The MacDonald-Laurier Institute held its debate last night at the War Museum on the state of repression of speech on Canadian universities. The contestants were Barbara Kay of the National Post and Daniel Drache, a retired professor of York University. Both debaters had gone to high school with each other in Toronto ages ago.
I need not summarize the arguments: the hyperlinks take you to the main positions.
You have to hand it to Drache: given a weak hand he played as well as he could, essentially saying, yes, there have been negative incidents, but on the whole, the curriculum has never been broader, the kinds of people attending university have never been more diverse, and the discussion takes place on the Internet anyway.
In short, everyone cool your jets, nothing to look at here, the university is not really the centre of intellectual engagement anyway, and accept the fact that the university has moved on from the 1960s when, during the teach-ins against the VietNam war, free speech was at its apogee.
This was not so much a defence as a capitulation. Says Drache:
In the last decade, a handful of universities such as Concordia, York and Ottawa have revoked invitations of high-profile controversial speakers to appear on campus for reasons of their personal security, including Coulter’s famously aborted talk at the University of Ottawa in 2010. Clearly, universities need to look at their principles and practices and come up with better answers. But these few security-related incidents don’t amount to an existential threat to freedom of speech on campus.
A couple of riots by leftists against conservative speakers is not an existential threat to fee speech.
In the age of the Internet, the voices of dissent and contrarians are everywhere. Free-speech is alive and robust, but it has largely decamped from the university to social media.
So, really, the argument of Barbara Kay is true, there is no free speech in universities, but it does not matter anyway, because the university is irrelevant.
Having surrendered to the position of Barbara Kay, there was nothing left for Drache to do but say “it doesn’t matter”.
Accordingly, if the Drache position is right, why not abolish public subsidies to selected parts of the university?
Suppose, as a thought experiment, all power were handed to me, the Grand Inquisitor, to decide whether to fund universities at all. Now, suppose further, as a Grand Inquisitor I am the inheritor of a confident tradition of intellectual inquiry founded in faith that the universe is comprehensible, and that knowledge is possible. Just for the sake of convenience let us call this the Aristotelian-Thomistic intellectual inheritance of Europe, which until the mid-20th century animated most of the universities of North America.
What then would I do with the modern university, which proclaims from every lectern in the arts faculty that knowledge is specific to narratives, and that narratives are confined to specific races, classes or sexes, so that universal knowledge or standards are impossible, and, to the extent they are proclaimed to exist, that this is hegemonic male-white-sexist-racist thinking?
I would abolish the arts faculties, of course, and hand over philosophy, history, and the arts to private academies. Not one drop of public subsidy to the organs of marxist-feminist-nihilist indoctrination. They will never be missed.
A massive reduction of indoctrinated illiterates would ensue. The university would be decoupled from its principal power: to assign credentials that someone has learned something, when all they have learned is an attitude.
If the university is irrelevant to free speech and free inquiry, why are we subsidizing these metastasizing cancers of political indoctrination? Why, it would take a university president to justify this. I have just the man for the job.
What the other side in this debate really needed was an Allan Rock, former Justice Minister under the Liberals, creator of the gun registry, head of the University of Ottawa, a man who manifestly does not believe in free speech; who, during the Ann Coulter affair a couple of years ago, nailed his colours to the mast of political correctness. (Rock had pre-approved the letter from the vice-President to Ann Coulter, the American controversialist, warning her that she could be subject to Canada’s hate speech laws. I read that letter: it was one of the smarmiest, most-condescending, fatuous pieces of ill-bred rudeness I have ever had the occasion to read.)
She was unhappy with a note she had received from the university’s provost, François Houle, prior to her appearance. The letter mentioned the Charter of Rights and Canada’s free speech laws and invited Coulter to “educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada.” Coulter earlier said she took that as a threat to “criminally prosecute” her.
Yes, what we need to defend the modern university is an Allan Rock, one who will be shameless in his defence of the suppression of all forms of conservative thought, and strong in his assertions that society ought to subsidize this ongoing effort with billions of dollars.
He is one among many such university administrators.