If this was a good time for Canadian academia, you would not be able to tell from the blanket of almost absolute silence that has been pulled over universities. There is no euphoria, no celebratory mood, no applause for the changes that are happening. There is, however, a degree of infighting, mutual suspicion, recrimination, and a palpable tension that divides faculty and also pits them against students and administrations. Against a backdrop of publicized cases of ostracism, real worry exists that expressing a perspective that has not been authorized could lead to termination or at least media-driven defamation. University administrations are all-too-quick to proclaim that what Professor X said or wrote, “does not represent the values of this institution”. Why would it? Why should it? These are not private religious colleges; Canada’s universities are public and secular. When applicants go through the hiring process, are they ever once presented with a list of the university’s “values”—a manifesto—and are they then told that if they do not agree with the document they can apply elsewhere, or else sign at the bottom line? No, that never happens (to my knowledge), and yet we work under the dictates of a party line—a decidedly partisan thrust that is distinctly and clearly a carbon-copy of the ideology of the ruling Liberal Party. This is far from the only instance where copy-and-paste has displaced academic reasoning, questioning, and debating.
Imported Goods and Fear Cycles
Through a continual succession of fear campaigns, Canadian universities are being intellectually sanitized to suppress, marginalize, and ideally to banish contrary thought. It is all done under the banner of familiar “good intentions”. In 2018, the panic was about “rape culture”. In 2019, it was about the “climate emergency”. In 2020, it was of course about “the pandemic”. In 2021, it is about “systemic racism”. What will it be next year? An outbreak of neo-fascist cannibalism?
At least in a formal way, since 2007 (when ZA was launched as “Open Anthropology”) I have been studying the history and political-economy of academic knowledge production. When turning to the Canadian university, one learns of the “Canadianization” movement that gathered steam and strength in the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasized Canadian content in research and teaching, and Canadian hiring. At that time, Canadians were very aware of the country’s status as a dependent appendage of the US. It is a dependency that is enforced, from the top down, and where the dependency turns into cultural and political forms it can be most acutely observed in Anglophone Canada. That dependency has in fact increased: the law requiring that qualified Canadian applicants should get first preference, is routinely skirted by university departments and administrations. Our content is directly imported from the US: we are mere retail sales staff; we are spectators to knowledge production; we are, essentially, just an audience. To be deemed a serious and respectable academic in Canada, one must show advanced imitation skills in knowing how to synthesize and combine pieces of work produced by this or that prominent American/British/French scholar. Preparing a “literature review” is our favourite sport. We excel as consumers—much like regular Starbucks customers who invent complex and convoluted demands for how their “coffee” (i.e., liquid dessert) should be mixed. Our “signature” contribution involves the creative mixing of elements we had no hand in creating in the first place.
Living in an officially approved “Monkey See, Monkey Do” culture, I would inevitably become attuned to patterns of importation and imitation sweeping “Canadian academia”. It is a determined mimesis; just as it banishes integrity and originality, it now silences dissent…where what one would expect academics to do as part of their job (doubt, question, debate) is what now constitutes “dissent”. We are meant to act as bobbleheads, perpetually nodding to uphold this virtual reality of uniformity, to pretend unanimity lest the spectre of “disagreement” should rear its ugly head.
So what effect will the recent emergence into preeminence of campaigns against “anti-Black racism,” of organized salutes to “Black Lives Matter,” and the imposition of “equity, diversity, and inclusivity” have on Canadian universities? To what crimes are Canadian universities pleading guilty? What future is being prepared, and how well will its participants fare in that future? What does “university autonomy” mean in an environment where autonomy is banished on all levels?
Just about a decade ago, it would have been rare to find a Canadian university department seeking Aboriginal or Métis candidates for specific positions (outside of Native or First Nations studies, and maybe not even then). It was rare even if persons with such backgrounds would have been best suited to speak on specific topics of interest, from personal experience. Thus, typically, Canadian anthropologists studying Indigenous peoples, were not themselves Indigenous—and sometimes not even Canadian. This was not a problem for the average department back then. What was a problem was anyone who even slightly questioned the practice of a department using hiring events as cloning exercises, under the pretext of finding “someone who is a good fit for the Department”. Academics were so satisfied with themselves that hiring worked as self-affirmation: “I am so great, so why not hire yet another person just like me?” Perhaps it was also self-defence: you do not invite a challenger or competitor into your home, or someone so good that they make you look bad.
