National Post Barbara Kay: U of A professor holds the line on free expression

National Post - Tuesday June 9th, 2020

University of Alberta associate professor Kathleen Lowrey was dismissed as associate chair of undergraduate studies in the department of anthropology in March. Lowrey says she believes she was dismissed over her critical views of gender.

Kathleen Lowrey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, ascribes much of her intellectual formation to Marxism and radical feminism. Not, I think my regular readers would agree, someone with whom I would normally have a great deal in common. And yet, in this strange cultural moment, Prof. Lowrey and I find ourselves amicably united in the service of a mutually revered ideal. I write this column with ardent sympathy for her in her present predicament.

Academics’ time is generally split 40/40/20 amongst, respectively, research, teaching and “service” to their community — meaning committees, mainly. Until late March, Lowrey served as associate chair for undergraduate programs on behalf of the department of anthropology. Following anonymous complaints about her views from one or more students to the university’s office of safe disclosure and human rights, as well as to the dean of students, Lowrey was asked to resign. She was not given a precise reason, only told that because she holds “gender critical” opinions, she was making the learning environment “unsafe” for the anonymous complainants who felt that her views caused them “harm.” (It’s not clear — Lowrey believes it is doubtful — that the complainants were even taking her courses.)

“Gender critical” refers to what was shortly ago normative feminism doctrine in considering biological sex of primordial importance in fighting for women’s rights. Where the traditional rights of biological women collide with asserted rights of trans women — sport, intimate spaces, rape crisis centres, prisons — gender-critical feminists join with conservatives like me in insisting that biological women’s rights must prevail: for the sake of their safety, privacy and right to a level playing field.


Until what seems like a few minutes ago, there was nothing controversial about this opinion. But now there is. The only “correct” opinion to hold is that gender expression trumps biology in any rights-based claims. And in academic circles, Lowrey’s views, which she is at no pains to hide on campus and off, are a form of apostasy that cries out for punishment.

To her immense credit, Lowrey refused to resign from the committee, insisting that the onus was on the university to dismiss her, explaining its reasons in writing. Dean of arts Lesley Cormack then dismissed her in writing, but with only the non-reason: “it is not in the best interests of the students or the university” for Lowrey to continue sitting. (Cormack declined to comment for this column.)

Online debates among associates show that opinions are divided. Lowrey was labelled “transphobic” by some, but a former student noted that Lowrey “was controversial but never rude, or problematic in expressing (her beliefs). In fact she encouraged discussion and disagreement.… There were some points of hers I disagreed with, but she made some good points that left me thinking — which is the whole point of university.”

A handful of students study in the Student Union Building at the University of Alberta on June 8, in Edmonton. Greg Southam/Postmedia

Cormack’s rationale was, according to Lowrey, that since the university is not interfering in her actual teaching and research, it has the authority to remove her from what is deemed an administrative function for whatever reason it likes. Technically, that may be the case. But Lowrey is not letting it go. As she told me in a telephone interview, “what happened to me is a policy”; the university has taken the position that “saying you don’t think a person can change sex is a firing offence.” So Lowrey wants them to make a case in writing that transcends their apparent capitulation to customer demand, a case based in principle, but believes they don’t have one — at least not one they feel confident would pass the smell test in a document.

Lowrey is concerned about other university employees, whose jobs are not protected by academic freedom: those, for example, whose employment is fully administrative. She is also concerned for her students, some of whom have confided to her their fear of voicing shared opinions — “and they’re not paranoid“ — “because this is not an abstruse problem, it’s a live debate in our current society and for the university to take the position that if you’re on the wrong side of this, we’re going to fire you, is terrifying for students.”

Lowrey has been equally courageous in taking a stand against the University of Alberta’s new equity, diversity and inclusion policy, passed in late May by their about 100-member general faculties council. Lowrey was the only member of the council to vote against it (there were four abstentions). What bothered her was the word “inclusivity” itself, which “sounds nice but it has been used in disciplinary ways to silence feminist women.” She worries it will transmogrify into a kind of McCarthyite loyalty oath, “Are you or have you ever been exclusionary?”

Are her fears misplaced? Not at all. With forced equity attestations springing up like weeds in various professions, we are virtually there already. Which is why it doesn’t matter whether you are a radical Marxist feminist, or a Marxism-critical conservative. All of us who hold dear the principle of freedom of speech are in the same boat; either we all grab an oar to beat together against the current in this still-gathering storm, or we’ll all together go under.

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