Note to readers: The following commentary concerns the circumstances surrounding the seven-month suspension without pay of Mount Allison Professor Rima Azar after students complained last year about posts on her personal blog that denied the existence of systemic racism or systemic discrimination in Canada, accused the group Black Lives Matter of peddling communist propaganda and questioned concerns about climate change. Azar and the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) filed a union grievance against the university administration that led to a closed-door arbitration hearing last month in Moncton. On April 8th, the parties released a joint statement saying that all issues in the dispute had been resolved, but gave no further details.
By Bradley Walters, PhD, Professor of Geography & Environment, Mount Allison University
The issues of academic freedom raised by the Rima Azar case are too important to sweep under the rug.
I will explain the reasons why, but first wish to recount some earlier experiences.
Between 2006-2015, Canada was governed federally by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Harper lurched the government hard to the right on many issues, including aggressive opposition to action on climate change, promotion of climate change denialism, and systematic muzzling of federal scientists.
The effort to suppress the communication of the federal government’s own cadre of experts was unprecedented and motivated me to speak-out frankly and publicly against the government through the media, my teaching, etc. My thinking was this: if scientists working within the government could no longer speak openly about the growing risks of climate change, it behooved scientists like me to do so given my privileged position as a university professor.
In doing so, I never doubted my right to speak freely as an academic and knew then that the President of Mount Allison “had my back” should there be any political blow-back from my words and actions (there was some, but I won’t get into that here).
Turning to the Azar case, I recognize the complex and sensitive nature of the issues, but also believe the University community could have handled it much better than it did. For one, I am troubled by the heavy-handed, closed-door approach taken by the Administration from day-one. But I am also frustrated that neither MAFA nor Rima Azar insisted as part of the negotiated settlement on an outcome that would have reaffirmed in no uncertain terms that academic freedom remains a bedrock principle of the University.
That so few of my fellow faculty have likewise been willing to speak out publicly about their concerns, and I know many of them have such concerns, is also depressing. At every stage, all the key actors involved have insisted on complete confidentiality and so, we know next to nothing in part because the faculty have not demanded to know more. In fact, I have learned more from reading Warktimes pieces about the affair than from any internal sources!
That this occurred during the COVID pandemic likely contributed to the problem as everyone then was pre-occupied with just getting through their work under circumstances that were unusually challenging. As such, I can to a point appreciate why the Azar case unfolded the way it did and genuinely sympathize with the actors caught at the centre of this.
Yet, standing back, it is hard not to conclude that this whole affair reflects a failure of University governance. For example, rather than deal with this as primarily a matter of faculty concern, which I believe it was, the Administration went immediately into crisis mode and brought in the lawyers, which provoked MAFA and Rima to bring in their lawyers and, well, the rest is a history of behind-closed-doors meetings and negotiations and an outcome that I suspect few are really happy with (except for the lawyers, of course).
Maybe I am naïve, but it seems that this whole thing, rather than spiraling inward and downward into a costly legalistic morass, could instead have been seized-upon as a ‘teachable moment’ from the beginning.
This brings me to a second story.
Back when I was a doctoral student at Rutgers University in the late 1990s, the President of Rutgers made public remarks that were deemed racially offensive and highly inappropriate. An epic scandal ensued: this was the President of one of America’s largest and most distinguished public universities, after all. I don’t recall many details about the events that unfolded, but in response, the President organized and hosted a major university forum with a panel of high-profile speakers, keynoted by Professor Cornel West, the distinguished scholar of African American Studies and then a prominent public intellectual.
Professor West brought the audience of several thousand students and faculty to their feet with his wry humor and breathtaking orations. (During the scrum afterwards, Dr. West even signed the plaster cast on my broken left hand!). Anyway, the President kept his job, and the University community came together, learned some important things, and grew from the experience.
I wish the same could be said about Mount Allison. Instead, a lousy and costly precedent has been established and it is unclear if anything productive has been learned.
But how then, could things have been different?
Consider: A professor says some provocative things that run counter to current, conventional narratives about racism and climate change offending and angering some students. Uncomfortable indeed, even more so because unlike the late 1990s, we live under the oppressive sway of Twitter mobs.
Still, rather than fly into damage control and lockdown, why not seize such a moment as an opportunity to start a broader conversation?
One possibility would be to have followed a Rutgers-like example. A public forum could have been held to discuss and debate issues raised by the controversy. People could have aired their opinions, a stimulating Q&A could have followed, and we would have all learned some things, moved past the personal affronts, and become better and more enlightened citizens for it.
Another possibility would have been to follow a common Mi’kmaq practice and hold a ‘talking circle’, where interested participants face each other seated in a large circle with each given the opportunity to provide personal biography and express their views and concerns. Talking circles can foster conflict resolution and have the advantage of a less formal setting, relatively free of social hierarchies. The goal is less one of debate and more one of achieving consensus.
Whatever the route pursued, by stepping forward as a community at a critical moment, we would have performed as a university at its best should perform, i.e. by engaging openly with difficult issues of wider public interest, rather than hiding from them.
Unfortunately, trends of illiberalism are spreading everywhere and opportunities for frank, open discussions about sensitive political topics have become increasingly polarized and are more likely to be discouraged than encouraged in today’s university environment. This is both sad and worrisome. As with society at large, current social and cultural trends (aided in large part by social media’s echo-chambering and amplification of controversy) have eroded trust and the good-faith assumption that we are for the most part, well-intentioned in our motives even if we disagree about specific issues or values.
These trends are troubling, but unlike some of my colleagues I retain confidence that our students are not only capable of, but also welcome engagement with, controversial topics and thrive within a learning environment that is sometimes edgy and uncomfortable. Anyway, that is my experience.
I have taught topics like climate change and environmental politics for 25 years. These subjects include content that is unsettling, complex, and morally and politically controversial. I often speak frankly and provocatively to my students because it engages their attention and makes them think outside their comfort zones. I have always approached teaching with the assumption that universities are places where one confronts difficult topics of public interest head-on.
Twitter distractions aside, the wider public generally expects this of us; it is perplexing that universities like Mount Allison are losing the confidence to do so.