Universities have abandoned the traditional pursuit of academic excellence by replacing it with a focus on “social justice”
American and Canadian university campuses rang for weeks on end with celebrations of Hamas’s “great victory” of Oct. 7. The murder of civilians, the burning alive of families, the gang rape of women to death, the roasting of children in ovens, and the beheading of babies all are touted as legitimate steps toward Palestinian liberation from “occupation, apartheid, and genocide.”
Students, professors, administrators, especially “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) officers, chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free [of Jews]” to recommend the destruction of the state of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Just in case the message is too subtle, it is clarified in standard comments, such as “gas the Jews” and “Hitler was right.” “Globalize the intifada” – an uprising that includes assassination and the bombing of buses, restaurants, and other soft civilian targets – hints that the 21st-century Holocaust will not stop with the extermination of Jews but will go on to consume Christians, Hindus, and others who stand in the way of Islamic supremacism.
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University officials have been unwilling to discourage such exhibitions, even less to punish violations of campus rules and negation of the spirit of DEI. The presidents of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania pleaded, in their congressional hearings, that it is their responsibility to protect academic freedom and that they must not discourage speech and other forms of expression, such as vandalism, trespass, and intimidation, even when regarded as abhorrent by some. Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, has since resigned.
These university presidents claimed that calling for the genocide of Jews was protected constitutional speech under the First Amendment. That is true. But private universities are not obliged to respect the First Amendment, which defines restrictions to government action, not to private organizations, which are free to establish their own rules.
Furthermore, these university presidents were being disingenuous during their testimony, given that their records of upholding free speech have been the worst in the United States, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Harvard ranked at the absolute bottom of the list of universities upholding free speech, number 248 out of 248, judged to be “abysmal.” The University of Pennsylvania ranked next worst, number 247, and MIT listed at a mediocre number 136.
The question that the university presidents dodged was whether their university codes of conduct allowed calls for genocide. They refused to answer. But let us consider another possibility. What about academic freedom? Does it permit calls for the genocide of Jews?
Academic freedom is a principle invented to support the Enlightenment university’s search for academic truth. The understanding is that free debate of a variety of points of view and the ideas that flow from them is the best guarantee of a successful approach to discovering truth.
Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue academic inquiry. It is not the freedom to pursue spiritual enlightenment, sexual freedom, or political revolution. Academic freedom is restricted to the pursuit of academic goals. Other goals may be pursued under the aegis of free speech, a much more commodious category of allowable discourse.
Academic freedom is understood to exist in the context of exploring theories of existence, formulating hypotheses about the world, developing predictions about how things work, and, critically, bringing evidence to bear to test these ideas and drawing conclusions based on the evidence. The dialectic between the imaginative formulation of theories and the down-to-earth collection of relevant evidence is seen in the Enlightenment academic world as the path to sound knowledge and, ultimately, to truth.
Political advocacy, accusations of bad behaviour, and personal and political disparagements, as non-academic discourse, do not fall under the protection of academic freedom. Calls to revolution or genocide, and claims and accusations of sexism, racism, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc., are not academic and are not protected under any academic understanding of academic freedom.
However, as anyone with at least a passing familiarity with contemporary universities knows, these institutions have entirely abandoned Enlightenment ideals, such as the search for truth. Almost every North American university has adopted a post-Enlightenment vision that replaces the search for truth with the advancement of “social justice,” defined as the implementation of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” There is no inquiry into or study of social justice; rather, social justice, and its DEI policies, is taken as the established answer to all questions of importance about social life and the purpose of the university.
In the new social justice university, “academic freedom” is limited to the freedom to repeat the established DEI slogans. No criticism of the social justice mantras is allowed, no matter how factually based. Studies that refute the claims of DEI rationales are forbidden and, in fact, are punished particularly severely. Any deviation from asserting social justice truths leads to mandatory “re-education,” punishments such as being banned from teaching, or complete cancellation through excommunication, i.e. being fired.
Some staff cancellations are due to disputes about administrative mandates. For example, critiques of the fanatical DEI impositions, which implement favouritism based on race, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, and disability, have led to punishment, obligatory re-education, reduction in status, and/or termination. Student complaints about professors whose grades are believed to be too harsh, or professors who refuse to give special benefits to certain categories of students, have led to termination. These disputes about administrative procedures are at the margins of the area of academic freedom.
Dead centre of academic freedom are disputes that arise from academic theories, studies, and conclusions. Social justice universities rest on an official narrative, any contradiction of which puts the academic advancers of such heresies at risk.
For example, a sacred belief of the social justice university and its DEI commissars is that any statistical disparity between census categories must have arisen from racist, sexist, homophobist, Islamophobist, and ableist discrimination. Theories, studies, and conclusions whose statistical disparities result from other causes are rejected and suppressed.
Other sacred social justice beliefs are that police and whites murder innocent blacks as part of the “systemic racism” that is a foundational social justice axiom. Statistical analyses showing that blacks are murdered almost exclusively by other blacks, that deaths at the hands of police are mainly the result of violent resistance, and that more blacks murder whites than the reverse are heatedly rejected, and the advocates of evidence are cancelled.
Studies supported by statistical evidence that demonstrate that men at the extreme tails of intelligence curves face rejection because they violate the feminist commandment that women must be equal to men in every way.
Another social justice campaign insists that imaginary sex transitions must be treated as reality, and transgender women must be accepted as women and included in women’s spaces and sports, because “they are really women” and equal to women without any differences. So sexual assault on females by trans women and athletic dominance by trans women in female sports cannot be attributed to the different biology of males.
The entire field of the biology of sex has been thrown out the window, replaced by imaginary “transitions” and the “continuum” of multiple and many-coloured genders. Science that stands in the way of indulging “marginalized minorities” is ignored and rejected.
Studies that interrogate the origins of the huge upsurge in young people claiming sex dysphoria and identifying with the opposite sex or another imaginary sexual category are not welcome because transgender youth are regarded as a “marginalized minority,” victims of heteronormative oppressors. The discovery of rapid onset dysphoria among peer groups of teenage girls who had no previous indication of dysphoria is rejected because it suggests that dysphoria is not an inherent, natural part of a misgendered child.
These and many other matters of social import that would be investigated, their studies protected by academic freedom and publicized in the Enlightenment university, are forbidden and rejected in the new social justice university.
Rather, the social justice university has adopted the neo-Marxist division of society into census categories of oppressors and oppressed. It has prioritized the advocacy and benefitting of the alleged oppressed, the blocking and demeaning of the oppressors. And it is advancing its narrative by blocking any academic work that is a threat to its simplistic and racist conception of good and evil. Academic freedom must be suppressed to advance the higher goals of social justice.
The antisemitism so dramatically demonstrated at universities around North America is not justified by academic freedom because it is purely political and not at all academic, just as are the universities themselves.
Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and past president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.
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