University’s Indigenous strategy is a threat to academic standards

Document contains serious flaws and constitutes an unprecedented threat to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry

Frances WiddowsonIn September 2018, the Office of Academic Indigenization provided Mount Royal University (MRU) faculty with a document entitled Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula: A Call For Engagement.

This document affirmed the Calgary university’s commitment “to indigenizing its curricula to ensure that all students graduate with a basic understanding of Indigenous content informed by Indigenous perspectives,” and encouraged faculty to transform their courses on this basis.

These arguments, however, have not been subjected to any critical analysis. In fact, the document contains serious flaws and constitutes an unprecedented threat to academic freedom, freedom of inquiry and academic standards at MRU.

The ill-conceived nature of Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula is shown in the section Why Indigenize? MRU should indigenize, we’re told, because “Indigenous people remain underrepresented among post-secondary students, staff and faculty, and Indigenous content remains marginalized.” The document also asserts that indigenization is also necessary to respond to demands made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

These political reasons are a distraction from examining the academic implications of the initiative. The reference to “Indigenous underrepresentation” just assumes that there should be proportionality without considering the qualifications of applicants. It’s well known that educational levels in the Indigenous population are lower than the Canadian average, and so discussions about artificially increasing Indigenous representation should consider this.

Furthermore, it’s not clear what’s meant by increasing “Indigenous content.” Does this concern subjects that include Indigenous people, such as Indigenous history and Indigenous politics? Or is it a plea to include “Indigenous perspectives” regardless of whether they have been shown to increase empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding?

Finally, should anything that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration say be accepted? For example, the document states that the TRC asserts that universities should “ensure all Canadians have a basic understanding of … this country’s history of cultural genocide,” when many would question this interpretation of the past.

Should we not be analyzing the claims being made, rather than assuming that these political bodies created sacred texts that must be obeyed?

Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula states that as “part of the indigenization strategy, every academic department will soon be asked to indigenize its curricula to ensure that every student who majors in a program in that department graduates, at a minimum, with a basic understanding of Indigenous content informed by Indigenous perspectives.”

The strategic plan was never approved by MRU’s general faculties council. It was provided only as information. In spite of this, there is now an effort to use it to make significant changes to MRU curricula. Faculty members should be the ones determining the academic requirements of their departments, and it’s alarming that advocacy is driving such a fundamental transformation of university programs.

Although it could be argued that individual professors don’t have to participate in these initiatives, and therefore it is not a threat to academic freedom, this ignores how indigenization processes are creating a hostile climate for open inquiry. This has been a problem from the beginning, as is shown by the Indigenous Strategic Plan’s directive that the university “honour Indigenous experiences and identities.” As a result, “territorial acknowledgement” statements pretend to be factual, when their content is contested and are a matter for academic investigation.

These kinds of statements indicate that the strategic plan is intent on building a “culture of celebration” at MRU rather than one that encourages critical thinking and rigorous methods.

The document refers to the plan’s goal “to indigenize Mount Royal University, to respect and embrace Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, to integrate Indigenous teachings and practices.” It goes on to state that “[w]e believe that the indigenization strategy provides a unique opportunity to propose innovative pedagogies and curricula that will benefit all students and programs on campus.”

The assertions are bold, but there has been no attempt to evaluate their veracity. There is not even any definition of what “Indigenous knowledge,” “ways of knowing,” “teachings and practices,” and “perspectives” are, or an attempt to determine how they differ from their non-indigenous counterparts.

Indigenizing Mount Royal’s Curricula: A Call for Engagement provides no logical or reasoned answer to the question, “Why Indigenize?” and its coerced support for incorporating “Indigenous knowledge” and “ways of knowing” will have negative consequences for academic freedom and open inquiry.

The celebration of undefined “Indigenous perspectives” also will lead to an undermining of academic standards and inveigle the racially essentialist position that certain kinds of “knowledge” are dependent upon one’s ethnic background.

Frances Widdowson (fwiddowson@mtroyal.ca) is associate professor in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She is also the co-ordinator of membership outreach of SAFS. Dr Widdowson’s Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency will be published by the University of Ottawa Press in 2019. This column was submitted by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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