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.

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