The MRFA, Political Advocacy, and the Duty to Protect Academic Freedom

-Sinc MacRae

What restrictions, if any, should the MRFA executive observe as regards engaging in political speech and action with respect to matters outside of Mount Royal? Publicly lobbying government on a range of issues in advanced education is fine, surely, but just as there is some room for interpreting how far this range extends, there are also clear limits. This past summer our executive exceeded those limits by releasing their statement denouncing “anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence” in policing.

Although some might dispute the appropriateness of their commenting on racism within MRU (the focus of the second half of their statement), I do not share that view. However, the first half was not on a topic directly connected to post-secondary issues and likely does not represent the memberships’ views. Indeed, the polemical nature of their remarks instead suggests some disdain for the principle that they should strive to represent faculty views. In response a defender of the executive might argue that they spoke out as a matter of conscience on an important social issue, one that directly impacts the lives of many in our community. There is some merit in this response, but it does not justify either the strident tone or the actual content of the remarks in question.

A third point of concern is that by publishing their views on some unsettled and controversial issues of serious public import they have contributed to an environment that makes it more difficult for ordinary MRFA members to express views at odds with their views, views that presumably now constitute the official position of the MRFA. If someone developed arguments and pursued research that diverged from the MRFA’s official position, would it not be reasonable for that person to doubt that they could rely upon the association’s support should their work be challenged as politically unacceptable by the university’s administration? By publishing their views on these matters, they have placed themselves in at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. They have emphatically signaled where their support lies, and again considering the unequivocal  tone of their statement, it appears to not be with those who might question their views.

All moral people agree that racism is wrong. However, the executive’s statement encompasses complex causal questions involving controversial normative and empirical issues employing vague and contested concepts. Although the executive may regard these other claims as being as certainly true as the claim about the wrongness of racism, given that the claims are different we need to examine each separately. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do in a climate in which dissent is unwelcome.

One of the troubling aspects about the current controversy over racism is that it is taking place at a moment when there is an expanding element both within and outside of academia who persist in moralizing disagreement by viewing any dissent as evidence of bad faith dealing and a lack of rectitude. According to these people, those who do not regard a range of other claims regarding the nature, causes, consequences, and remedies for racism and “systemic” racism as being at the same level of epistemic and moral certainty as the claim about the wrongness of racism are themselves immoral. By publishing their statement, the executive contributed to this climate and thereby made it more difficult for those of us who believe that we can better advance the cause of justice by voicing principled dissent and engaging in critical enquiry into these topics.

I have only briefly begun to sketch out my argument. If you are interested in learning more about my views, you can read a longer public letter of dissent that I wrote this past summer. Finally, since my interest is in dialogue and understanding, I would welcome the opportunity to more carefully explain and defend my views, for instance at an MRFA-sponsored forum at which one or more of the members of the executive might have the opportunity to present their views at greater length and correct any errors I have made in the criticisms I have briefly outlined here.