Then something changed a few years later. What was it? Could it have been the fact that Donald Trump became a political reality? That had to be a key factor, because a collective freak-out or nervous breakdown erupted on campuses across the US, with his election likened by some professors to a “terrorist attack”. The world that academics preferred, shattered. By extension (always by extension), Canadian universities borrowed, imported, and copied—the freak-out came because it was transferred here. Now, suddenly, in the average social science or humanities department in a Canadian university, the realization finally dawned on its members: “We don’t have anyone who’s Black!” Thus The Safari began. They started hunting skin. They call it “equity, diversity, and inclusivity”—so legal sounding that it almost demands to be respected for its authoritative tone. But it’s about hunting skin, and the hunters are themselves “white”. In the most paradoxical of possible outcomes, “white privilege” now extended to creating its visual opposite, but still privileged.
It was also about “resistance”. Surely, one way to stop “Trump,” to get back at him and his supporters, was to go Black and never look back. This change was a tangible, observable one, and I have witnessed it like every other Canadian academic who either admits or denies the same. The change occurred at a specific moment in time—and it did not predate late 2015. The makeover took its first steps in 2016, and by 2021 it was sprinting and stomping over everyone as a diversity stampede was now afoot.
And now we have a coterie of “diversity consultants” and “equity trainers” lined up to tell professors which words they can and cannot say. (Please continue, I enjoy having you tell me how to do my job. Besides, as an anthropologist, what would I know about this thing you call diversity?) E-mail signature areas now feature pronouns: “she/her”. Am I, in my response to your email, really supposed to call you “she” when I am addressing “you”? If not, then what is the purpose? The same e-mail signature areas often contain a pointless acknowledgement of how the university was built on unceded/occupied land belonging to the X or Y nation—pointless, because these universities have no intention whatsoever of returning stolen property. There are no plans to physically move the university. It is, quite obviously, mere virtue signalling. Like a copycat audience—and not like academics—they mimic these signs to display their inherent goodness. It’s a shield against criticism. “Yes, we stole your land, but at least credit us for admitting it”. (Also, “join us in supporting even more immigration to settle your stolen lands”.)
The diversity consultants and equity trainers are themselves, usually, intellectual lightweights that are heavy on self-branding. There are their websites, where in the first sentence they manage to state—three times, in case you miss it—that they are “Black”. “As a Black activist with long experience as a Black management consultant, I bring my Black perspective to university affairs”—might be one such opening statement. And in case you missed the “Black” part, the writing is framed by four photographs of the consultant/trainer. In one photo, her head is tilted back as she laughs uncontrollably (no doubt urged to do so by a professional photographer, and it looks strained). In another, she is making a face, showing that she can be playful, so you can just relax. In the other photos, she sits on a tall stool at an elegant counter in her hyper-modern condo, in various poses. This is to make you feel comfortable, like you just connected—and it makes her feel special and in control.
Personally, I have never seen victims of oppression behave in this manner. Nor have I seen them reap so many rewards in return for so little.
What we have done, at the very least, is to facilitate the emergence of new addition to the bourgeois class. These are bureaucrats, regulators, adjudicators, arbitrators, trainers, and in some cases, professional shit-stirrers. Their previously worthless little BAs and MAs, are suddenly paying off (for the lucky few). “Workshops” abound. They speak in the name of a whole “people,” while pursuing their narrow self-interest.
Students in a politics course might look quite doubtful if you relate to them the words of Gaetano Mosca, about how ruling classes can revitalize themselves by seeking new recruits—and the university is one such medium for attracting new recruits. They might even resent it, and protest that “change from within” is possible. Yes, I know all about that so-called “change from within” (it’s a load of garbage). What few will admit is that they chose to enter university because they basically love the ruling class, and they want to join it. They fear the masses: they hold “stupid voters” in contempt; they condemn “conspiracy theories” promoted by the “ignorant”; they may even admit there is an “over-population problem”. They are the better ones; they need and want to feel better. And that is why they want that university degree—it is a matter of the cultural capital of distinction. Learning for the love of learning? Oh come on now.
But what we have done, and are now doing, goes much further than these problems, I am sorry to say.
Some Implications of ‘Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity’
The sudden enthusiasm for “diversity” (reduced to bodily features) in Canadian universities might produce worries on two related counts. On one count, how do new hires evaluate themselves and experience academic life if or when they start to realize that a majority group of “white” academics chose to hire them because of their appearance or sexual orientation? Might they feel somehow cheapened, objectified, placed in the shop window as a new kind of cultural commodity, an exotic consumer good that is used to refurbish the credentials of the university and placate the demands of clients (students)? Might they privately suspect that students view them with disrespect, as being “less-than” academics, the equivalent of substitute teachers in a high school? Might such new hires grow to resent the possibility that, maybe, they were hired because they self-identified as members of an “underrepresented racialized minority” and not because of their actual or potential academic achievements—so that they are incorporated (“included”) yet still essentially marginal?
