On 8–9 September 2020, thousands of American scholars temporarily vacated their teaching and research posts to protest racial injustice. On 9–10 September, Canadian scholars did the same.
According to the American Scholar Strike page, the protest was “both an action, and a teach-in,” in which “some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America.” The Canadian Scholar Strike page lists demands for educators, including the following:
We must support the demands for defunding the police and redistributing those resources to Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer and trans communities for the creation of sustainable and healthy communities … We must support demands to remove campus police. All agreements between policing institutions and universities must be rescinded … We must address the historic and current underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous faculty (full and part-time) in all Canadian institutions and press University Administrations to prioritize the urgency of these faculty hires.
In light of such demands, it appears that the Canadian strike was more ideological than its American predecessor. The striking scholars accepted the demands as if they were irrefutably good, when in fact each one refers to an extremely complex issue that requires robust investigation and debate. Defunding the police could have unfortunate consequences. There’s conflicting evidence on police efficacy, but violent crime appears to decrease in the presence of police. Removing campus police could jeopardize student safety. And, although black and indigenous people are underrepresented among Canadian university faculty, racism is not a sufficient explanation. It’s hard to claim that racism is holding back Chinese and Japanese professors, both of whom are overrepresented, and it’s equally hard to claim that whites are getting too many opportunities when they are properly represented (78.9% of university instructors; 78.9% of the labour force). If perfect ethnic representation is to be achieved for university faculty, the black and indigenous share will have to be taken from that of the Asians, a group with its own history of systemic oppression in Canada.
It’s ironic, then, that Min Sook Lee, the co-organizer of Scholar Strike Canada and Assistant Professor of Art at Toronto’s OCAD University, has said that the purpose of the strike is to prompt educators to pivot from content delivery to “critically engaging with the social issues of our times.” In other words, “move the education from the brain to the muscle.” Unfortunately, a muscle can’t critically engage with anything, and that seems to have been the true anatomy of the strike.
Professor Lee and other Scholar Strike organizers drew inspiration from the NBA player walkout. However, unlike the NBA players, the scholars didn’t simply stop their work. Many continued to teach, but far off the topic of their expertise. Professors of religious studies, anthropology, psychology, medical ethics and drama taught antiracism. Dozens of these lectures can be viewed on YouTube. Joanne Lipson Freed, an English professor at Oakland University, for example, presented a talk on “The Dangers of Performative Allyship,” which includes statements like “Check yourself: What kinds of privilege or safety do I possess in this moment precisely because I am white?” and “How can I use my privilege in support of Black liberation” (italics hers). Some lectures were well researched and well within the scholars’ areas of study, but the Scholar Strike ensured that each potentially enlightening presentation served an agenda, rather than the free pursuit of truth—the ethic by which intellectuals should abide.
Organizers also cited as inspiration the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins of the 1960s. The Scholar Strike differed from these in one important point, however: it enjoyed institutional approval. With the exception of the deans at a few schools, such as Boston University, St. Louis University and NYU Steinhardt, the American academic administration remained relatively silent on the Scholar Strike, while the Canadian version was positively endorsed by over 500 post-secondary institutions (120 more than the Canadian Association of University Teachers recognizes). “A central role of universities and their members is to address pressing societal issues,” said Simon Fraser University president Joy Johnson. She added, “As critical thinkers who seek to improve our society, members of our community will not only participate in these conversations, but lead and advance them.” The University of Calgary’s president Ed McCauley permitted faculty and students to “participate in Sep. 9 and 10 events.” The president of Ottawa’s Algonquin College declared, “We support all members of our college community who wish to participate in today’s Scholar Strike to protest systemic violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour around the globe.” Even the Canadian government promotes antiracist education. The US government is a different story. If Trump ever takes executive action against scholarly antiracism (otherwise known as Critical Race Theory), a teach-in to protect academic freedom would be an admirable response. If only scholars would protect academic freedom on principle.
The 60s teach-ins were done in defiance of an anti-Communism ideology that dominated not only politics, but academia. Far from ignoring the protests, college administrators flat out condemned them. “The chief antagonists of campus activists were local administrators, many of whom had held faculty positions and faculty values. Above them were trustees, representing business values by and large,” said Professor Richard Ohmann, who was on the frontlines of the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins. “(A small group of professors) got together and originally wanted to have a one-day strike to protest the war, but the administration acted with hostility to that and said they were going to fire everybody who went on strike for one day,” commented then University of Michigan professor Thomas Mayer, who helped organize the first ever teach-in in 1965. Mayer added that the U of M president publicly condemned the protesting professors. In the lead up to the free speech and teach-in movements for which UC Berkeley would become famous, the university’s president banned the promotion of political issues on campus. Administrators suspended violators. However, they eventually accepted the teach-ins, preferring “rational deliberation” as a form of protest over uncivil disobedience. Many of the teach-ins were proper debates: pro-war speakers were invited. CTV reports that some debates also occurred during the Scholar Strike. But these made up a tiny fraction of strike activity, as virtually all lectures—at least of those that are archived on YouTube—comprise unchallenged proselytization of an antiracism ideology that has explicit administrative endorsement.
“A Scholar Strike isn’t as simple as it sounds,” said co-organizers of the American strike Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon. “Some of us are in collective bargaining agreements that preclude an actual strike, and 73% of faculty positions, according to the American Association of University Professors, are not on the tenure track.” In 1968, Yale University professor and teach-in organizer Staughton Lynd was denied tenure and blacklisted after he criticized the American government during a trip to Vietnam. Yale’s president compared it to an act of treason. In 1966, history professor Jesse Lemisch staged a sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest the draft and was summarily fired. Professor and Vietnam War protester Dick Flacks was denied early tenure by the same institution.
It’ll be shocking if any of today’s striking scholars are punished by academia for promoting its favourite ideology. The scholars who didn’t strike are probably under greater threat of cancelation.
Update (10/23/20): Consider me shocked. Texas A&M University suspended associate professor of sociology Dr. Wendy Leo Moore for two days for participating in the Scholar Strike. It turns out that some American academies do object to their professors striking for racial justice. Despite whatever ideological or ethical concerns an observer might have for their actions, scholar strikers from such institutions are, unequivocally, brave. My apologies go out to Dr. Moore and any other scholar who gets penalized for their participation.