Unabridged Letter to President Mahon: Academic Responsibility to Resist Encroachments of the Deep State – March 4, 2018

Dear Dr. Mahon,

In your interview with the Lethbridge Herald, published on January 3, 2018, you say

“As our 50th closes out, and as we look forward, one of the things we are committed to as a university is to continue to build an academic community that feels the protection of academic freedom. Our university is committed to academic freedom. But academic freedom is also not just an uninterpretable concept. It has to be supported within the concept of the broader parameters of society.” [my underlining]

I think we can all agree that academic freedom needs to be interpreted. We need to spell out its practical implications in various situations.

But your claim that academic freedom has to be “supported within the concept of the broader parameters of society” raises an alarm. What sort of parameters are you talking about? A possible interpretation is that you regard something as unacceptable which is within the bounds of what should be acceptable if the University of Lethbridge is to adhere to its proclaimed philosophy as a place of liberal education. Expressions of this philosophy can be found in numerous university documents, everywhere from the Faculty Handbook, to course outlines. Here’s one from the outline to the spring 2018 course Identity and Liberal Education:

We embody the freedom to think and speak independently so as not to follow blindly whatever is said by authority, ideology, fashion or political correctness.

So the question arises: How do you reconcile this statement about liberal education with your claim about the parameters of society? When you speak of “parameters” are you referring to something different from authority, ideology, fashion or political correctness? Or are you, perhaps, personally at odds with the foundational philosophy of the university?

A related question is the one I raised at your Fiat Lux address of January 18, 2018: How is the university going to assure the faculty that their academic freedom is protected given that you have suspended one of their members without going through the procedures laid out in the collective agreement? You reaffirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom, but left many of us wondering if what you said was mere lip service. Perhaps there was a hidden caveat, as if “Fiat Lux” means “Let there be light, but only if it doesn’t jeopardize our funding.” Is funding one of the parameters? Can you assure us that your suspension of Professor Hall was not related in some way to funding? What sort of arrangements need to be in place so that the need for funding does not jeopardize academic freedom?

Beginning of part cut out for abridged version:

Academic freedom has often been in conflict with the need for funding. James Turk, for a long time the director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, briefly outlines some of this history in his article, Universities Debased: “Whatsoever Things Make Money” in the magazine Alberta Views. Kevin Taft, who used to be leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, elaborates further in his book, Oil’s Deep State, published in the fall of 2017. Both comment on the troubled relationship between Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of fossil fuels, and the University of Calgary.

Taft is using a term, “deep state,” that has only recently entered into the common lexicon. Washington policy analyst Mike Lofgren describes the “deep state” in his 2016 book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, as a network of corporate and private interests with enough money to impose their will on democratic institutions, with little regard for the public interest.

In Oil’s Deep State Taft says that the institutions of democracy here in Alberta have been, or are in danger of being, “captured” by the petroleum industry:

“The struggle over global warming will determine … whether the life-and-death contest for the fossil fuel industry may prove also to be a life-and-death contest for modern democracy

“The campaign to oppose meaningful action on carbon emissions was a supreme triumph of self-serving public relations that swept up the public and many of its leaders. No doubt many in the industry believed their own positions, though the contrary evidence was readily at hand. Filled with hubris and ignorance, they made a Faustian bargain — some more aware than others — and staked the biosphere of the whole planet as their wager. It was a fool’s wager for the public, and the industry’s stake will be paid by the innocent for centuries to come.” (Oil’s Deep State, pp. 187 – 190, my bolding)

Assuming that universities need to work cooperatively with the fossil fuel industry, the question is how they can they do this in a way that throws off the shackles imposed by the need for funding. It is the responsibility of universities to help us all see beyond anyone’s narrow interests, and to take into account the well-being of those who are not in the forefront of our field of vision, including future generations, or those in lands far away.

