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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Frances Widdowson: The Threat to Academic Freedom, Freedom of Inquiry and Academic Standards


In September 2018, the Office of Academic Indigenization provided Mount Royal University (MRU) faculty with a document entitled “Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula: A Call For Engagement”. 

This document affirmed MRU’s “commit[ment] to indigenizing its curricula to ensure that all students graduate with a basic understanding of Indigenous content informed by Indigenous perspectives”, and encouraged faculty to transform their courses on this basis. These arguments for “curricula indigenization”, however, have not been subjected to any critical analysis. In fact, “Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula” contains serious flaws and constitutes an unprecedented threat to academic freedom, freedom of inquiry and academic standards at MRU.

“Why Indigenize?”

The ill-conceived nature of “Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula” is shown in the section “Why Indigenize?”. MRU should Indigenize, we are told, because “Indigenous people remain underrepresented among postsecondary students, staff and faculty, and indigenous content remains marginalized”. The document also asserts that Indigenization is also necessary to respond to the demands for Indigenization that were made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

These reasons are political in nature, and are a distraction from examining the academic implications of the initiative. The reference to “Indigenous underrepresentation” just assumes that there should be proportionality without considering the qualifications of applicants. It is well known that educational levels in the Indigenous population are lower than the Canadian average, and so discussions about artificially increasing Indigenous representation should consider this.

Furthermore, it is not clear what is meant by increasing “Indigenous content”. Does this concern subjects that include Indigenous people, such as Indigenous history and Indigenous politics? Or is it a plea to include “Indigenous perspectives” regardless of whether or not they have been shown to increase empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding?

Finally, should anything that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration say be accepted? For example, the document states that the TRC asserts that universities should “ensure all Canadians have a basic understanding of…this country’s history of cultural genocide”, when many would question this interpretation of the past. Should we not be analyzing the claims being made, rather than assuming that these political bodies created sacred texts that must be obeyed?

Problems for Academic Freedom

“Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula” states that “[a]s part of the Indigenization Strategy, every academic department will soon be asked to Indigenize its curricula to ensure that every student who majors in a program in that department graduates, at a minimum, with a basic understanding of Indigenous content informed by Indigenous perspectives. Goal 5 of the Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP) states that this content must be the equivalent of at least 3.0 credits of coursework”. It also is asserted that there will be a “[r]equest from the Office of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic that all departments develop formal plans for Indigenizing their major programs”. These plans, according to the document, “will be asked to include core Indigenous content consistent with the TRC Calls to Action, including, ‘the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous teachings and practices, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations.’”

The Indigenous Strategic Plan was never approved by MRU’s General Faculties Council. It was provided only as “information”. In spite of this, there is now an effort to use it to make significant changes to MRU curricula. Faculty members should be the ones determining the academic requirements of their departments, and it is alarming that advocacy is driving such a fundamental transformation of university programs. By presenting the Indigenous Strategic Plan as “information”, MRU administrators were able to circumvent potential faculty opposition to curricula Indigenization.

Problems for Open Inquiry

Although it could be argued that individual professors don’t have to participate in these Indigenization initiatives, and therefore it is not a threat to academic freedom, this ignores how Indigenization processes are creating a hostile climate for open inquiry. This has been a problem from the beginning, as is shown by the Indigenous Strategic Plan’s directive that the university “honour Indigenous experiences and identities.” As a result, “territorial acknowledgement” statements pretend to be factual, when their content is contested and are a matter for academic investigation. It is noted in “Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula”, for example, that Treaty 7 “included a commitment to cross-cultural education that has not been honoured”, when there is no evidence that this is the case.

These kinds of statements, apparently handed down from the university’s “Ministry of Truth”, indicate that the Indigenous Strategic Plan is intent on building a “culture of celebration” at MRU rather than one that encourages critical thinking and rigorous methods. Even worse, it is tacitly assumed that anyone who has reservations about Indigenization is not an “ally” of Indigenous people. This has created huge difficulties for faculty who question the hype. My criticisms of Indigenization, for example, have resulted in accusations that I am a “pathetic racist” with a “hateful perspective” who is damaging Mount Royal University’s reputation.

