Commentary, Opinion

McGill’s academic freedom policy is rude-imentary

Last April, to appease their older rural voters, the Quebec government unveiled a new policy concerning academic freedom in schools and universities: Bill 32. 

Naturally, the policy had little to do with Quebec’s rural population and very much to do with enforcing its definition of academic freedom upon universities, prompting some 130 professors to sign a petition against the bill. 

You see, central to Bill 32 is free speech, it seems, at all costs. 

To comply, McGill has drafted a new academic freedom policy touching on what you should be allowed to say (anything), trigger warnings (not compelled), and the various procedures for academic complaints (a small, secret committee). 

The draft’s biggest problem comes back to the straightforward question: How can you facilitate academic freedom without respect? 

It was the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism’s welcoming of Professor Robert Wintemute, who opposed a U.K. policy to improve the legal recognition of transgender people that really did it for me, and showed McGill’s true colours. Hiding behind “free speech” is the constant mantra of those who want to guise hate as debate. And for McGill, it’s snorting a line of danger.  

And look, being able to speak freely and question ideas must be the university’s bread and butter. But if that speech incites hate or violence, how can we expect an environment of academic debate to prosper? 

It’s at this point that Interim Principal Christopher Manfredi might throng the university’s policy on equity and inclusivity in my face. Or perhaps he’ll show off the article he wrote in The Montreal Gazette last year about academic freedom and equity going hand in hand, no doubt framed in his office. 

But not so fast, Sir. The notion that universities can defend unchecked speech while advancing equity and inclusion is a thought which didn’t get past one glass of Chardonnay. 

To defend academic freedom, equity and inclusivity guidance must be ingrained within the institution. While it’s a question of enabling freedom of speech, it’s also a question of what type of community McGill seeks to shape. And without guidance on how to create an environment where everyone can freely participate, the policy becomes nothing more than a used tissue. 

Take the recent hosting of Wintemute. He opposed the legal recognition of someone because of their identity—no different from race, sexual orientation, and place of birth. These views, first of all, violate the university’s own equity policy. Second of all, from an academic freedom perspective, it’s ludicrous to expect that those he targets will feel able to contribute to the discussion when he insinuates bigotry.   

And the real kick up the backside with McGill’s draft policy is that instead of providing direction for respect, it does the opposite. 

Point 20 in the draft states how the university will not compel instructors to provide content and trigger warnings. 

This measure, I think, is to align the university with Bill 32’s new policy. But it’s phrased all wrong. Because McGill can comply with the law and still endeavour to ingrain best practices. 

A professor shouldn’t feel like they have the barrel to the head about using content warnings. . But just like you eat with your mouth closed or don’t by way of introduction yell obscenities at strangers, giving a heads-up about a sensitive topic is good manners—and it facilitates an environment where everyone can engage freely, and from which academic freedom can flourish.  

Ingraining respect and fostering an environment of inclusivity is currently omitted from McGill’s draft, and it would be wise to rethink, or at least for the Deans to talk about it over a full bottle of wine, instead of just the glass. 

Academic freedom can only come by creating conditions where all individuals can join the discussion. Because that’s the thing—McGill’s job is not to produce academic content or discussions. It’s to facilitate them. 

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  1. The McGill Tribune takes a stand: speech should be free until you say something I dislike.

    I know other students in my politics class that literally class for armed revolution every other day. But I guess “inciting violence” is okay as long you’re sympathetic to them, right? Pfft. We can’t even seriously discuss topics like trans rights in class because profs and students are too scared to say something wrong and get dragged on reditt.

  2. How bizarre to see young people demanding more restrictions on speech at a university. That’s what old people used to do! Where did the need to bubble-wrap every conversation come from?

    McGill should be teaching students how to have productive, persuasive conversations with people they disagree with. Lesson #1 should be: Be resilient, not fragile. Lesson #2: Don’t expect the authorities to save you from hearing unpleasant ideas. That’s how life outside the Roddick Gates works.

    Hiding behind trigger warnings only makes things worse. A recent Harvard study concluded that such measures tend to backfire: “Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”

  3. Dear Todd,
    Thank you for reading the article. I appreciate your thoughts, though I have to disagree.
    Of course students should be resilient, but if McGill wants an inclusive community, which they have stated they do, they should have guidance to shape this.
    On content warnings, I don’t think this is about resilience but rather increasing the amount of information the reader has so they can make more informed decisions. And most will continue after a content warning, but a small number might not, and that’s fine. But it’s good manners to inform the reader, and if manners makes me like old people, well in that case, good.
    Best wishes,

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