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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

The Academic Corporation, Justice, Freedom, and the University (1987)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de MM. Allen Fenichel & David Mandel, The Academic Corporation, Justice, Freedom, and the University. Introduction by Professor J. C. Weldon. Montréal-New York : Black Rose Books, 162 pp., 1987, 190 pp. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure retraitée de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi. [Autorisation accordée par l'auteur le 1er novembre 2006 de diffuser le texte de cette conférence dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales.]



J. C. Weldon

Professor of Economics 


In 1979 David Mandel was a young scholar who had just been given a visiting appointment for the year ahead in McGill's Department of Political Science. During his term, a regular assistant professorship became available to the department. The new position was advertised in a routine way. Mandel submitted an application. The department soon engaged itself in compiling a short list of candidates. 

Eventually, the Appointments Committee designated Mandel as its "preferred candidate". He was also the only Canadian to have been short-listed. Thus, if some other applicant were to be chosen, that other person could not be a Canadian; but then, because of the laws governing jobs and immigration, a non-Canadian could be appointed only if Mandel's suitability were denied: on the face of things Mandel's application would have to be successful. All the same, that application failed, and out of the causes and effects of its failure came the series of surprising and depressing events Fenichel and Mandel have chronicled. 

Perhaps the history is best read as a morality play, familiar enough in its classical themes but novel and even frightening in its details. Rights and wrongs are to be found in abundance, but these rights and wrongs are not at all evenly distributed amongst the players. Mandel was rejected, so this review and its sources tell us, because some members of the Department of Political Science had been greatly offended by his political attitudes and activities, and by their hostility they induced several more members of this society to be expedient and defer to the wishes of their offended colleagues. The more senior of this acquiescent group chose to express collegial solidarity with their offended colleagues, and the more junior, prudent judgement about how their own futures might unfold. Political considerations should not intrude upon academic judgements, true – a proposition on which all professed to agree – but that abstract guide to conduct could be set aside by reasonable people when the cost was, after all, nothing more harmful than a small interruption in the career of a young visitor. Reasonable people could charge even that cost to the intransigence of their less enlightened friends, and count it a cost that would be easily redeemed within the comforting calm of a harmonious future. 

Little is more appalling in the narrative than how easily the acquiescent closed their eyes, pretended Mandel's shattered career was an everyday accident of academic life, and treated a flat contradiction of academic law as contributing to integrity and stability for the long run. This, of course, is by no means an assessment made at arm's length. I have long known Fenichel, came to know Mandel well in the months following his dismissal, and from "pre-Mandel" to now have been engaged in a quarrel of my own about administrative lawlessness. 

Some of the history I became acquainted with at first hand. All of it seems to be well supported by Fenichel and Mandel's primary sources. The authors will in any case speak for themselves in the pages that follow, and the interested and careful amongst their readers will want to test all indictments against other accounts of the evidence. Still, it is comforting in preparing this Introduction to see how closely its impressions are duplicated by the only extensive, direct investigations that outside reviewers have made. Those investigations were two, the study made on behalf of the Quebec Human Rights Commission and that made on behalf of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Perhaps it is fair to add an investigation that was asked for but denied, the joint inquiry the authorities at McGill were repeatedly invited to assist, but whose purposes they declined to recognize. Silence speaks loudly and frequently at McGill, where the requirement of review by "peers" is routinely condemned in principle when it touches administrative authority, so that it may safely be ignored in practice. 

Someone not unfriendly once remarked that partisans in such a cause must beware of disproportion, must not see Dreyfus in every parochial injustice. It is, I think, a doubly interesting misconception. The importance of "Dreyfus" was not that high authority of a great power would betray justice for reasons of state, but that any authority of any institution could claim justification for a betrayal of trust motivated by reasons that would separate a "state" from its laws and functions. There is no vast difference of scale. The betrayal on either side of the comparison is commonplace, repeatedly experienced both in small domains and in large. What is more, it is essentially the same betrayal in all its particular appearances. There is one "Dreyfus" case, it seems to me, one only, played over and over again to audiences of every variety and size, and picturing victories and defeats that are never final and never complete. For civilized people, attendance at the play is mandatory and soon demands participation upon the stage from the audience itself. 

And at the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, who behaved badly and who behaved well in this particular performance? It often happens in these dramas that some brief episode captures, if not everything, then a great deal. One picks an exchange that took place in the investigation before the Human Rights Commission. Here is the vice-principal (academic) of McGill confronted by Fenichel with a signed report that shows testimony he has just given is false. Freedman does not plead mistaken memory or respond in embarrassment, but displays annoyance at this challenge to authority and the failure of his officials to control information. The guardian-in-chief of our academic protocol demands to know of his tormentor "how this confidential document came into [your] possession". Shown his blunder (one will stipulate the softest interpretation), the vice-principal had an obvious duty to repair the damage his testimony had done to Mandel. He gives his allegiance instead to a subtler duty under which a Mandel would count for very little. Fenichel has exposed a truth that a loyalist should have kept hidden. He, and not Freedman, has forgotten how a true son of McGill should behave. 