Problems for Academic Standards

The document refers to the Indigenous Strategic Plan’s goal “’to Indigenize Mount Royal University, to respect and embrace Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, to integrate Indigenous teachings and practices…’.” It goes on to state that “[w]e believe that the Indigenization Strategy provides a unique opportunity to propose innovative pedagogies and curricula that will benefit all students and programs on campus.”

The assertions are bold, but there has been no attempt to evaluate their veracity. There is not even any definition of what “Indigenous knowledge”, “[Indigenous] ways of knowing”, “Indigenous teachings and practices”, and “Indigenous perspectives” are, or an attempt to determine how they differ from their non-indigenous counterparts. Below are three examples, which occurred at MRU, that are an indication of some of the problems that will face curricula Indigenization.

On January 18, 2018, one of the Office of Academic Indigenization’s Co-Directors, Renae Watchman, invited Robert Curley, a DinĂ© elder, to give a presentation on “Western Medicine vs. Traditional Healing Medicine”. This elder was asked a question from the audience as to what he recommended for the “gut problems” her child was experiencing. In response, the elder stated: “Rub corn pollen on his feet and do a sunrise ceremony”. Is this the kind of “Indigenous knowledge” that should be incorporated into our nursing program?

The second example concerns an indigenized course that was developed at MRU. When a non-indigenous professor attempted to teach the course, the Indigenous students enrolled said that a non-indigenous professor could not talk about Indigenous spirituality, which was perceived to be an essential part of the course. As a result of student opposition, the course was transferred to an Indigenous professor. Does Indigenization mean that some courses cannot be taught by non-indigenous professors?

A third example concerns the biology program. At General Faculties Council on May 17, 2018, it was noted that the biology degree would have an indigenous component. This component consisted of the department “working with numerous community Elders and Knowledge Keepers” to ensure that biology students would obtain “a diverse knowledge base that includes the traditional Indigenous knowledge.” As Paul Johnston, an MRU professor in Earth Sciences, stated at the time:

“[t]he difficulty here is that we are asking students to accept or at least be exposed to what I suspect is largely non-peer reviewed information or ideas in the science classroom. We don’t do that with any other ideas about biology from around the globe, for example ‘scientific creationism’, an idea espoused by millions, and so I am not sure why we would do it here. It may be that the Biology Program is incorporating peer-reviewed traditional Indigenous knowledge, and if so, that needs to be clearly stated in the letter. But, the statement I read, as it now stands, sends the wrong message to students, whether Indigenous or non-indigenous, that some information presented in the biology curriculum at this university is exempt from scientific rigor and scrutiny as practiced in science globally. I suggest that this can be somewhat remedied with a modification to at least the third sentence in this paragraph to read: ‘By including this course as a core requirement for the BSc Biology, all students will get an awareness of how Indigenous knowledge, as subject to systematic observational testing and/or experimental verification, helps to inform our understanding in biology.’”

Dr. Johnston’s attempt to ensure scientific rigour in the biology degree was defeated, and this was due to the fact that Indigenization has encouraged the view that faculty should unconditionally support “indigenous knowledge” and “ways of knowing”.

Conclusion

The document “Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula: A Call for Engagement”, therefore, provides no logical or reasoned answer to the question, “Why Indigenize?”, and its coerced support for incorporating “Indigenous knowledge” and “ways of knowing” will have negative consequences for academic freedom and open inquiry. The celebration of undefined “Indigenous perspectives” also will lead to an undermining of academic standards and inveigle the racially essentialist position that certain kinds of “knowledge” are dependent upon one’s ethnic background.

Dr Frances Widdowson is an Associate Professor in the Department in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University, and a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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This article raises legitimate concerns regarding "indigenization" and the university curriculum. Regarding the defeat of Dr. Johnson's amendment by his academic peers: I wonder if the primary reason for the defeat was that his amendment was unnecessary for ensuring academic rigor in course content. It was unnecessary because, at the end of the day, each faculty member is the authority for the content of her course, learning goals and what is tested and how it is tested. Therefore, precisely what "indigenized" content will be included in, say, Bio 101, is determined by the instructor. If that authority were taken away, I suspect Dr. Johnson's amendment would get more support.