Yesterday, Prof. Mark Mercer of St. Mary’s University wrote an article for University Affairs magazine asking with the seemingly innocuous question “Are there any universities in Canada?”. Knowing everything we do about the crisis in higher education, with respect to both increasing tuition fees and the lack of job opportunities for students and graduates, one may think it is just another take contributing to the ongoing and useful debate about the future of higher education in North America.
However, Prof. Mercer just used the bait of a headline to perpetuate the climate of hostility and ambivalence to the complaints of women (and other genders and minorities) that have historically plagued universities in the western world. His idea, that “[to] be a university, an institution must be a place in which people value intellectual integrity” is indeed idealistic, and far from the historical and current realities of universities in that they are not the meritocratic institutions with complete freedom of speech and expression that he purports they should be. If they indeed were places where intellectual integrity of individuals were paramount, they would not have continued to discriminate against or impose barriers against the advancement of women, LGBT people, people of colour, people of low socioeconomic status, or of particular religious affiliations, in ways that are both direct and insidious, to this day.
In fact, rape chants such as the ones undertaken by SMU students only work to distance institutions away from Prof. Mercer’s own ideals of what a university should be. Perhaps he does not know, but these ‘harmless’ antics alienate women, and I am sure a lot of men too, who find themselves in an undesirable environment where sexual harassment is normalized, and any complaints against it gets one labelled as anti-intellectual integrity – for the sake of the preservation of the spirit of free expression that a university aims to embody.
This is an idea I’m sure many social activist types are pretty damn tired of proselytizing further. Freedom of speech and expression do not cover threats to bodily autonomy of individuals, or hate crimes, and that while individual members of our society are free to do or say whatever they please, consequences exist. Prof. Mercer should therefore not be decrying the death of freedom of expression at universities – he should acknowledge that it exists, and that unfortunately for a specific group of students at SMU, it meant becoming a subject of scrutiny across North America, while graduates of the institution came forward to return their degrees in protest. It is the likes of Colin McGinn and Hugo Schwyzer that have poisoned the spirit of intellectual integrity in their respective institutions by propagating the already endemic sexism that women in academia face, not those who came forward against them.
Additionally, Prof. Mercer should know that by opposing the penalization of students who partook in the chants, he just used their positions to indirectly harm women and in turn, perpetuate a culture of discrimination and misogyny, by dismissing the scrutiny against the contentious acts. If he wants Canadian ‘universities’ to become better approximations of his ideals for such institutions, he should encourage and support more disciplinary action against similarly toxic behaviours in the student body – and that’s how we can preserve the intellectual integrity of universities.