The issue is well-illustrated by an event at the university on January 24, 2018 titled Climate Change and the Future of Energy: Exploring answers to the pressing challenges of climate, energy, water, and global sustainability. What should we do? The event was co-sponsored by Seven Generations Energy, a company whose name expresses its intent to be responsible:

Seven Generations is an ecological concept that urges the current generation of humans to live sustainably and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. It originated with the Great Law of the Iroquois, which holds that it is appropriate to think seven generations ahead and decide whether the decisions made today would benefit the seventh generation. We strongly believe in this concept, and continually strive to ensure that our actions will benefit our stakeholders – both now and in the future. [my underlining]

The event had two main presenters. One was Stefan Kienzle, a U. of Lethbridge professor, who talked about the implications of climate change for Alberta water management. The other was Richard Muller, of Berkeley Earth, who talked about strategies for utilizing energy sources so as to minimize anthropogenic global warming.

Muller offered an argument in favour of the claim that natural gas produced by properly regulated hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is an environmentally responsible source of energy as we gradually make the transition to an economy less dependent on fossil fuels. In particular, he said that we should encourage China to adopt natural gas as an alternative to coal.

The claim should be seen in context: Seven Generations is working with Alberta universities as well as Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative, to assess the total greenhouse gas benefits of using Seven Generations production of liquid natural gas to displace coal in China.

Muller’s argument, which can be found in Why Every Serious Environmentalist Should Consider Fracking, is controversial. For example, compare it with Cornell researchers Bob Howarth and Tony Ingraffea’s April 14, 2015 presentation, Still a Bridge to Nowhere: Methane Emissions and the Greenhouse Footprint of Natural Gas, which supports Bill McKibben and Mike Tidwell’s  statement in A Big Fracking Lie, that

“If you calculate the greenhouse gas pollution emitted at every stage of the production process— drilling, piping, compression—it’s essentially just coal by another name.”

Most of us do not have the time or wherewithal to determine who is right. The issue can be handled competently only by honestly sifting and winnowing a multitude of considerations. We need to be able to rely on university researchers to provide adequate evidence and guidance through the thicket of claims and counterclaims. If some considerations are excluded just because their inclusion would jeopardise funding then the university research cannot be trusted. Protection for academic freedom is vital. And this, if Seven Generations is true to its name, is actually what the company wants.

I underlined “properly regulated” above, in Muller’s claim, because anyone who reads Andrew Nikiforuk’s Slick Water, a story about landowner Jessica Ernst in the Rosebud area, will find it hard to maintain the illusion that fracking operations here in Alberta – or elsewhere for that matter – are being properly regulated. When her water was polluted with methane by Encana’s fracking Ernst was stonewalled by the regulator and denied her constitutional right to freedom of expression. At great cost to herself she continues to fight for restitution of her community’s contaminated water and to call to account the Alberta Government and Encana for their violations of the law. Her case is unusual. Normally the way the regulator deals with complainants is to push them into settling with the polluter. These settlements include clauses that prohibit the complainant from telling their story. Thus the sorts of considerations that should be part of the deliberative process are never taken into account. This is one of the ways the regulator in Alberta has been captured by the industry.

Deep state capture of a regulator goes beyond the harm done by improper regulation. It also undermines the spirit of democratic citizenship. The courts and the lawyers fighting against Ernst often depict her as a crazy troublemaker. As Glenn Solomon, legal counsel for Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, put it:

“Encana, ERCB, and Alberta Environment just don’t care about bad publicity because… what tends to happen is that the people who go yapping to the media are typically seen as nutcases.” (Slick Water, p. 264)

It seems that those work for or with the industry assume that self-interest is the only reason why a citizen might want to seek redress for harm done to a public good (e.g., water). They actively quash freedom of expression and treat someone like Ernst, who refuses to be gagged, as though something must be something wrong with them. This is very discouraging to all who might want to act in the public interest – across all areas in which a citizen might act.

Taft makes the point that various institutions in a democracy are susceptible to succumbing to the encroachments of the deep state. In a healthy democracy, he says, if one institution is captured others will step in and restore the independence of the captive institution. But if too many institutions are captured, democracy becomes a hollow shell, painted up as if serving the public, but in fact serving nothing but deep state interests.

