Campus Politics

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Writing in today's Globe and Mail, Simon Fraser communications prof Richard Gruneau endeavors to persuade Canadians that their universities are not the hives of "political correctness" or "leftist authoritarianism" they've been reading about recently but, rather, "largely conservative organizations" imbued with an ethos of "neo-liberalism." In the wake of l'Affaire Potter at McGill and the Lindsay Shepherd débacle at Laurier, this is not an easy circle to square. But as we have learned from the tortured logic of the Shepherd inquisition, it is not impossible. The trick is to conflate how universities are managed with what happens in their classrooms.

Forced to adapt to decades of declining public funding, Gruneau argues, universities have responded by aggressively recruiting international students; by adopting management strategies that privilege public relations and program reputations; by becoming more entrepreneurial; and, in general, by acceding to the "pressures and limits of capitalist enterprise." Universities' increasing reliance upon contract faculty is a particularly egregious concession to neo-liberalism, in Gruneau's view. "When it comes to labour issues, today's universities do not act much differently from other businesses that produce a product in a competitive market where they must always economize." He's right about this.

But what's happening across the quad from the admin building, in our lecture halls and seminar rooms, where we "continue to celebrate a romantic ethos of free inquiry and pedagogical openness"? Here, too, Prof Gruneau knows of what he speaks. Teaching has become an enterprise in which we "push for inclusiveness [that] is clearly 'liberal' (in the way today's conservatives use the term) insofar as it attempts to respect cultural differences and overcome inequalities and oppressions of the past." This push, in turn, fosters a pedagogy characterized by "a continuing and often-intense debate about appropriate limits on free speech" and "an overly cautious intellectual culture on some campuses, where dissent and argument are muted in pursuit of fragile consensus and 'safe' spaces." Gruneau is right about this, too.

The point should be obvious. Nothing in the ostensibly neo-liberal management style of Canadian universities precludes them from also serving as sites of intellectual orthodoxy. The two streams are not merely compatible but mutually (and strategically) reinforcing.