensure that any review or prioritization of academic programs would be undertaken by Senate.


As a Brock University senator and a member of the faculty association’s executive, I played a central role in the campaign. What follows is my own take on the sequence of events that led to the derailing of the Presidential Taskforce. BUFA developed a two-pronged campaign approach. The first was educative. BUFA members received a series of communications from their union concerning the negative experience of Dickeson-inspired program review exercises at other institutions (namely the Universities of Guelph and Saskatchewan) and the potential negative impact of program review on academic offerings. Members also received updates on the unwillingness of the Taskforce to broaden its membership or conduct its work transparently. The president of BUFA regularly communicated with members through direct emails, newsletter columns, and face-to-face at general membership meetings and pre-Senate BUFA caucus meetings.

The second prong was organizational. A select group of senators received their first update on the President’s Taskforce at a late summer meeting of the Senate’s Governance Committee. Fortunately, a number of key union activists were elected to the Senate a year prior and four of them had been appointed by Senate to the strategically important Governance Committee which, among other things, plays a general oversight role of senatorial business. Individual union activists serving on the Governance Committee orchestrated the passage of two motions related to the review at the August 2013 meeting:

“The Senate respectfully requests that the President direct the members of the President’s Special Task Force to stop their program review and prioritization of academic programs”; and

“The Senate respectfully requests that the President refer any matters concerning the review and/or prioritization of academic programs to Senate for timely consideration, decision and conduct”.

The wording of the motions was strategic. While many BUFA members were sympathetic to the view that the program review and prioritization process was rotten no matter who conducted it, a sizeable number of faculty expressed support for a fair and transparent mechanism for reviewing programs. Because a majority of Senators could likely not be convinced to oppose any and all forms of program review, the motions were crafted in a way that could appeal to those who opposed specific aspects of the Presidential Taskforce. We knew that the votes of outright opponents of program review could be taken for granted.

The motions were also worded in a way that clearly asserted the Senate’s purview over academic review, while deliberately using technical arguments and collegial language in order to give lower-level administrators a reason to support them. With the motions in hand, BUFA activists on the Governance Committee reached out to the other faculty and student members of the Committee in advance of the August 2013 meeting to make the case for why they should support the pair of motions. This advanced organizing gave BUFA activists a good sense for which arguments senators found most persuasive, thus validating the strategic choices made in crafting the motions.

In the end, the motions were adopted by the Governance Committee with only one member, the Provost, opposed (both the President and one Dean were absent, and an Associate Dean abstained). The motions thus became recommendations to Senate. The adoption of the motions represented a stunning victory and a strong rebuke to the president’s Taskforce. BUFA activists knew, however, that they had been fortunate given specific absences at the committee, and that senior administrators would no doubt redouble efforts to defeat the recommended motions on the floor of Senate at its September 2013 meeting.

The faculty association’s organizing efforts were ramped up in advance of the September meeting. Three leading members of the association’s Executive, who also served as elected faculty representatives to Senate, divided up amongst themselves a list of all senators. They each agreed to contact the senators on their list, raise the issue of the program review, make the case for why it should be removed from the purview of the Presidential Taskforce, and determine how the senator was likely vote on the issue. In an effort to help inoculate senators against predictable arguments from senior administration for why the Taskforce should proceed, the organizers developed a question-and-answer handout, debunking the arguments of the opposing side. This inoculation effort proved extremely useful, especially for senators who initially indicated they were on the fence. Finally, BUFA wrote its membership and asked them to contact the handful of Senators who they knew personally about supporting the recommendations of the Governance Committee to put an end to the Presidential Taskforce.

At a caucus meeting organized by BUFA prior to the September 2013 meeting of Senate, BUFA senators coordinated who would speak on the issue, what they would say, and in which order. All of the advance work paid off. Going into the meeting, BUFA knew it could count on at least 45 percent of senators to support the motions.

At the meeting itself, BUFA senators took turns dismantling the administration’s arguments for why the Taskforce was needed to review academic programs. The chair of the Board of Trustees and the dean of the Faculty of Humanities argued for the necessity of the Taskforce, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing. In the end, the motions passed with the support of nearly 60 percent of senators. Student senators either abstained or lined up squarely behind the Taskforce for reasons that still remain unclear. Elected faculty representatives overwhelmingly supported the motion, while most senior administrators and representatives of the Board of Trustees on Senate lined up against it. Interestingly, the deans of the faculties not represented on the Presidential Taskforce broke ranks and supported the motions, along with one other associate dean. These defections demonstrated that the carefully-worded motions had appealed to a broad audience. Shortly after the vote, the president announced that his Taskforce would not continue to review academic programs and Senate asserted control over the process.

Lessons Learned

With the benefit of hindsight, the faculty association’s campaign offers several important lessons for faculty members concerned about the future of university governance.

  1. The stubbornness of senior administration can work in our favour. The reality is that Brock’s senior administration could have clipped the wings of the faculty association’s campaign if it had simply heeded early calls from the university community to reform the Taskforce’s mandate and composition. Instead, it forged ahead, alienating key stakeholder groups in the process, helping to build support for BUFA’s campaign and validating the need for the faculty association to become more invested in university governance. In fact, the three faculty association activists who spearheaded the campaign were the top vote-getters in the next round of Senate elections.
  2. Faculty associations that narrowly restrict themselves to “policing the collective agreement” are reinforcing a false division between “workplace” issues and “academic” issues. BUFA made a strategic decision to actively engage on the question of university governance on the basis that the academic repercussions of a program review and prioritization process would have a significant impact on the working conditions of faculty members. In short, academic issues are almost always workplace issues, even if they don’t always appear to be at first glance.
  3. It’s never too early to lay the groundwork for a
    successful campaign. Education, organization, and mobilization were key ingredients to BUFA’s campaign. Luckily, the association did not need to start from scratch. A long-established practice of pre-Senate caucus meetings for BUFA Senators helped better coordinate floor strategy at Senate meetings. BUFA’s existing e-newsletter was a reliable vehicle for communicating with its membership. The association’s concerted effort in previous years to encourage BUFA activists to run for Senate, and take on key leadership roles within Senate, also helped immensely in navigating the terrain of university governance.
  4. Vision must accompany strategy. Looking back on BUFA’s campaign reveals some important limitations in the union’s approach. The whole campaign centred on questions of process and legitimacy. This led to a debate about who should conduct a program review, and how the review should be conducted. The discussion never really tackled the important question of why. In effect, while BUFA managed to derail the Taskforce, it simply helped legitimize the review process as long as it was conducted by the Senate. Even so, the Senate’s Ad hoc Committee on Program Review and Prioritization did a much better job at addressing the university community’s desire for a process that was both transparent and fair. Its representatives were elected, each faculty was represented, its meetings were open, and the committee consulted widely before reporting. When the Ad hoc Committee finally reported in 2015, the university community seemed content with the results and Senate adopted the Ad hoc Committee’s report virtually unanimously.
  5. Faculty associations can play an important role in defending collegial self-governance. Shared-decision making is a defining characteristic of universities. If we dismiss Senates and related bodies as giant administrative rubber-stamps, we are in fact ceding governance of our institutions to university administrations and giving away an important and unique source of power for university professors and professional librarians. The fact is that we cannot rely solely on our collective agreements to beat back the consolidation of neoliberalism in Canadian universities.

University governance matters. Strategic interventions over questions of collegial self-governance are critically important to defending the standards of our profession, asserting control over our working lives, and defending the quality of education in postsecondary institutions. AM

Larry Savage is Director of the Brock University Centre for Labour Studies.