Book Review: Little Men On Campus

They say the carpet in the House of Commons is green to symbolize the meeting grounds of Old England where farmers and townspeople gathered to solve numerous and vexing problems. The Commons today is populated by professional politicians skilled in contrariness, accomodation and dissent. It works.

Author Peter MacKinnon writes of the other commons found at university campuses, populated by political amateurs skilled in histrionics and entitlement. It is not a flattering exposé. MacKinnon is provocative: “Members of the general public who hear of these controversies might well ask, ‘What on earth is going on in our universities?’”

University Commons Divided pulls no punches. It is frank and unapologetic. MacKinnon, president emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, depicts a post-secondary culture that is shrill, disapproving and overly bureaucratic. Canada Post has 6 board members; General Motors has 11. The University of British Columbia has 19. The effect is stupefying.

“These are stories of division, not differences, and they undermine university values: a commons in which freedom of expression is the paramount value; a commons that privileges conclusions founded on evidence and reason; a commons that is well governed and one free from discrimination; a commons in which civility is valued and practiced; and one that discharges its social responsibility without presuming to pursue social justice,” writes MacKinnon. “If we have strayed from these values, we have not yet strayed so far that we cannot recover them. We may need some help along the way, but it is a goal worthy of pursuit by all of us.”

University Commons Divided is rich in anecdotes. MacKinnon recalls the Carleton biology professor whose service on the University board consisted of publishing blog entries describing his fellow directors as idiots. An attempt at censure drew protest from the Canadian Association of University Teachers as an assault on academic freedoms. “Troubling,” writes MacKinnon.

Then there was the director of Ryerson University’s School of Social Work who resigned after students accused him of an “act of anti-Blackness”: The man left an anti-racism meeting while speeches were ongoing. The Black Liberation Collective concluded he was cruelly indifferent to “anti-Black racism scholarship, Black women, Black educators or education, Black experiences, Black life and ultimately Black students.” Or maybe he left to take a phone call, writes MacKinnon.

Conclusion: “Freedom of expression is under attack in our universities – not a deliberate, organized attack, but an accumulation of episodes that diminish its significance in comparison to other considerations,” writes MacKinnon. “Second, the concept of universities as intellectual spaces is also under attack as a result of intellectual laziness accompanied by ideology and anger. The result, too often, is not a contest of ideas; it is a struggle for power.”

University Commons Divided recounts similar noise over Halloween costumes at Queen’s, pro-life protests at Calgary, profanity at Laurentian and an unhappy episode at the University of Ottawa, where a yoga class led by a Caucasian instructor was shut down as cultural misappropriation that smacked of “colonialism and western supremacy”.

The rule in the Big Commons is never make enemies needlessly, and try not to appear ridiculous. The Little Commons could use MacKinnon’s primer.

By Holly Doan

University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate & Dissent on Campus, by Peter MacKinnon; University of Toronto Press; 144 pages; ISBN 9781-48752-2827; $24.95

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