Canada Gets It Right

Ashley Thorne

For the last year, NAS has been following a prominent campus movement: Intergroup Dialogue (IGD). IGD is a diversity/social justice education program that has been adopted by several dozen U.S. colleges and universities. Offered both for-credit and as an extra-curricular activity, it gathers a small number of students of varying races and sexes and sexual preferences in a small group for discussions about prejudice. Facilitators direct the conversation (and activities like “web of oppression”) and try to provoke “constructive” conflict through racial tension

Recently an Intergroup Dialogue program in Canada, at Queen’s University at Kingston, was terminated when it was found to invite speech regulation (dialogue intervention) on campus, especially in residence life. 

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In the project, six students, known as “dialogue facilitators,” were given the authority to step in if the talk in private conversations contained offensive language, showed any form of disrespect, or trashed ethnic, gay, or religious groups.

The so-called language-police project was widely condemned, not only on free-speech grounds but also because it had been imported from the United States without “assessing its appropriateness on a Canadian campus,” according to The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper.

The university acted to terminate the project immediately after a panel of experts recommended canning the language cops. —Karen Birchard

The experts included Leora Jackson, University Rector; John Meisel, Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Science Emeritus; and Keith Norton, Queen’s law school alumnus, former MPP for Kingston and the Islands, former Ontario cabinet minister, and former Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

In their report, Jackson, Meisel, and Norton wrote that, although they saw no harm in residence life administrators providing diversity education activities, they had “strong reservations about unsolicited interventions into the lives of students.” The Intergroup Dialogue program, they wrote, authorizes the six Intergroup Facilitators to identify and subsequently challenge “the student who used the offending term.” Jackson, Meisel, and Norton were concerned that “The question arises of who has the power to decide what remark is “offending,” and how that perspective needs to be challenged,” and that, “the proposed method of intervention, codified in the program outline, has the potential of making students feel unsafe or under surveillance because of their opinions.”

As to the dialogue interventions sanctioned by the IGD program, the panel decided:

It is incompatible with the atmosphere for free speech everywhere, but particularly in a university, to make anyone feel that their thoughts and words are monitored so they can later be discussed, used towards some social end and even perhaps “corrected.” We are particularly uneasy about people being formally embedded in the residences for this purpose. While we found no evidence of unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of any students in residence, the impression conveyed by the media and shared by many faculty and graduates was that the program invited it. Many members of the university community found that this possibility made them feel very uncomfortable and that it poisoned the university atmosphere.

With this finding, they recommended that Queen’s University terminate its Intergroup Dialogue Program (which it did) and evaluate non-academic programs in the university with scrutiny “similar to [that] applied to academic programs.”

They concluded that “Everything in the university must serve its academic mission,” and that the IGD program posed a threat to “a climate fostering the full expression and exchange of ideas.” The panel urged, “The paramountcy of the academic role of the university must ever be maintained.”

We are pleasantly surprised to find that someone got it right—and a little surprised that it happened first in Canada, whose universities often strike us as even further enthralled with multiculturalism, speech codes, and the anti-intellectualism of the Left than our own. With Queen’s University in mind, perhaps we need to reassess. 

In the United States, Intergroup Dialogue seems to be spreading rapidly among universities who give no sign at all of having asked key questions, such as “How does this relate to the academic mission?” and “Will this impede an atmosphere of free expression?” Perhaps Queen’s University also embraced IGD uncritically, but it had the good sense to investigate and, when it saw what it had done, reverse course. 

The Queen’s panel was created not because university administrators had qualms of conscience, but in response to negative media coverage. In that sense, the Queen’s University fiasco is a close parallel to what happened at the University of Delaware in fall 2007. At Delaware, the administrators in charge of residence life imposed a ruthless regimen on the students in the dorms aimed at humiliating any student who disagreed with their far-Left views and encouraging others to adopt PC lifestyles. Part of the Delaware program involving defining racism in such a way as to stigmatize anyone who held what most Americans would consider mainstream views. IGD is just another tool for accomplishing the same top-down imposition of social attitudes on students. Its advantage in the eyes of campus ideologues is that, unlike Delaware’s program, IGD looks a little more voluntary. The Queen’s panel has torn the mask off that: authorizing vigilantes to comb the campus for instances of speech they don’t like doesn’t exactly bear witness to respect for free speech, free thought, or free anything. 

Kudos to Queen’s for confronting the mischief IGD encouraged. But where is the accountability for the dozens of American institutions who have implemented Intergroup Dialogue programs, courses, and events on their campuses? Since the University of Michigan pioneered the concept and established the Multi-University Intergroup Dialogue Research Project, a strategic network of nine universities commissioned to spread the program throughout the country, colleges everywhere have been under peer pressure to get on board. Whether based on true enthusiasm for fostering healthy human relationships or simply one of those amenities colleges feel they need in order to “stay competitive” with peer institutions, Intergroup Dialogue has increasingly become an of-course-we-have-that staple on campus. After all, it is diversity incarnate, a project administrators can point to and say, “See, we don’t just appreciate social justice. We teach social justice. We do Intergroup Dialogue.” 

And while the programs’ codes may vary from campus to campus, the sort of conversation-policing found in the IGD outline at Queen’s may not be far off for any of the rest. If so, will American universities, like Queen’s, examine the ways that IGD is a parasite in the academy? That it is in fact not an open forum for the exchange of ideas, but a cult seeking to persuade students to agree to a preset batch of conclusions about society? In this case, we can learn a lesson from Canada.

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