As pillars of democracy universities have a special responsibility to resist deep state capture.

End of part cut out for abridged version

If academic freedom should be limited by certain “parameters” then how can we be sure that the university is fulfilling its role as vital component of a democratic community – that it is not merely acting as a servant of the deep state, willing to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens when some rich or powerful special interest wants it to do so? How can we tell when the appeal to “parameters” is legitimate and not a sham?

Assuming that there are some legitimate parameters, they need to be spelled out and reasons given. It is unjust to invoke unspecified parameters, even if those parameters are legitimate. How can the university build a community that “feels the protection of academic freedom” if such parameters are not discussed?

I would welcome your own well-considered answers to these questions. However, I know that your job as president of the university is a time-consuming one, and that to do justice to them would take you away from other important things that need to be done. I know also that it is not your role to pronounce on such questions. It is the university community itself that should be developing answers. So I would like to repeat to you the recommendation I made to Premier Notley: to have the University of Lethbridge put on a conference about the limits to academic freedom. Perhaps some time in 2019 would be a good target date for such a conference.

I would like to suggest a title for such a conference which hints at some new approaches: Academic Responsibility and Resistance to the Deep State.

Academic freedom is a perennial topic of discussion at universities, and it might be thought that there is nothing new to be said. I do not agree, but, even if there were nothing new to be said, preserving academic freedom requires perpetual attention and vigilance. Aside from the need for perpetual vigilance, I would like to offer a few additional reasons for holding such a conference.

First, how universities are to resist being captured by deep state interests is a pressing, universal problem.  Here in Alberta one of the primary concerns is the role that the fossil fuel industry plays in our economy. If we are to be responsible to future generations in the face of the possibility of anthropogenic global warming it is essential that our universities be independent of oil’s deep state.

Second, a conference could help to restore a sense of collegiality amongst faculty members. This appears to have dissipated over the years. Antagonisms that have arisen surrounding the case of Professor Hall is one important factor, but there are many more. Remember Professor Robinson’s story found at One Banana Short of a Republic?

Third, it would be an opportunity for faculty members to develop some papers for publication. No area of research is immune to suppression of “dangerous” ideas. Even Mathematics, which might seem to be the most removed from heated controversy, has had episodes of idea suppression. Gauss, for example, fearing that he would damage his credibility if he made his ideas on non-Euclidean geometry public, never published them. Given any area of research, what are the areas at risk of idea suppression? Are there criteria that can differentiate between the competent development of apparently outrageous but valid ideas from genuinely crazy or evil ones?

Fourth, it would give Professor Hall an opportunity to explain his ideas. I believe that he has been unjustly treated, not just in the way he was suspended, but also in the court of public opinion. He has been defamed and deprived in multiple ways and on many occasions from access to fora in which he can receive a fair public hearing. A conference would give Professor Hall the opportunity to speak for himself, and perhaps partially redress the injustice.

Fifth, it would give the B’nai Brith, or other organizations, like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the opportunity to make their own presentation. These organizations are not academic institutions. They are advocacy groups who have defamed Professor Hall in their campaign against him. (See my open letter to the U. of L. Community.) The letters they have composed (e.g., Hohmann’s letter) and sent to the premier, the U. of L. president, and others, or in comments like that of Gabrielle Brenner’s screed on Daniel O’Donnell’s incisive blog post, The Real Crisis and the U of L… and why the Board must act, have not been careful position papers laying out well-reasoned judgements for why Hall should be dismissed. Nevertheless, history has shown that there are very good reasons to guard against anti-Semitism, and, if given the opportunity, these organizations might welcome the chance to lay out their reasons in a more academically respectable way.

Sixth, the university could emerge from its crisis over the Hall case looking good. A conference could help the university put behind it the negativity surrounding the whole affair. It would enable it to advertise the role it really seems to want to play: to be a beacon of light and liberal education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s