The Real Problem is…

Whenever my students write of some dispute, ‘The real problem is…’ (poverty not racism; sovereignty not control…) I put in the margin, ‘Yes, that is one problem.’ Important problems have many aspects. When we work at one, we forget others.  Yet if we do want to rank them we first need an idea of what is on the list.

Some people think ‘the real problem’ of academic freedom in our universities is ‘cancel culture’, or a lack of ‘diversity’ in ideas, or the ‘colonization’ of the curriculum.  Well, those are some problems.  But it is strange that anyone thinks they are the only problems, let alone ‘the real problem’.  They are prominent only in a few fields.  Their restrictions on inquiry are cultural, what J.S. Mill called ‘the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’.  (Do we need to explain to people with PhDs what a metaphor is?)

Admittedly, culture can harden into policy. It can also drive those who make policy.  What is the culture that dominates among vice-chancellors, provosts, and deans?  Not, I need to tell you, liberal hegemony. It is was it has always been: money and influence.  This is what drives which departments (and professors) are rewarded.  It determines student numbers (and thus, how much time is left is for scholarship).  It can  lixiviate job searches into power and influence.  Two examples:

In June, Toronto’s B’Nai Brith petitioned the President of York University to ‘demand [sic] that Associate Professor Faisal Bhabha no longer teach any “human rights” courses at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.’   Bhabha had allegedly twice compared Zionism in its present form to white supremacy in the US. A harsh but common and lawful view that can be heard every day on Israeli campuses. The sledgehammer then struck quietly, in the silence of a Dean and President who lacked the courage, or principle, to robustly defend their faculty. (Not the first time that York had been humiliated this way by its administration.)  The ‘tyranny of prevailing opinion’?  Not at Osgoode Hall (where I taught for twenty years).  Supported by his faculty union and colleagues, Bhabha was hung out to dry by those who owed him a duty to protect his academic freedom.

Another example. The press reports that Toronto’s other law school just terminated a job search after, it is alleged, a judge and prominent donor sitting on Canada’s federal Tax Court had a quiet word.  He or she expressed displeasure at the (unanimous) recommendation that Dr Valentina Azarova be appointed Director of the International Human Rights Programme. The Judge is alleged to have complained about her views on human rights abuses in Israel.  Law Dean Edward Iacobucci decided not to appoint, and terminated the search. The Chair of the search committee resigned, followed by every single member of the faculty Advisory Committee of the Programme.  ‘Tyranny of prevailing opinion’?  Clap your hands if you believe.

Dean Iacobucci is reported to have explained, first, that ‘The uninformed and speculative rumours have reached such a level that, no offer of employment having been made, the University has decided to cancel the search for a candidate at this time.’

But the pertinent question is whether the ‘uninformed and speculative rumours’ are true, not whether  they became such a nuisance, or risk, that the Dean needed to cancel the search.  Today’s press now reports [paywall] that ‘In a written statement to what he described as the ‘faculty of law community’… Edward Iacobucci did not deny that a Tax Court Judge contacted the administration to express concerns about the candidate, Valentina Azarova.’

Chew on that, over your hegemonically liberal chai-soy lattes.

A law dean did not deny published reports that a sitting judge attempted to influence a University hiring decision.  Presumably, then, he also did not deny that a judge had found out, or was told, who was on that short list?  (Even the University of Toronto law school is not yet required to get pre-clearance from the judiciary.)  And, presumably, if ‘contact’ was made, it was made with someone.  So who was listening (reluctantly? anxiously? eagerly?) to the judge’s ‘concerns’? It was not the faculty members of the Advisory Board. They resigned in protest.

In this scandal, the broader public is not concerned with academic freedom but with judicial integrity.  If a judge as much as attempted–or even could be perceived to have attempted–to  interfere with academic hiring for these reasons it is an offence against judical ethics.  Every Muslim, Palestinian, or Arab litigant and lawyer before that Court would have reasonable grounds to doubt its impartiality.  (That is now a matter for the Canadian Judicial Council, to which formal complaints have been made.)  But there is  a broader issue of academic freedom at stake, one that reaches far beyond Dr Azarova’s disgraceful rejection.

Every member of the Advisory Committee who worked on that file only to learn there were invisible constraints on their decisions, wasted their time. That is not a trivial matter; you can’t do  research without time.  Worse, every Palestinian–and many Muslim and Arab–students and faculty  at the University will now feel on notice that, if a private ‘contact’ should be made from an influential figure who disapproves of a  line of inquiry about the Israel/Palestine conflict, then that ‘contact’ can expect an audience from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.  There is now precedent.  You can’t get a case heard in the Tax Court that easily.

And so it goes. What then is the ‘real problem’ of academic freedom?  There are many.  But in all-too-familiar cases like this one, it has nothing to do with the hegemony of liberal ideas on campus.  In fact, several well-known, soi-disant, liberals at the law school know enough to keep schtum.  Now think about that, too.  You’ll find something else to put on your list of threats to academic freedom.

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