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IN MY OPINION

In praise of dangerous universities

By that I mean a place where you’ll encounter disturbing ideas.

By MARK MERCER | MAY 03 2010

A safe university isn’t a university free of theft, vandalism and violence. It’s not one where the ice is cleared quickly from the sidewalks. Rather, a safe university is a university at which no one will hear racist, sexist, or homophobic comments, or any discriminatory slights against a person’s religion, nationality, age or disability.

Canadians came to understand only just recently what it is for a university to be safe, as a result of Ann Coulter’s attempt to speak at the University of Ottawa. Ms Coulter, an American political commentator, cancelled her engagement on the advice of her security chief, who judged that those demanding safety (in the new sense) were threatening people’s safety (in the old sense).

It’s no little thing, that people off campus now know this new meaning of “safe.” If any good came of Ms Coulter’s trip to Ottawa, enlightenment on that point is certainly it.

That’s because intelligent and spirited high-school students throughout the nation now realize they have one overriding concern: to make sure that the university they choose is dangerous.

A dangerous university is not one given to making people feel good about themselves, at least not on principle. It is not about affirming identities or celebrating cultures or contributions.

Rather, a dangerous university is about investigation and criticism, about constructing from evidence and argument alone a view of the world, and about knowing how to put that view to the test. It is a university at which one will encounter disturbing ideas and values, sometimes spoken by the very people who advocate them. It is a university at which people speak freely and at which no view is out of bounds.

So how can potential applicants know which universities are dangerous? Are there any clues a teenager might notice that will tell her that the university she’s considering is safe and, so, best avoided?

In fact, there are many. What follows are just some of the more obvious.

  • The students’ association bans anti-abortion groups. This isn’t a dead give-away that the campus is inhospitable to free speech, for what really matters is the administration’s response to such bans. If the administration itself then sponsors the banned group or, better, dissolves the students’ association, then the administration, at least, is concerned that the campus be dangerous.
  • The university has committees or officials to vet proposed campus events for either content or format. Or, the university sends guidelines on acceptable conduct to participants. At a dangerous university, on the other hand, campus groups invite whom they want and run their events in whatever formats they want. The university doesn’t even vet posters or other communications.
  • Formal procedures exist to deal with non-academic complaints against professors – complaints, that is, that have nothing to do with unfair grading or incompetent teaching. A university that persecutes professors for saying or doing something offensive or hurtful is not a place that welcomes the rough and tumble of debate. At a dangerous university, a professor’s remarks might be savagely critiqued in student newspapers or other venues, but they won’t draw any official attention.
  • Official anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies declare that words and ideas themselves can be harmfully discriminatory or that harassment has to do with the feelings of the complainant.
  • University memos or other communications endorse or even mention any of Canada’s various laws against speaking hatefully. A dangerous university, for its part, will be a leader in the fight to remove anti-speech provisions from both human rights legislation and the criminal code.

That’s a good start for a checklist. I commend it to all smart and spirited kids seeking to begin university in the fall.

I fear, though, that we, the professoriate in Canada, have already condemned the entire next generation to safety.

Mark Mercer is an associate professor in the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University.

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  1. Robb / May 3, 2010 at 10:44 am

    I certainly don’t support hate speech or thought, but I am certainly very critical of attempts to mandate censorship.

    Shouldn’t we believe that university students are smart and responsible enough to decide for themselves what’s good and what’s garbage? By educating students about ethics and morals, we should trust them to censor themselves rather than place them in “safe” environments where we have removed the choice from them.

  2. Nathan Rambukkana / May 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    (Corrected for typos)

    What I think this article misses, and rather dramatically, is how truly dangerous thinking (i.e., thinking that might seek to challenge structural privilege, normalized oppressive language use, and discriminatory practices) is routinely and systematically silenced in society. The conflation of addressing oppressive material, or structures (and of attempting to make learning more accessible than just to the privileged constituencies that the academy has historically favoured), with a destruction of free speech, or free inquiry, also willfully ignores that these forms of address are largely the result of decades of both academic work and political and activist struggle to make the academy a more open place of learning, rather than a de facto closed space. The rhetorical lauding of “dangerous” in this article masks questions of who such a space is really dangerous for, and who it in fact caters to. It masks that the way things were before such kinds of questioning were not universally free and open and untarnished but rather reflected systematic biases that catered to some groups through the systematic disenfranchisement of others. One can have both critical debate and create spaces in the which privileged structures that systematically favour some students over others both in the academy (and in society at large) are addressed rather than mocked.

  3. S / May 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I also think there’s a difference to be made between professional and unprofessional behaviour. I’ve been in situations where profs have advanced positions I profoundly disagree with but who are able and willing to locate their arguments in some kind of scholarly discourse. I’ve also heard profs say things that are simply ignorant and inappropriate, ranging from “it takes a lot of rapes to make a baby” to “I had to spend three hours around a feeble-minded woman and wanted to kill myself.” There’s nothing redeeming or scholarly about these utterances and as far as I’m concerned they have no place in the classroom.

    In many ways I agree with Nathan’s comment about the rhetoric of dangerousness, but I do think it’s important to recognize that so-called “safe spaces” can also be incredibly problematic not just on grounds of free speech and inquiry, but in that the people deciding what’s (un)acceptable to say often speak for and silence the very people they’re trying to protect. I think back to my time at Trent University, a school I chose precisely because of its leftist reputation, and how 7 years later I have yet to feel as uncomfortable and ostracized as I did there because my politics weren’t “radical enough.” In that case, the “privileged structures that systematically favour some students over others” were continuously upheld not by professors but by other students who were more concerned with fawning over Judith Butler than the fact that their words and actions were contributing to a toxic environment for exactly the type of person they were trying to “help.”

  4. Dr.Doinglittle / May 4, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    As I read this article I kept thinking of the pig in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Most universities are a lot like that character – they present themselves as protectors of free speech when in fact they are very intolerant of dissident voices.

    I see today that UVic’s student society is being taken to court over their decision to revoke funding to an anti-abortion group.

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2010/05/03/bc-uvic-abortion-lawsuit.html

    It looks like the next generation is indeed doomed!

  5. Carmen / May 5, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    This article brings to mind the anti-“No means no” campaign at Queen’s in 1989 which saw student residence windows displaying “No means Harder” and “No means get on your knees bitch” signs on campus. Really Dr. Mercer? Are you quite sure you want dangerous universities back? And would you like your daughter to attend one?

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