This article appeared in Consent #23 (September 1995)


- Doreen Kimura

{Doreen Kimura is a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. A Freedom Party member, she is also past president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. The following essay originally appeared in the January 1995 edition of University Affairs.}

North American universities are undergoing strong pressures to eliminate from their classrooms any behaviours, including those pertaining strictly to academic content, which might make anyone uncomfortable. These trends are having negative effects on the quality of university education. At all costs, we must retain the right to render intellectual discomfort in our teaching and research.

The recent document, "Framework regarding prevention of harassment and discrimination in Ontario universities", from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training and the proliferation of race relations and sexual harassment tribunals throughout the country are examples of initiatives that tend to dictate how we should think, act and speak on a variety of issues. Such initiatives encourage broad constraints on what may be said, under penalty of being accused of creating an "uncomfortable" or "negative" environment. While perhaps originally envisioned as a means to promote fairness in treatment of disadvantaged groups, they are aptly named in that they have themselves become mechanisms of harassment.

Let me focus first on the evils of such tribunals in contaminating what is taught in courses and discussed in classrooms. In the social and biological sciences particularly, where much of the content may relate to the biological nature of the human condition, ideas discussed in a course will often run counter to the political ideology of those who support or are employed by tribunal offices. I will give an actual example from an unnamed university --- deliberately not named because I truly believe that similar things could happen on almost any Canadian campus today.

A professor of psychology discussed in one of his classes (among other ideas) evidence that men and women might be innately different in terms of nurturant behaviours toward infants, that male homosexuality might in some cases be a consequence of prenatal maternal stress, and that there are group race differences in IQ test results. The first two propositions are respectable theories which I myself discuss in a class I teach on human sex differences. The third is an established fact, whatever its causal basis. While I am not privy to the details of exchanges in the classroom, the ultimate outcome was that the professor, as a consequence of a student complaint that he was creating a "negative" environment, was suspended for several months from his position on a charge of sexual harassment. He was also told that if and when he returned to the classroom, there would be "observers" stationed in his class to ensure that he no longer created such an environment.

This is a state of affairs which even the most paranoid of us would have thought impossible a few years ago. That a university would ever administer disciplinary action against a professor because he or she was discussing ideas that were by some criterion unpopular is so alien to the concept of a university that it is difficult for a rational mind to comprehend. The central function of a university is the advancement of knowledge, which can only be achieved through open unfettered discussion by faculty and students alike, free of any threat of punitive consequences. A key phrase in the Canadian Association of University Teachers' statement on academic freedom is that such freedom is to be exercised "regardless of prescribed doctrine". Yet there actually are academics, extremist feminists for example, who will defend such punitive measures. To them, anything that makes a woman uncomfortable or that is perceived to be "demeaning to women", be in fact or plausible hypothesis, should not be introduced in a course. For some sensitive individuals, this might well wipe out entire sections of courses not only in the biological and social sciences, but in history, philosophy, and politics as well. What I find demeaning to women in this attitude is the implicit assumption that women cannot deal with hard facts or rational theories as well as men can. But even if that were true, it can never be an excuse for not allowing the truth to be uttered, and particularly not in an institution which exists for the purpose of advancing knowledge.

Finally, a few words about a related barrier to academic freedom --- the chilling effect of the threat, particularly to male instructors, of frivolous or retaliatory charges of sexual harassment. Too often, these complaints are brought by disgruntled students who have not done well in a course. In two cases I know of, the charges rested entirely on the duration of eye contact (in one case felt to be too long and in the other, too short!). We would all agree that some mechanism must exist for a student to avoid genuine harassment, although the extra-legal tribunals set up within most universities are certainly not the answer. But we cannot have free discussion in a setting where such trivia are taken seriously.

It is time we rid our institutions of learning of the erosive censorship disguised as human rights tribunals.

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