Academic freedom is precious; it’s not something you want to mess with – which is why it is such a mystery that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) permitted the Report of the Ad-hoc Investigatory Committee into the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba to be published.
The back story, near as I can tell, is: for decades, the UManitoba Economics Department contained a fairly large squad of what are known as “heterodox” economists (i.e. political economy types who in the 70s would mostly have described themselves as Marxist or Institutionalist). They were never a majority within the department, but they certainly gave the place an overall pinkish tinge.
Then, for obscure reasons around 2006, relations between heterodox and “mainstream” factions in the department seemed to deteriorate. There appears to have been some seriously childish spats at departmental meetings. There was a contentious departmental chair search, which one of the “hets” lost. New hires tended to be reserved for mainstream economists, which hurt the hets’ feelings, as they wanted to maintain the “balance” between heterodox and mainstream. Hets’ grad students tended to get the short end of the stick when it came to recommendations and funding, or would be told they were unlikely to get jobs after graduation. Etc., etc.
Now, this kind of stuff happens all over academia. What a discipline believes collectively about itself and its methods changes over time. Those on the “winning” side tend to do pretty well; the other side, less so. We’ve seen fights like this over post-modernism in History, critical theory in English, and in anthropology between its cultural and social wings (at Stanford, that fight got so bad in the 90s that they temporarily split Anthro into two separate departments).
In a decent workplace, management would have told everyone to shut up and get back to working together. But in universities this almost never occurs; “collegiality” permits a lot of bad behaviour to go unpunished. And so instead of everyone finding a way to work together like adults, someone went and convinced CAUT to send out a commission of inquiry to find out if the treatment of the heterodox amounted to a violation of academic freedom.
The thing is, if you get CAUT to “investigate” a claim, you can be pretty sure the answer will be “yes”; examples of “investigations” where the complainant is not found in the right are pretty much non-existent. Everyone at University of Manitoba knew this, and so two-thirds of the department – basically everyone in the orthodox camp – simply refused to talk to investigators. This fact is largely glossed over in the report itself, but it’s significant both because the report is almost certainly unbalanced in the complainants’ direction, but also because it’s clear that a whole bunch of CAUT members believe that CAUT does not have their interests in mind.
Predictably, the investigating team “found” that the hets’ minority academic rights had been infringed. To correct this, they suggested (among other things) a new search for a department head, and ensuring that the next three appointments all be heterodox economists. Their rationale was that mainstream economists have “persecuted” heterodox, just as the established church used to persecute free-thinking academics (and yes, really, that was the argument).
Now, possibly, there is an argument to be made that the sandbox fights have become so extreme that it’s time to take the Stanford route, and take the hets out of Economics by creating a Department of Political Economy. But the idea that minority views within a discipline automatically deserve “protection” and guaranteed quotas of appointments? Who would police this? Would CAUT argue the same for climate change deniers in Environmental Sciences? That way madness lies.
But more importantly, the idea that even the unbalanced parade of allegations presented in the report amount to an infringement of academic freedom is simply nonsense. No one’s fundamental rights of expression or freedom of inquiry were eroded; at the absolute worst, what occurred amounts to ideologically-based intra-departmental sniping and score-settling. To claim that this amounts to a violation of academic freedom is to deprive the term of all meaning.
And that’s bad, because academic freedom matters. The last organization that should be cheapening this is CAUT, and the worst reason to do so is in helping out a few ideological fellow-travellers in a sandbox fight against other academics. Yet here we are.