One is tempted to give equal billing to the correspondence from the ineffable Michael Maxwell. The exchanges with Gibson of the Association of University Teachers will entrance any reader who collects examples of pompous folly. What a curious view it is that a university is a community capable of being a state within the state, a community in which open inquiry is best carried out in darkness! Buffoonery, though, colours rather than inspires these events. Far more important is the shabbiness of the proceedings in the Department of Political Science, the disregard in a real situation of everything taught about lawfulness for hypothetical situations. I doubt that any of the participants had much trouble in rationalizing his or her role in what had taken place, that any found it necessary to calculate or conspire rather than surrender to reflexive decisions. The deeds were savage in their effects, but they were drab and petty in their origins. 

As with the department, so with the administrative apparatus of the greater university, so with the staff association (the McGill Association of University Teachers), and so with every institution at McGill that became involved with the affair: one must not disturb the community lest it be hindered by small truths now from its mission to search out large truths in a golden age to come. 

It is correctly said, I suppose, that the university is the depository to which great freedoms have been entrusted, freedoms of inquiry, of opinion, of expression, of dissent. It might seem to follow that the university is therefore not only custodian but sworn defender of that immense trust. Alas, so far as one might generalize from Mandel and McGill, we have encountered a non-sequitur. The hypothesis has to be entertained that full-blown monsters (regimes and personalities in the mould of Hitlerian Germany or Stalinist Russia) may quite correctly decide that greater resistance can be expected from gypsies or Jehovah Witnesses than from all the academics of a realm. There may be a noble creed on the campus but not a creed that has actual adherents or real defenders, a trust accepted and daily proclaimed but not a trust around which the nominal trustees are found to rally. 

The reader will find still stronger evidence than that supplied "on campus" in the weakness and vacillation displayed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Imagine an organization that backs away from the findings of its own investigators, begs the institution that its investigators have condemned to join in still one further inquiry (though McGill has refused at all times to permit outside review); imagine such an organization, on being rebuffed, sacrificing its client entirely rather than show incivility to his oppressors. The association doffed its cap, politely tugged at its forelock, and apologized to authority for the nuisance it had created: and so in this manner did it demonstrate the vigour young academics could expect from their protector. 

Little better can be said of the Québec Human Rights Commission, which also preferred to live to fight another day (those other days of battle and duty that never dawn!) rather than stand behind Mandel, its own investigator, its own investigation. Agencies with a mandate to protect their clients and the public choose instead to protect themselves. 

There is, however, another side to this bleak story. One does not know how representative McGill is. Its curious pattern of government, its detachment from the society around it, may make it eccentric even in its sins. (As taxpayers we hand over to a self-appointing and unrepresentative body of "governers" scores of millions of dollars to be spent each year according to whatever mixture of wisdom and whim occupies their minds, not a process easily reconciled with textbooks about responsible government.) Reports in the Bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers show that other universities also behave badly, but they also contain news of administrations that have behaved well: much seems to turn on the moral direction given or denied by the leading figures in the bureaucracy of a university. More consequentially, in each of the institutions on which I have commented there have been persons, or even subordinate institutions, from whom protest flowed (at times protest that called for courage as well as principle), or who have been derelict in this situation but responsible in some other. 

Mandel himself provides fresh air in this suffocating atmosphere. He is a quiet, understated person, likely to strike one as an easy victim rather than a determined defender of law. He most certainly should have been left alone, for he has fought back with dignity, skill, and immense endurance, forcing one group after another to choose between assistance to justice or complicity with injustice. It is still an open question as to whether those who have sold themselves in this business – surely the Devil has been a spendthrift in a market where the cheapest title has proved payment enough – will find themselves better remembered for their roles in the "Mandel" case than for any of the scholarly work they will have published as comfortable truth. In that respect, the contest is far from over. 

Gibson and his colleagues (the investigators for the association) compel respect. Jon Thompson should be similarly mentioned were he not closer to my own "grievance" than to Mandel's, so let the mention all the same be made. Were our freedoms always protected by such as these they would be freedoms well protected indeed. Trudel acted as investigator for the Human Rights Commission with similar distinction. One speaks only briefly of these persons who performed their duties, but one would not wish that brevity be taken for casual respect. This company of the non-expedient contains an admirable membership. 

Let me close with a few words to those who pay the bills for the universities. You are bound to conclude from Fenichel and Mandel that Canadian universities are now separated from accountability. What is mythical about their pretensions and what is real? You may or may not draw the same conclusions about the "Mandel" case that some of us from McGill have drawn. My chief hope is that McGill is not typical, my corresponding fear is that except in degree it probably is typical, and my concern is how academics and the public-at-large can rescue their universities from institutional settings that may guarantee corruption. 

You should at the least, I think, be alarmed at the possibility of great abuse and great waste being hidden within these universities that are both autocratically governed and the final judges of their own behaviour. Institutions that preach freedom but practise secrecy are not citizens above reproach, nor are their deeds automatically above suspicion. You know practically nothing about McGill that its authorities prefer be hidden from you, for you have allowed it to become a closed community, self-serving and irresponsible. Fenichel and Mandel may succeed in persuading you how unhealthy the situation has become, how contradictory of openness and tolerance for dissent, how subversive of the true university. They may also persuade you that phantom organizations for defending freedoms endanger freedoms more than most examples of open abuse. 

J. C. Weldon

Professor of Economics
McGill University, Montréal, Québec. 

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le jeudi 21 juin 2007 8:34
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

Saguenay - Lac-Saint-Jean, Québec
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