The principles of academic freedom, expressed through thoughtful, informed and respectful investigation, are a central tenet of the values Queen’s holds, and which it strives to instill in our students.
Far too often universities, and university academics, have been attacked by increasingly polarized interest groups seeking to stifle thoughtful or respectful examinations of opposing ideas. Hate speech aside, failing to explore or confront ideas with which we disagree through disciplined and respectful dialogue, debate and argument, does society a disservice, weakens our intellectual integrity, and threatens the very core of what Queen’s, and any university, should be about.
Throughout my tenure as Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Queen’s has advanced the values of diversity and inclusion, and it remains a predominant focus of my own work. I believe that everyone within the university community should feel able to explore and debate diverse and even uncomfortable viewpoints if that occurs in a respectful academic environment.
Queen’s law professor Bruce Pardy has organized a presentation by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, to examine “the rising tide of compelled speech in Canada”. Already there are expressions of outrage that the event is taking place, and still others have condemned that outrage. Expressing one’s affront to an idea or position is completely acceptable in an academic environment, if supported by informed arguments and expressed respectfully; blanket calls for censorship however, are intellectually lazy and are anathema to scholarly pursuits.
Whatever one’s strongly-felt objections to particular points of view, their mere expression does not constitute a threat to physical safety; nor does that expression imply that the university itself accepts those views. To the contrary, if history has taught us anything, it is that attempts to shut down debate and limit speech serve no one well—even the groups calling for such silencing. They merely make it easier for the next group in power to silence others. A university cannot sustain its ancient mission of inquiry into the true, the good, and the beautiful under such circumstances, nor can it exercise its responsibility to pursue knowledge free of constraint.
Let’s be clear here: what is at issue is nothing less than our commitment to academic freedom. If the views expressed, however uncomfortable for some, are not a violation of Canadian law, related university policies or otherwise demonstrate an intention or effect of inciting hatred and violence, then as academics we should listen and present opposing ideas through informed and respectful dialogue.