The second count that might worry some, is about everyone else in academic positions gained prior to this period. Were we hired because of “racism”? A group of “white” people chose to hire yet another “white” person, someone who somehow reminded them of themselves, and so they felt safe that they were hiring someone who might be a “good fit for the Department,” as was commonly explained? If this is the case, then it also cheapens everyone else, not just the new hires. Are you convinced that the risk of cheapening another person—as a so-called “token diversity hire”—makes anything better, for either the new hire or for yourself?
There is an even more troubling, even terrible implication. If a university practiced racism in its hiring choices, then that was clearly illegal. Racist discrimination has not just recently become illegal in Canada—it has been illegal for a long time. If racism was practiced, then someone has to be held accountable. The racists should not be currently occupying positions in the university—if we follow this logic. In the same vein, government should intervene whenever a university openly admits it needs to institute “equity, diversity, and inclusivity”—because it suggests that the opposite was the norm before, it admits there was a problem, and therefore the university violated a series of laws and legal provisions. That is not a light matter. If people really mean what they say, then it needs to be put to the test.
Aside from this, what does it say about democracy when success in the achievement of positions of privilege is based on the facts of one’s birth (sex, skin colour, etc.)? This is a derivation of the aristocratic principle, of hereditary privilege, only modified in this case to privilege perceived hereditary lineages of victimhood. Either way, what is privileged is a physical characteristic that one inherits at birth (if we are speaking of skin colour). Such characteristics are ascribed, not achieved.
In cases where universities hire young “diversity” candidates, who push politically-charged teaching and writing that emphasizes various doctrines about “race,” such universities could be in deep trouble over the medium- and long-term. It will take a generation or more for universities to shift past the present sweep. In other words, if societies move past the culture wars and the campaigns of the present (because nothing is permanent), universities will be stuck with a commitment to such efforts, in the form of a new battery of academics who know nothing else. At a minimum, it will be 30 years or more before they retire. Fewer prospective students, meanwhile, will be willing to pay vast sums, even going into debt, to pursue an outmoded, irrelevant, and entirely one-sided political education. In short, universities risk dooming themselves. You never plan for the future based exclusively on the politics of the moment—do they not teach this in Management schools?
Solutions: Suicide, Renew Past Commitments, or Privatization
Solutions to such problems are no longer simple. For certain, we need universities that are less of an “old boys club,” but the diversity must be a diversity in research, teaching, and thinking. Rather than thin diversity (fixated on visible surfaces), it should be a deep diversity (grounded in intellectual content). Universities, and particularly the social sciences and humanities, fall woefully short of such deep diversity—and it’s killing their collective mind. Strengths and successes of past generations of research and teaching must be valued, recognized, and even reproduced through continued teaching—and this should happen alongside new, more heterodox research and teaching programs. The ultimate values to which universities must aspire is to be centres where people enjoy the privilege of exploring knowledge and creating new knowledge, of constantly learning by relentlessly questioning, debating, and experimenting. Academic freedom, in our professional practice, needs a new commitment as does respect for free speech, our inalienable right as citizens. Ultimately, courts need to be called upon to uphold these rights.
Unless the aim is to perform a protracted suicide, universities absolutely cannot afford to become mere representational gadgets immersed in the moment, always chasing after the latest “viral” trend in “social media,” or accentuating the latest fear-based campaign, the newest media-driven moral panic of the day. Others warned long ago about blurring the line between the university and the media, and in Canada we see the results of universities chasing headlines in a quest for heightened visibility (and greater payouts from donors). University autonomy should mean the autonomy to think and communicate without being beholden to the powers that be—that is, the exact opposite of what they are doing today.
Why should the public continue to subsidize public universities that are anti-democratic and do not answer to the public? One solution is to ensure they are 100% public funded (commonly it is now between 50% and 57%), ban private donations, and then have the state ensure that university administrations abide by norms that serve the public interest. That is unlikely to happen. No government, no party, and no popular movement is calling for this renewal of public investment to happen—nor is anyone even uttering a phrase like “public control” over universities. The average Canadian has no emotional attachment to universities. It’s over; unless it becomes a trend in the US, it will not happen here.
Thus the other solution is to let these universities slide into full privatization, and cancel all public funding. Let them compete in the marketplace, and let’s see how many of them survive. We are told that university presidents—remunerated at levels two and three times higher than the Prime Minister of Canada—are paid so much because that is what they would earn in the private sector. Good, let them and their universities join the private sector. They want to imitate Harvard (“best practices”), now let them take that imitation to its logical conclusion: become private like Harvard. Let’s see how well they do in sustaining their fictions in actual practice.
Note that even with public financial support, Ontario’s Laurentian University recently declared insolvency. Almost all remaining universities in Canada are now operating significant budget deficits, and plan to continue doing so, in the aftermath of the lockdowns.
Look out for the coming privatization, which could become an increasingly “reasonable” outcome of the post-pandemic “new normal”: austerity, “the likes of which have never been seen before”.