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Academe is of the world


In recent months we have seen many controversial issues arising on university campuses and in other academic contexts in Canada and around the world, which have generated a good deal of media coverage. These are issues that in some cases connect the university, academics, and students to actions, behaviours, and attitudes that have been seen as shocking and/or surprising.

For example, take sexism. In September we saw incidents where, on multiple campuses (Memorial, Western, UBC, Saint Mary’s), frosh week activities were marred by expressions of misogyny and rape culture. There have also been sexual assaults on campuses, including York’s string of attacks and the most recent incidents at UBC. Meanwhile, two professors were charged recently with sex-related crimes – including creating child pornography, and luring young women into sexual situations.

Lately in the United States, we’ve also seen gender-based harassment in the science blogging community, where biologist Danielle N. Lee was called an “urban whore” for refusing to write a blog post for free. Even as the science community reacted in outrage, further revelations about a prominent science blog editor led to his resignation. The comments directed at Lee also revealed deeply-ingrained racist attitudes and serve as a reminder of the intersectional experience of abuse and harassment. When we hear questions about why there are “still” so few women in prominent positions in science, and even fewer women of colour, we don’t have to look far for the answers.

For another, more historical example relating to race and racism, there’s also fascinating research that’s been coming out recently about the relationships of U.S. universities to the slave trade. It turns out – surprise! – that universities have long been tied to the economic context in which they operate, and in the era of slavery this was no different. From this, we should also be reminded of the historical role of academics in constructing and legitimizing scientific racism. The IQ test itself is part of the legacy of attempts to “prove” differences in intelligence between people of different races.

It’s not just gender and race that are factors in this equation. Other forms of discrimination are also rampant – against people with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks, and those dealing with mental health issues, and of course there’s fatphobia, which is so rarely discussed that you could almost believe it doesn’t exist (with this past summer providing an exceptional case). It’s just a shame we only notice microaggressions when they turn into macroaggressions.

Then there’s the related problem of workplace harassment and abuse. It turns out that academics can behave badly in the workplace too, and there’s a small and growing body of research showing how it happens. We have at least one recent case of this occurring in a Canadian university (McMaster), but this example is quite exceptional in the level of public attention it has gained.

Lastly, I refer you to the global report on corruption in universities, which shows the many ways that campuses are home to embezzling, corporate influence on research, sketchy student recruitment practices, and more. There are also forms of research fraud that have occurred such as falsification of results – or the gaming of the citation system in order to increase rankings.

Of course, none of this should be a surprise. We have high expectations of our universities as institutions of learning and knowledge, but all these examples merely serve to remind us that there is nothing inherently moral or good about the university and its task, and in particular, that the context of knowledge creation is in no way separate from the social world in which such knowledge will come to circulate and be put to use. The assumption that the university is somehow outside of the problems we see in the rest of society is part of what underlies the shock people express when abuses are uncovered, when sexism is still rampant, and when corruption is still endemic.

This is why the description of academe as somehow not the “real world” is so errant and potentially destructive. The “ivory tower” metaphor is inappropriate in that it invokes an idea of academe as not only apart from the world but also above it. This is, I believe, directly related to the need to prove the “objectivity” of knowledge and thus its authority. By this logic, it begins to make sense that Danielle Lee’s blog post describing the racism and sexism she experienced was removed by editors at Scientific American, who argued that it was not about “discovering science”. But what could be more crucial to “discovery” and to knowledge than the factors that shape who is allowed to discover things, and how?

In a context where universities are relying more on private funds, where they are encouraged to compete with each other for resources and students, and where being “the best” not just nationally but internationally is an imperative, these issues may be downplayed or treated as momentary “crises” to be managed rather than long-term problems based on entrenched systemic patterns. That latter angle doesn’t make for good public relations fodder.

But we do have an opportunity here, an opportunity to shine a light on these things in ways that may not happen so easily in other institutions. Does the university have a dirty past, and a grubby present? Yes. But that isn’t all it has, and it doesn’t mean we should lose hope in the university as an institution. It just means we need to realise there’s no real separation between what goes on in the ivied halls, and what’s happening “outside” in society at large. As much as we dislike having to admit it, the university is of the world – not above it; but it’s the task of a knowledge institution that is special, meaning that perhaps we do have the tools to address these problems in ways that other institutions can’t. In order to do this, though, the university must address itself and have knowledge of itself – as painful as that might be.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sylvie / October 26, 2013 at 22:34

    I love your article Melonie! Well-written. Eye opening. I love your conclusion on organizational identity. What a great thinker you are!

  2. Julia Hanigsberg / October 29, 2013 at 07:28

    Really excellent post. Yes, universities are “of the world” for ill AND good. None of us operate outside our social context. Thanks for your clear thinking and call to action.

  3. Bob / January 3, 2014 at 10:06

    Indeed universities are creatures of a society where greed and power are paramount and truth and knowledge dispensable if they get in the way. As long as inequity and corporate greed proliferate, the situation will not improve. We certainly cannot expect the ever growing legions of self serving administrators, now expecting wall street compensation, power, benefits and inpunity for shortcomings, to be part of the solution.

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