Ableism, CRCs, and Academic “Freedom”

“The only people who have benefitted from equity initiatives in Canadian universities are nondisabled cis white women.”

I articulated the sentence above during a portion of last week’s 3-hour final group session of the UBC study designed to identify why few disabled academics hold Canada Research Chairs at UBC and throughout Canada. (I referred to the study in a previous post here.) The remark met with tangible agreement from the members of UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Office and upper-level administrators who constituted the subgroup to which I had been assigned.

Over the course of the three-hour session, subgroups of the session discussed each participant’s hopes for and expectations of the study, the principal investigators laid out the findings that derived from the focus groups that the study had encompassed, and all of us brainstormed recommendations based on the findings of the study.

The resounding take-away finding of the study and the discussions it comprised is this: institutional ableism is pervasive in Canadian universities and continues to be widely unrecognized, unacknowledged, and misunderstood. Indeed, the extent of systemic ableism that conditions the Canadian university system seems almost insurmountable. As the findings derived from the earlier discussions confirmed, at every stage of the academic pipeline, practices; policies; and mechanisms operate to systematically weed out disabled people and limit their opportunities for advancement, including their prospects to respectively hold a Canada Research Chair.

Whether it be the lack of attention and mentoring that disabled students and faculty receive; the ableist criteria of hiring committees; or the delegitimation and disqualification of critical work on disability as an area of inquiry deemed to have scholarly value, disabled people are systematically removed from serious consideration with respect to academic achievement in general and with respect to Canada Research Chairs in particular. The discourses about implicit biases and micro-aggressions do not begin to address the magnitude of the problem of institutional ableism in the Canadian university and its CRC program or the distinctly structural character of the problem.

As I indicated in the aforementioned post, the perceived lack of interest amongst Canadian philosophers with respect to the study and its findings is devastating to me. Throughout the online discussions of this study in which I participated, I listened to one disabled colleague after another recount the institutional obstacles and barriers that I have confronted, obstacles and barriers intentionally and nonsubjectively designed to remove me and disabled friends and colleagues from the Canadian university in general and Canadian philosophy in particular.

The belief that many (nondisabled) philosophers hold according to which rigorous and expansive examination of the idea of academic freedom can ensue within the current arrangements of the university ignores the prevailing concrete realities of academia in Canada (and elsewhere) and is, I want to argue, self-serving. Indeed, so long as the systemic exclusion that disabled students and faculty (among others) confront is largely ignored and enabled to persist, the idea of academic freedom is farcical and oppressive.

The final report of the UBC study will be publicly available soon on the webpages of the Vice-Provost of Faculty at the University of British Columbia and the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office. I will post a link to the study and its findings in due course.

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