Rick Mehta was a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. For 15 years Dr. Mehta taught undergraduate courses at the institution even winning several teaching excellence awards for his methods.
Since 2017 Rick has been involved in a free speech dispute with his superiors who cited his comments about the gender wage gap, university indigenization and academic expression as unsafe and discriminatory. As of late, Rick was dismissed from his tenured position for allegedly creating a toxic and unsafe environment by expressing his views.
Rick has appeared on CBC, The Globe and Mail, and several local and national radio programs. Videos of Rick’s lectures can be found online, including his talks at IdeaCity 2018, and a panel he attended alongside Chris DiCarlo, Henry Beissel and Lindsay Shepherd for World Press Freedom Day. Rick responded to his dismissal on Facebook and is currently in the process of appealing the decision through his union.
This problem arises because the debates are premised on emotions instead of logic or reason. As well, their arguments are based on premises that can never be proven false.
DZSURDZSA: In your statement regarding your dismissal you said that, “The real reason for my dismissal has to do with a culture war that is taking place in universities all over Canada and much of the Western world.” What do you exactly mean by the term “culture war” and who do you think are the main combatants?
MEHTA: When I use the term “culture war”, I am referring to the battle between those who have been taught and worked in universities being places where all ideas are freely exchanged and the newer school of thought that advocates for social justice. The purpose of social justice is to fight for the rights of so-called marginalized groups. The problem with social justice is that it does not allow for any nuance in its debates. As a consequence, regardless of what measures are taken, the rights of the groups labelled as victims can never be attained.
This problem arises because the debates are premised on emotions instead of logic or reason. As well, their arguments are based on premises that can never be proven false. For example, even if there is no formal finding of harassment or discrimination against a person, advocates for social justice will argue that there was “potential” harassment or discrimination. This example demonstrates that it is nearly impossible for anyone to win an argument with an advocate for social justice once that person has decided that disagreement with their position can be equated as a form of harassment or discrimination.
The main combatants in this culture war are a) the advocates for social justice – who are concentrated primarily in the arts and humanities, and b) those who teach in the traditional disciplines, e.g., math and chemistry, and are concentrated in the sciences.
DZSURDZSA: Is there any advice you have for other academics employed by universities who might sympathize with your views but are afraid that they too might risk losing their jobs?
MEHTA: I think that I ended up losing my job because the people who agreed with me stayed silent. For the other academics, I recommend that they form a group with other people who agree that universities should be places where all ideas can be discussed and debated. Once they form a group, they should start to speak out. In my case, it was easy for the university to fire me because I was standing alone. However, it would be much more difficult to fire a group of professors.
I would also encourage these other academics to think about the lessons that history has taught us, especially the costs of what happens when people think they need a critical mass before it is worthwhile to speak out and the lessons from past acts of civil disobedience. There are many positive role models to follow. Find at least one that you respect and try to emulate their actions.
DZSURDZSA: In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford recently mandated that post-secondary institutions must institute free speech practices as part of their regular operations and produce yearly reports on their progress for government oversight. Do you believe that these government initiatives are to the benefit of academic freedom or actually hamper any progress for the cause of free speech on campus?
MEHTA: In general, I am opposed to government intervention – especially when other options are available . For example, alumni and other supporters can take action by cutting their funding to universities. Potential students can also pursue options other than a university degree.
However, extreme times sometimes demand extreme measures. Given that universities appear to believe that they are unaccountable to the general public that funds them, I believe that a more extreme intervention is needed. In this case, government intervention appears to be warranted given the circumstances. As long as Premier Ford’s legislation would allow for all views to be expressed, I would support it. For example, it has to ensure that universities cannot rely on heavy-handed implementation of harassment and discrimination policies to suppress free speech. Conversely, the legislation should not prevent left-leaning university community members from expressing concerns about issues such as human rights violations or the influence of corporations in the running of universities.
If a good set of policies is implemented, then the initiatives can benefit academic freedom. But if the policies are poorly thought out or implemented, they can hamper progress for free speech on campus.
The point that these people do not realize is that a proportion of the students who graduate from the universities with an uncritical acceptance of social justice principles will end up in positions of influence or power – such as teaching, law, or politics.
DZSURDZSA: Do you believe the so-called “gate keepers” in academia today are selectively grooming graduate students and future associate professors to propagate a prescribed vision of the truth?
MEHTA: I believe that this is true. It appears that the hiring process in academia selects for people who will not “rock the boat”. The “gate keepers” are selecting for a social justice perspective of the world, instead of an open and honest search for the truth.
DZSURDZSA: Many people who simply aren’t part of the academic world or don’t have any stake in post-secondary education might feel that these events don’t impact their lives or are only a problem for an insignificant portion of the population. What do you have to say to these people and how do you think what happened to you might reverberate outwards to impact the lives of everybody else?
MEHTA: The point that these people do not realize is that a proportion of the students who graduate from the universities with an uncritical acceptance of social justice principles will end up in positions of influence or power – such as teaching, law, or politics. Once the graduates are in these positions, they will be able to make fundamental changes to the way in which society functions. It is not far fetched to foresee a future in which the freedoms that we take for granted would be severely curtailed, if not outright obliterated. Much blood was shed and many lives were sacrificed in World War 2 so that we can have the basic freedoms and liberties that we take for granted. It is important that those who value our civil liberties do everything they can to maintain them for future generations.
When groups of people who think the same way come together and do not have their views challenged, the views of the group become more extreme.
DZSURDZSA: You’ve criticized several topics and narratives that seem to be in vogue among academics today, including the gender wage gap, social justice and indigenization. While you’ve made your criticisms clear do you believe that there are some ideas among the academic left which have some merit?
MEHTA: I think that the original goals of social movements that worked their way into academia originally had some merit. Unfortunately, there is little political diversity in our campuses in which the academic left is now dominant. When groups of people who think the same way come together and do not have their views challenged, the views of the group become more extreme. As well, they fail to recognize the gains that they have made and believe that they are still embattled. This leads to a situation in which the group sees itself as having victim status despite all the gains that they have made. The only way to change this situation is to make active attempts to recruit people with different perspectives. This concept is known as institutional disconfirmation.
DZSURDZSA: Something must have made universities as an institution more perceptible to this behaviour and type of thinking. What do you think had to have been in place to make places of higher learning so perceptible to these ideas?
MEHTA: I think that academics of the past were open to having new perspectives being added to the university curriculum. The problem that arose, though, was that the academics became too open to new ideas and failed to be critical of the poor ideas that were formulated by the new disciplines that emerged. This has allowed for techniques such as “autoethnography” – in essence, a diary entry with references – to be viewed as having the same amount of merit or rigour as the methodologies used in the more traditional academic disciplines.
DZSURDZSA: Since it is a new school year and some recent first year university students might be reading this, do you have any words of caution for those entering post-secondary education this Fall?
MEHTA: One option is that students can express their disagreement when they disagree with their professors or peers. However, they should realize that there will be costs for speaking or writing what they believe. Some of their peers may shun them. They also may be penalized on their exams or term papers. However, they may also earn the respect of peers who are less willing to speak out; in turn, these students can join together to fight the culture that has taken hold on campus. Another option is going along with the doctrine that is being prescribed in the universities and then speaking out against the universities after the student has graduated. This is the option that people like Ben Shapiro have chosen.
Each option has its own costs and benefits. I recommend that students weigh the pros and cons of each option and do what they believe is best for themselves.