Here’s a pernicious idea: Universities are diverse societies, microcosms of our own diverse Canadian society. It’s nonsense, of course. Universities are as mono-cultural as institutions can be. But the idea that they are diverse societies has enough surface plausibility for it to have gained traction on campuses across the country and thereby to have begun to change universities for the worse.
Universities are places of teaching and research, of inquiry and interpretation, of art and ideas, of discussion and debate. They are spaces, in short, in which people gather in order to live the life of the mind. That is what gives them such a strong single focus. That is why university people are at home on a university campus wherever in the world that campus might be.
Universities, certainly, display a wide variety of courses, academic departments, research interests, styles of teaching and ways of being an academic. Some academics are scholars, some are scientists, some are artists, some are interpreters of art or culture or politics, some are intellectuals; most try to fuse two, three, or more of these orientations.
Nonetheless, what makes a university excellent is one single thing: its effective devotion to the life of the mind.
The surface plausibility in the idea that universities are diverse societies resides in the fact that people from all sorts of backgrounds are drawn to the life of mind. All sorts of skin colours, and ethnic and national origins and affiliations, are found among university people, and university people can differ radically from one another in what matters to them outside the life of the mind.
Yet whatever differences we might note among university people, they pale into insignificance when compared to the difference between university culture and civilian culture. University culture involves the strenuous interrogation and examination of everything from cabbages to kings. Such interrogation puts all aspects of the university person’s identity at risk, even his or her identity as a university person. No other way of life is like it; no other way of life would dare to be like it. (That last claim is tautologous, for any way of life that takes up the strenuous examination of things thereby becomes the life of the mind.)
What makes the idea that universities are places of diversity pernicious is that acting on it can easily deform the institutional structures, policies, and procedures that support university culture. The more that deans and academic senates take the diversity idea seriously, the less hospitable their institutions will be to intellectual community. This is because protecting and celebrating diversity for the sake of protecting and celebrating diversity will undercut the freedom and individual judgement and responsibility essential to strenuous interrogation.
And yet we want all people given to the life of the mind to be welcomed and cherished at universities. Welcoming and cherishing people of diverse backgrounds, abilities and identities might well require changes and accommodations in the ways we go about things. Those changes and accommodations, though, must always be consistent with the values and goals of the life of the mind. They must not threaten the direction of research, say, or the spirit of free discussion, or the experience of the classroom, or the pedagogical integrity of the course.
Now, stating a criterion by which to judge whether a policy or accommodation can be accepted raises the question: who is to judge. The only answer consistent with intellectual community is that all of us are to judge, that is, all of us are invited to express and debate our opinions about policies and cases; but only the professor whose endeavour could be affected can be the one whose judgement, sound or faulty, prevails. That’s not because the professor will be right. It is because the integrity of her teaching is compromised by forcing another’s determination upon her.
The professor can get it wrong, and wrong determinations need to be criticized, and criticized publicly. But a university is harmed more by administrators overruling bad determinations regarding accommodation than by professors implementing their bad determinations, at least at universities where such cases are publicly discussed.
One might counter that an academic senate can legitimately set policy binding on professors regarding accommodation. This view is false because academic senates should be safeguarding the rights and privileges of professors with regard to their teaching and their courses.
Canadian universities are not, in any interesting sense, microcosms of our diverse, multicultural Canadian society. The more universities seek to become like the society around them, the less they will be spaces in which we are able to live the life of the mind.
Mark Mercer is a professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University.