Threats to academic freedom aren’t just a white-guy problem

One of the more thoughtful commentaries on the Potter controversy from a different angle by Amanda Bittner, Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant and Erin Tolley (disclosure: Erin is a former colleague):

Look at the demographics of any large organization, and you’ll find that most positions of power are occupied by white men. That’s true, too, of academia. In Canadian universities, there are almost no Indigenous administrators or administrators of colour; tenured positions, particularly at the highest levels, belong disproportionately to white men. Women, people of colour, and Indigenous peoples typically don’t have the opportunity to lose their prestigious positions amid controversy because they don’t even get those positions to begin with.

Adjunct and contract positions—the most precarious academic work of all—are often carried out by women, Indigenous scholars, and scholars of colour.As one U.S. study notes, just as under-represented groups began to gain a toehold in the professoriate, the academic job market contracted. Permanent positions have been replaced by those with almost no job protection, as well as long hours and little institutional support. Even if scholars in these roles had time to pen op-eds on controversial topics, seeing a person of privilege be so easily cut loose would almost certainly only heighten the instinct for women, Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour to stay quiet. And yet these are the voices we need.

We know we also write from a position of privilege: we are white women (two with tenure, one without) who work in academic institutions and have the luxury to follow these debates on social media. And yet, whenever we comment publicly on an issue, we look over our shoulders and wonder about the potential effect that public engagement might have on our careers. We debated the wisdom of even commenting on this case, concerned as we are about the blowback it might elicit, but we are intervening because we believe that the burden of exposing problematic institutional practices shouldn’t fall only on the shoulders of the most marginalized.

This isn’t just a white-guy problem. The incident sends a signal to our colleagues who have important things to say, who don’t have a platform of privilege from which to say it, and who don’t have a safety net to fall back on if things go south—or a coterie of well-connected commenters who mount a forceful defence. When voices are silenced by universities, there is a real risk to those who dare make controversial observations based in rigorous empirical research, or conclusions that point to systemic discrimination, injustice, and current and past wrongs. These are things that might “bother” or “offend” the public, and which have the potential to place even greater pressure on institutions.

Indeed, McGill’s principal, Suzanne Fortier, suggests that the Institute’s role is not “to provoke, but to promote good discussion.” This is a prescription for tepid public discourse. We have brilliant colleagues whose provocative voices need to be made louder, not silenced. And if universities can’t stand up to this pressure and defend their researchers on the “easy” cases—like ones involving a privileged white man—they most certainly won’t have the courage to do so when confronted with the “difficult” ones.

Source: Threats to academic freedom aren’t just a white-guy problem – Macleans.ca

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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