An Open Letter to Steve Patten, Dean of Arts at the Univ. of Alberta

In Support of Kathleen Lowery

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: Since the beginning of the "cancel" craze that has swept through higher education (we are tracking attempted professor cancelations here), the National Association of Scholars has been examining individual cases and writing private letters to college and university administrators to urge them either to defend unjustly accused faculty members or to reverse decisions that have violated the principles of academic freedom. In several cases, (Professors Porter, Hudlický, and Jacobson) our letters have gone unanswered and the injustices we sought to correct have been left to fester. We are now taking the additional step of writing again to administrators at these institutions, but in this round, we are making copies of the letters public.

We are posting these letters individually rather than as a bundle because each case deserves to be weighed on its own merits and because the individual postings will lend themselves more easily to those who want to call out the malfeasance of the college authorities.

We do not urge readers who are unacquainted with the cases to rush forward with emails, letters, or posts. Rather, we ask readers to weigh the facts and check our accounts against other sources. If you then agree that a college or university has acted in bad faith or counter to the core principles of liberal inquiry, then we do indeed urge you to speak up.

Colleges and universities these days sometimes give short shrift to academic freedom because their administrators fear they too will be attacked if they do not heed the commands of the censorious activists. They fear for their reputations with this particular group of "stakeholders." We would like to remind them that a greater reputation is at stake: the reputation of their colleges and universities as bodies that protect and nurture free intellectual inquiry and responsible debate.


July 23, 2020

Dr. Steve Patten
Dean of Arts
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB TOG 2R3
[email protected]

Dear Dean Patten,

I write to express my concern about your office’s treatment of Kathleen Lowrey, associate professor in Anthropology. As you may know, I wrote to your predecessor Dean Lesley Cormack about this matter on June 18. I did not receive a response to that letter and am now taking the additional step of releasing this as a public letter.

The University of Alberta removed Professor Lowrey from her position as Anthropology’s associate chair of undergraduate programs. This action followed the complaints of a handful of students who disagree with Professor Lowrey’s scientific view that humans are as a species sexually binary. This is not a matter of Lowrey’s personal opinion. It is well established as a biological fact, and its accuracy is not at risk from the existence of rare intersex conditions, same-sex attraction, or body dysmorphia.

We are all aware of the contentious politics surrounding transgenderism and other ideological positions on the extent to which gender is socially constructed. These matters should have no bearing on Lowrey’s scholarship, teaching, or counsel to students.

Judging that her expression of simple biological fact creates an “unsafe environment” for students is a mistake. Students are perfectly safe in hearing such elemental facts, and perfectly free to pretend the facts are otherwise. But the university does make itself into an “unsafe environment” by acceding to ardent demands that truth be suppressed and falsehood or fantasy be privileged. Educating students in a manner that accommodates either delusory beliefs or political shibboleths disserves them. Perpetuating ignorance is what makes a university unsafe.

Removing Professor Lowrey from her position is also a blow to academic freedom at the University of Alberta. It communicates to all faculty members that responsible expression of accurate information can and will be punished if doing so irritates enough students or academic administrators.

I urge your office to reverse course on this decision. The University of Alberta will not benefit either in reputation or in substance if it becomes known as a place that is hostile to intellectual freedom, and especially not if that hostility is based on the desire to avoid offending politically motivated actors.

I write as President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS is a network of mostly U.S. scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in higher education. As part of our mission, we support intellectual freedom throughout North America. We have more than thirty years of experience in advocating for the principles of intellectual freedom. (For further information, please see www.nas.org.)

When I wrote to your office previously, on June 18, it was in the form of a private communication, and in the hope that, on reflection, the administrators of your university would realize that a mistake had been made and that it could be easily rectified.1 I believe it is better for a university to have the option of resolving a situation without the pressure of publicity. As your office has not seen fit to respond to my letter private, I now repeat my counsel in this public letter.

I am aware that in your predecessor’s reply to Mark Mercer, President of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, that she stated that Professor Lowrey continues in her position as a professor.2 That response is irrelevant. Professor Lowrey has lost her administrative position, and that punishment chills academic freedom. Moreover, once the University of Alberta accepts that perceptions of an ‘unsafe environment’ bear on academic policy, it will inevitably succumb to calls to subordinate the protection of tenure to the imperatives of ‘safety.’ At best, your office’s policy will allow a few condemned heretics to linger on in tenured positions, and ensure that no new hires be allowed to publicly controvert any dogma that claims “safety’ to secure incontrovertibility.

This demotion will also put all faculty members in the sciences on notice that factual accuracy will count for little—or perhaps nothing—if such facts get in the way of ardently held demands for conformity to ideological positions. Today it is the idea of “gender fluidity” that triumphs over the biology of human chromosomes. But tomorrow it may be something else. As an anthropologist, I know that human evolution and archaeology of native peoples are a minefield of special interest groups who advocate for their non-scientific positions to take precedence over rigorously tested scientific findings. But the matter does not stop there. Every area of science has its own fringe of science deniers. The University of Alberta has now told them all that, if they complain loudly enough, they will find a friend in the dean’s office.

I am also aware that your predecessor stated that “For privacy reasons, we cannot comment on the status of any one individual’s administrative appointment.”3 I do not ask you to comment on Professor Lowrey’s administrative status. I call upon you, and the University of Alberta, to restore her to her position. You personally are a newcomer to this position, and you have more freedom to repudiate a decision by your predecessor that is both unwise and immoral.

I write as head of a large association of academics, but I add that I am also an anthropologist and a former tenured professor in my discipline at Boston University. The idea that as an anthropologist I would have to teach that humans are not sexually binary is appalling.

Respectfully yours,

Peter Wood
President
National Association of Scholars

 

1 Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, to Lesley Cormac, Dean of Arts of the University of Alberta, June 18, 2020: https://www.nas.org/storage/app/media/New%20Documents/Alberta%20June%20Letter.pdf.

3 Cormack to Mercer.


Photo by Jeffrey Beall - Own work, CC BY 4.0

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