Are Canadian universities doing their part when it comes to encouraging debate and cultivating ideas?

Diversity is a good thing.

At least, that’s the message echoed throughout many Canadian universities, from the administration to the faculty to the students themselves.

And why shouldn’t it be?

After all, universities should serve as conduits to distribute knowledge and cultivate debate, a function which is further enriched with participation by students and faculty of varied races, genders, and sexual orientations.

But thanks to an increasingly divisive political climate, a lot of people are starting to question whether or not universities are staying true to their mission statement.

According to Statistics Canada, the Great White North is shaping up to be a lot less “white” in the coming decades, so it makes sense why the University of Ottawa, among other Canadian universities, is striving to make diversity a priority.

However, current research on the diversity of identities of students and faculty on campus shows that campuses in Canada are still predominantly white and male, and that strides in ethnic diversity have been slow.

But when it comes to intellectual diversity, identity diversity isn’t the only element we should be talking about.

This conversation is also relevant when it comes to political diversity. This topic often pops up when a controversial figure is protested, shut down, or disinvited from speaking on a university campus altogether. While this phenomenon is much more pronounced in the United States, the University of Ottawa has seen its fair share of incidents over the years as well.

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter withdrew from a speaking event on campus in 2010 due to a protest that was held outside the venue, and U of O English professor Janice Fiamengo was similarly shut down in 2014 when she tried to give a lecture about men’s rights activism.

Although these figures may espouse views that are far from mainstream, and students in minority groups may not speak to the “mainstream,” more privileged experience of education, universities are a place to wrestle with alternate viewpoints, whether we like them or not. 

This is a function that these institutions cannot carry out with a homogenous staff and student body. This concern was even brought up by former U.S. president Barack Obama in his Jan. 10 farewell address.

So, is intellectual diversity on campuses really in dire straits? And if so, how does it affect professors, students, and the administration as a whole?

Faculty

To Yoel Inbar, the conversation about a lack of political diversity on campus isn’t anything new, especially when the professoriate is concerned.

Back in 2012 this psychology professor from U of T decided to take anecdotal evidence about political uniformity in his own department and turn it into hard data.

With his research partner Joris Lammers, Inbar surveyed 800 academics from Canada, the U.S., and Europe. To him, the results were hardly surprising.

Although conservative attitudes towards economic issues made a decent showing in the survey, the vast majority of these psychology professors considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” when it came to foreign policy and social issues.

However, for Inbar, the study did produce one surprising revelation.

“I didn’t think that we would get much when we asked people directly ‘Would you be willing to discriminate against a conservative researcher?’” he said. “As it turns out, a surprisingly high percentage of people said that they would.”

In a follow-up 2016 study, Inbar found that conservative professors were willing to discriminate at virtually the same rate as their liberal counterparts. But since studies show that university faculty have become increasingly left-leaning over the years, much more so than the general population, those numbers don’t bode well for aspiring right-wing academics.

This kind of data comes as even less of a surprise to John Robson who, as a staunch conservative, has been teaching history at various post-secondary schools since the late 1980s.

While Robson said his political views never caused any tension during his time teaching at the U of O, he’s definitely raised a couple eyebrows in the past.

“Even at the University of Texas I found that I was considered something of an oddball,” he said. “I did have one department chairman, years ago, tell me that they would not have hired me if they had known that I was so conservative.”

Robson believes that this kind of status quo was established during 1960s, where social revolutionaries flocked to university campuses and simply never left.

“Only people who find that environment congenial are likely to do well, pursue higher education to a post-graduate degree, and then become the next generation of professors.”

However, identity diversity also comes into play when we look at at the intellectual depth of the U of O’s research base.

According to U of O law professor Amir Attaran, the university has not just failed to meet its diversity targets for research chair hiring, but has actually reversed their progress. In an 2016 interview with the Fulcrum, Attaran alleged that the U of O has a “systemic discrimination problem.”

Attaran’s statements align with the U of O’s hiring data, as they have failed completely to hire research chairs that identify as Aboriginal, or a person with a disability. They have also consistently fallen short on their targets for women and visible minorities.

Improving research performance is especially important given the U of O’s fall from grace in last year’s Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings. And according to Daniel Calto of Elsevier, a company that provides research data to THE and QS, identity diversity matters when it comes to research performance.

In fact, Calto says that “On average, work that has even one international author has on average 1.6 times the impact of papers written only by authors in a single country.”

But, despite the restricted state of intellectual diversity among the U of O professoriate, have U of O students been able to resist the draw of intellectual homogeneity?

