You may or may not have noticed a story in the National Post over the weekend relating to a scholar at the University of British Columbia named Lorna June McCue, who has brought a human rights tribunal case against UBC for denying her tenure. The basics of the story are that UBC didn’t think she’d produced enough – or indeed, any – peer-reviewed research to be awarded tenure in the Faculty of Law; Ms. McCue argues that since she adheres to an indigenous oral tradition (she is also a hereditary chief of the Ned’u’ten at Lake Babine, a few hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver), she needs to be judged by a different standard.
Actually, Ms. Mcue brought the case in the fall of 2012; UBC moved to have it dismissed; the hearing last week was on the motion to dismiss, which failed. So now, 39 months later, the hearing can proceed (justice in Canada, Ladies and Gentlemen! A big round of applause!). Anyways, I have a feeling this story is going to run and run (and not just because of the glacial pace of the legal system), so I thought I would get some thoughts in early on this.
A couple of obvious points:
The spread of the university around the world, mainly in the 19th century, eliminated a lot of different types of knowledge preservation/communication traditions. They basically wiped out the academy tradition in East Asia, and did a serious number on the madrassas of the Indian subcontinent and the middle-east (though as we have seen, these are making a comeback in recent years in some fairly unfortunate ways). And though universities do exhibit a lot of differences around the world in terms of finance and management, and to some extent around mission, there is no question that due to the strengths of the disciplines it houses, it has had some extraordinarily isomorphic effects on the way we think and talk about knowledge. So it’s not crazy for non-western cultures to once in awhile say: look, there are other ways to construct and transmit knowledge, and we’d like a bit of space for them. Maoris have done this successfully with their Wānanga, or Maori Polytechnics as they’re sometimes called. Why not in Canada?
And there’s nothing immutable about the need for research as a professor. Hell, 40 years ago in the humanities, research certainly wasn’t a hard pre-requisite for tenure; even today in the newer professional schools (I’m thinking journalism, specifically), people often get a pass on publication if they are sufficiently distinguished prior to arriving at the university. Different strokes, etc.
But of course, all that said, the fact is that accommodation for different knowledge paradigms is the kind of thing you work out with your employer before you start the tenure process, not afterwards. It’s not as though McCue’s views render her incapable of writing; the university hired her on the basis of her 1998 L.L.M. dissertation, which was a good 250 pages long, and presumably expected they’d get more work of similar quality. And yes, it’s probably a good idea to have and fund institutions that more fully value Aboriginal ways of knowing, and are prepared to take a broader view of what scholarship means (the relevant tenure criteria at First Nations University, for instance, is “consistently high achievement in research and scholarship useful to First Nations’ communities”). But even if it is located on unceded Musqueam land, UBC ain’t that institution.
I have a hard time imagining this will go anywhere, but Human Rights cases are funny things. Keep an eye on this case, anyway.