Sometimes a bad professor is just a bad professor
Not every dismissed ideologue is a free speech martyr.
Higher learning institutions have become central to the current debate around freedom of expression. The issue arose in Nova Scotia with the controversies around Acadia psychology professor Rick Mehta, and has now been reignited after Dr. Mehta’s termination last week. The university cited a number of factors, including failure to fulfill academic responsibilities, unprofessional conduct and the harassment and intimidation of students and faculty. Mehta has responded by claiming he was fired for his political views and that he is a victim of an ongoing culture war. The specific findings against Mehta are being kept confidential by the university as a personnel matter, though Mehta’s faculty association is lodging a grievance against the dismissal. The Canadian Association of University Teachers said the case “raises important questions about the scope of academic freedom.”
We all have a common interest in making sure that academics are given the space they need to air controversial, offensive and even dangerous ideas without fear of suffering personal consequences. This is the whole point of granting professors tenure. Many of the most important ideas in history, from evolution to the heliocentric solar system, were heretical when they were first proposed. But unlike freedom of expression, which grants everyone a broad right to express themselves without fear of government sanctions, academic freedom applies to a far more narrow subset of behaviour—namely a professor carrying out academic inquiries. It also grants academics broad latitude around how to manage their classroom, subject to reasonable limitations.
But although the principle of academic freedom sets a higher bar for dismissal than one might find in most other occupations, it is not a blank cheque. Professors must still meet a baseline level of competence and professionalism. It seems telling that Mehta’s own statement does not deny the accusations that he devoted extensive class time to non-curriculum-related issues, nor that he relied on “right-leaning fringe websites” as opposed to academic sources. It should be obvious to any lay person why these would be problematic for a professor, but rather than refute the claims, Mehta defends himself by noting that Acadia has not formally prohibited these practices. It is equally telling that Mehta goes on at length about the quality of his teaching right up to the point when he decided to recast himself as a culture warrior. It seems the transition was an unfortunate loss for the Acadia community.
The idea of anyone suffering professional consequences over their personal political views makes me deeply uncomfortable. We’re not so far removed from a time when it was common for people to be dismissed solely because they were suspected to have the wrong politics. At the same time, if Mehta was a bad teacher or, to be more precise, a bad teacher of psychology due to his inability to keep his lectures focused on the subject, Acadia would seem to be well within its rights to dismiss him. There is a lot of room for legitimate debate about both freedom of expression on campus, and the closing space for dialogue that targets academics from all sides of the political spectrum. I hope that Mehta’s complaints about procedural fairness are investigated thoroughly, and that universities continue to think carefully about their responsibility to protect freedom of expression on campus. But not every dismissed ideologue is a free speech martyr.
Rick Mehta was fired last week by Acadia University after a number of complaints regarding his lectures.