Students

It turns out that this kind of uniformity isn’t relegated to the dimly lit offices of university professors.

According to U of O alumnus Hadyn Place, it trickles down to the student level as well.

Place believes this climate manifests itself in the realm of student politics, where student unions like the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) only cater to a small minority of students.

“The executives in the past are sort of blind to a lot of the diversity of opinion and thought at the school,” Place said in a 2014 interview with the Fulcrum, after announcing his candidacy for vice-president equity in that year’s SFUO election. “It’s sort of a one-sided, hardcore left-wing approach to what student government should be.”

Place admits, in retrospect, that his plans to cut cornerstones of the VP equity position—like the Women’s Resource Centre and Pride Centre—probably didn’t make him the most appealing candidate.

“It was more to prove a point,” he said to the Fulcrum in January 2017, talking about how he wanted to “give a voice” to the students who didn’t feel represented by the SFUO’s politics.

While Davis Whittington-Heeney, co-president of the U of O NDP, says that his values mostly align with the current SFUO executive, he admits that they need to do a better job of appealing to new students.

“It’s very clear that the SFUO needs to hit the reset button in terms of how it engages with students, and it’s currently failing at that,” he said. “They need to not be so insular and not only cater to people who, during the first year, know all the (progressive) lingo from Tumblr.”

According to Marisa Maslink, current president of the U of O Campus Conservatives, the limited scope of student government is a disservice to people of all political stripes.

Even though it’s an improvement over last year, the 2017 SFUO general election voter turnout still sits at around 14.6 per cent, which pales in comparison to our cross-town rival Carleton, who managed to get 37 per cent of the student body to vote in their last election.

“I don’t think it’s about running as a conservative. It’s about running as the person who will change things,” said Maslink. “If that person turns out to be a conservative then that’s even better, but it’s important to run as a person who recognizes the current problem and why we’re in such a state of apathy.”

Administration

In Robson’s mind, one of the biggest faults of many university administrations is not an institutional or political bias. Rather, it’s their tendency to fold under pressure.

“They will cancel speeches rather than risk having security ensure that an invited guest is able to give a presentation. They will discipline a faculty member reflexively if anybody complains about them. And then they find themselves exposed to public ridicule and, in fact, the possibility of legal action because, in an amazing number of cases, they react without following their own due process.”

U of O engineering professor David Spinello says this situation is exacerbated by the fact that hiring practices have dramatically turned in favour of the administration for the last couple decades.

“If you look at the amount of administrative people that were hired in the past 20 years versus the amount of faculty members, there has been a boom in administrative people,” said Spinello.

Spinello argues that this change shifts the university’s focus away from its original intended goal.

“Universities are much more concerned with preventing anything from happening and doing damage control. Unfortunately, this implies hiring many administrative persons dedicated to these kinds of activities rather than scholarly and academic activities.”

Spinello believes that this focus isn’t doing any favours for the vast majority of students who, in his mind, want to engage with uncomfortable ideas and prepare for life outside university.

In an email to the Fulcrum, Patrick Charette, director of institutional communications for the U of O, wrote that it’s premature to comment on the university’s priorities since they are currently in the process of figuring out how to mitigate their current deficit.

Whether or not this means a continued emphasis on the administration in favour of academics remains to be seen.

Regaining some kind of balance

In terms of how universities can increase intellectual diversity on Canadian campuses, there is no one universal answer.

While Inbar still believes that most campuses lean in one direction politically, he knows that the desire to correct this imbalance is coming from all directions—left, right, and everywhere in between.

For this reason, academics like Inbar and Spinello are members of the Heterodox Academy, a bipartisan organization that boasts over 350 members and aims to, according to their website, “increase viewpoint diversity in the academy.”

“In the same way that we wouldn’t want a faculty that was all white men … we wouldn’t want a faculty that is all only left wing,” said Inbar.

Attaran thinks that intellectual diversity among professors could be preserved with more regulation on the Canada Research Chairs program from the government, and removal of funding in the cases where universities do not comply with their targets.

Spinello hopes that universities will, through hiring practices, refocus their attention on learning as opposed to bureaucracy and public relations.

Robson believes that a much better way to hold administrations accountable is to privatize all universities, as, in his mind, this move would help put students “in a better position to dictate to the administration when something stupid happens.”

Until a long-term solution is found, Inbar urges students, faculty, and administrators to keep an open mind when they are confronted with views alternate to their own.

“In the long run, I don’t think we’re ever going to get to parity. I think that seems ridiculous. But even having one or two profs (in each department) who are willing to argue for an alternative viewpoint can be super useful in keeping everybody honest.”