Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Julie Oliver, Canwest News Service
If I were writing a novel illustrating the sad decline of academic integrity on campus, here's the scenario I would concoct:
My protagonist would be a female opinion journalist of a certain age. Call her "Barbara."
I'd open with Barbara at, say, the University of Western Ontario (UWO), attending the annual general meeting of a hardy remnant of scholars from academia's golden age: accomplished, disinterested, ruthlessly honest academics united in visceral contempt for those of their peers who are willing to bend and manipulate the truth to serve their ideological ends -- ends like, say, the pursuit of gender equity at the expense of intellectual merit and academic professionalism.
Now, this group of honest academics -- let's call it the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) -- would be so dedicated to the principle of free intellectual exchange that it would have invited a feminist from the university's Women's Caucus to make her case that women in academia still haven't achieved real equity on campus.
You've doubtless realized this putative novel is a roman a clef. For this exact scenario happened in real life last Saturday. Professor Jane Toswell of the UWO's English department spoke at SAFS's annual general meeting, presenting "evidence" that women still draw the short straw in academia.
Some of it was comical: eye-rolling trivia, like freeze-frames of "sexualized" acrobatic student cheerleaders spread-eagled in mid-air. But the more disturbing heart of her presentation was her take on what happened to the four UWO female authors of the 1989 Chilly Climate Report.
Do you remember the Chilly Climate Report? On the basis of 35 interviews with female grad students and faculty, the report, written by four militant feminists, concluded 10% of female faculty "had experiences at Western that diminished them as women and academics, making for a chilly work climate."
Chilly Climate was conceived as a pilot project, with annual studies to follow, proving that the sexism they'd uncovered was systemic throughout academia everywhere.
But the report was a travesty of real scholarship and a terrible distortion of UWO's progressive reality. Its 35 women subjects (no male faculty or grad students were interviewed) were granted total anonymity, so their accusations, almost entirely grounded in subjectivity -- feelings and perception rather than precisely described facts or incidents -- could not be verified.
Professor Toswell had the naivete or temerity, in this roomful of UWO academics who knew the history of the report better than anyone else in Canada, to argue that the negative fallout from the report had prevented all four authors -- Alison Wylie, Constance Backhouse, Roma Harris and Gillian Michell -- from continuing on a "normal career path." Her implication was that all four had suffered professional disaster as a direct result of their courage in speaking truth to power. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, here is what really happened: There was a short squall of intra-campus blowback and negative media reaction. That ended abruptly with the timely shock of the entirely unrelated Montreal Massacre, which the women parlayed into professional gold with unseemly rapacity.
The "gang of four" were then invited to speak before many learned societies and professional associations, as well as at symposia and conferences in the U. S., Australia, the U. K. and Norway, where their grievance spiel was warmly received. Thus, far from being marginalized from academic life, the report's writers were now elevated beyond their intellectual achievement niche.
Gillian Michell, who according to Toswell "disappeared" from academic life (implying, with no supporting evidence, she was run out of town), now lives, as a cursory Google search would have informed Professor Toswell, in Albuquerque, N. M., where she holds an apparently secure position in library administration.
Constance Backhouse left UWO in 2000, 11 years after the report's publication, and is currently distinguished university professor and university research chair in the University of Ottawa's law faculty. A fellow of the Royal Society with an Order of Canada, she won the $100,000 Killam Prize in 2008, setting her amongst the most honoured of Canadian academics.
Alison Wylie was promoted to full professorship in 1993, then left for top-ranked universities in the U. S., bagging a fellowship at Stanford and visiting appointments at Paris, Berkeley and Cambridge. She is currently a professor of philosophy at Washington University.
Roma Harris was named acting dean of UWO's School of Library and Information Studies in 1993 and then vice-provost (academic programs and students) in 1995. Her salary in 2008 was $172,000, placing her amongst the highest-paid 2% to 3% of Ontario academics.
If Toswell were honest, she'd admit that feminist scholarship -- bad scholarship -- propelled three of the four women to major victories in contemporary academic life's stiff competition for scarce rewards. The fourth is gainfully and securely employed in her field, which is more than a slew of highly qualified male academics, who are passed over for jobs in the name of a needless gender equity tyranny, can say.
Somebody really should write a novel illuminating the still-proliferating negative effects of feminism on academic life. I wonder, though, under what category it would be stocked at bookstores. Unsolved Mysteries, perhaps?
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